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Born: March 4, 1944
Died: June 27, 2014
Biography: A veteran who paid his dues for over a decade before getting his shot at solo stardom, Bobby Womack persevered through tragedy and addiction to emerge as one of soul music's great survivors. Able to shine in the spotlight as a singer or behind the scenes as an instrumentalist and songwriter, Womack never got his due from pop audiences, but during the late '60s and much of the '70s, he was a consistent hitmaker on the R&B charts, with a high standard of quality control. His records were quintessential soul, with a bag of tricks learned from the likes of Sam Cooke, Wilson Pickett, and Sly Stone, all of whom Womack worked closely with at one time or another. Yet often, they also bore the stamp of Womack's own idiosyncratic personality, whether through a lengthy spoken philosophical monologue or a radical reinterpretation of a pop standard. An underrated guitarist, Womack helped pioneer a lean, minimalist approach similar to that of Curtis Mayfield, and was an early influence on the young Jimi Hendrix. Additionally, his songs have been recorded by numerous artists in the realms of both R&B and rock, and the best of them rank as all-time classics.
Bobby Dwayne Womack was born in Cleveland on March 4, 1944. His upbringing was strict and religious, but his father Friendly also encouraged his sons to pursue music as he had (he sang and played guitar in a gospel group). In the early '50s, while still a child, Bobby joined his siblings Cecil, Curtis, Harry, and Friendly Jr. to form the gospel quintet the Womack Brothers.
They were chosen to open a local show for the Soul Stirrers in 1953, where Bobby befriended lead singer Sam Cooke; following this break, they toured the country as an opening act for numerous gospel groups. When Cooke formed his own SAR label, he recruited the Womack Brothers with an eye toward transforming them into a crossover R&B act. Learning that his sons were moving into secular music, Friendly Womack threw them out of the house, and Cooke wired them the money to buy a car and drive out to his Los Angeles offices. The Womack Brothers made several recordings for SAR over 1960 and 1961, including a few gospel sides, but Cooke soon convinced them to record R&B and renamed them the Valentinos. In 1962, they scored a Top Ten hit on the R&B charts with "Lookin' for a Love," and Cooke sent them on the road behind James Brown to serve a boot-camp-style musical apprenticeship. Bobby eventually joined Cooke's backing band as guitarist. The Valentinos' 1964 single "It's All Over Now," written by Bobby, was quickly covered by the Rolling Stones with Cooke's blessing; when it became the Stones' first U.K. number one, Womack suddenly found himself a rich man.
Cooke's tragic death in December 1964 left Womack greatly shaken and the Valentinos' career in limbo. Just three months later, Womack married Cooke's widow, Barbara Campbell, which earned him tremendous ill will in the R&B community; many viewed him as a shady opportunist looking to cash in on Cooke's legacy, especially since Campbell was significantly older than Womack. According to Womack, he was initially motivated to look after Campbell in an unstable time, not to tarnish the memory of a beloved mentor.
Regardless, Womack found himself unable to get his solo career rolling in the wake of the scandal; singles for Chess ("I Found a True Love") and Him ("Nothing You Can Do") were avoided like the plague despite their quality. The Valentinos cut a couple of singles for Chess in 1966, "What About Me" and "Sweeter Than the Day Before," which also failed to make much of a splash. To make ends meet, Womack became a backing guitarist, first landing a job with Ray Charles; he went on to make a valuable connection in producer Chips Moman, and appeared often at Moman's American Studio in Memphis, as well as nearby Muscle Shoals, Alabama. In the process, Womack appeared on classic recordings by the likes of Joe Tex, King Curtis, and Aretha Franklin (Lady Soul), among others. He recorded singles for Keymen and Atlantic without success, but became one of Wilson Pickett's favorite songwriters, contributing the R&B Top Ten hits "I'm in Love" and "I'm a Midnight Mover" (plus 15 other tunes) to the singer's repertoire. [Read more via AllMusic here]