Bobby Womack, one of soul music’s most gifted and influential singer-songwriters, has died at the age 70 years old. It has yet to be disclosed exactly how Womack passed, but the news was confirmed by his label, XL Recordings. The artist had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and colon cancer in recent years.
Bobby Womack was one of the most accomplished, if somewhat underrated, singer-songwriters of his generation. Born in Cleveland, Ohio, his career began, like so many black artists of his era, in the Baptist church. He and his brother formed a gospel group called The Womack Brothers, and spent most of the 1950s making a name of themselves on the black gospel circuit. It was in 1956 that Bobby made the acquaintance of a rising star on the gospel music scene, Chicago vocalist Sam Cooke of the Soul Stirrers. Cooke discovered the Womack Brothers, changed their name to The Valentinos and moved them towards the new, burgeoning soul sound, which Cooke was rapidly become one of the foremost stars of himself. Subsequently, the Valentinos scored some hits, including “It’s All Over Now,” which Bobby wrote himself.
In 1964, the Valentinos disbanded after the murder of Cooke. That same year, a British rock & roll group called The Rolling Stones recorded a cover of “It’s All Over Now,” which became one of their first hits in Britain. Womack spent much of the remainder of the 60s as an in-demand songwriter and guitarist; he worked with the Stones, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett and Sly and the Family Stone. His finally landed his first major solo hit was re-recording of his first single with the Valentinos, “Looking For A Love.”
As the 70s progressed, Womack slowly became one of soul music’s most recognizable voices. Hits like “Woman’s Gotta Have It” and “Across 110th Street” established him as a straight-talker and storyteller in the Curtis Mayfield mold. He crafted classic albums like Facts of Life and the soundtrack for the film Across 110th Street. His 1972 album Understanding was especially acclaimed; and it included some of his most personal and stylistically varied writing up to that point. He ended the decade penning Wilton Felder’s “(No Matter How High I Get) I’ll Still Be Looking Up to You” and recording several duets with Patti Labelle.
Womack’s career was not without scandal. He gained notoriety in the 1960s when he married his friend Sam Cooke’s widow, just months after her Cooke’s death. Throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, Womack developed a serious drug addiction that caused his career to stall. He also made a few career missteps (such as a failed attempt at country music) and his visibility suffered as MTV dawned–his last notable hit of the 1980s was the quiet storm staple “If You Think You’re Lonely Now.” After a quiet period, he resurfaced as an elder statesman of soul in the late 1990s/early 2000s. He spent the next decade collaborating with everyone from the Roots, to Todd Rundgren to the Gorillaz.
Bobby Womack was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009. It was the first time the annual ceremony took place in his hometown of Cleveland, and Womack was inducted by longtime Rolling Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood. Wood was not a member of the Stones when they recorded “It’s All Over Now” as one of their earliest singles, but he recognized the impact Womack had on rock and soul music of the 60s and 70s. The two had also collaborated on music throughout the 70s and 80s.
“He’s been a great inspiration to my band and, well, all of the musicians that I know,” Wood said at Womack’s induction. “Bobby’s very strong and very moving and his voice…has always killed me. I said to my daughter Lea once ‘You wanna hear a soulful singer?’ And he sang and [she and I] were both in tears. Like I’m sure I’m going to be in tears tonight.”
And even as Bobby Womack experienced health issues and medical setbacks, he was hard at work alongside Stevie Wonder, Snoop Dogg and Rod Stewart, among others, on a new album, The Best Is Yet To Come.