Soul legend Bobby Womack died on June 27, 2014 at the age of 70. Now this might not even be a blip on the screen of the average, Lana Del Rey loving music fan content to download and digital music files piecemeal on the way towards continuing to depersonalize music. But Womack’s passing is that of a true musical giant. For my money, Womack is that unsung linchpin of neo-soul who’s overshadowed by the looming legacies of the Marvin Gaye/Curtis Mayfield/Al Greene triumvirate and is essentially Lenny Kravitz’s musical godfather—more so than even Jimi Hendrix. Obviously, I’m not in the minority as Womack gained induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2009.
Given how many soul and blues greats have passed in recent years—Wilson Pickett, Isaac Hayes, Bo Diddley—Bobby Womack is the last of a generation whose numbers continue to dwindle with every passing day. Not only was he a teen protégé of Sam Cooke, (who controversially married Cooke’s wife Barbara shortly after his death), but he traded licks with Hendrix on the chitlin’ circuit, the Rolling Stones latched on to his “It’s All Over Now” fairly early and he wrote a number of songs for Pickett (“I’m in Love,” “I’m a Midnight Mover”). Womack also penned the blaxploitation classic “Across 110th Street” and ended up having other parts of his canon get cherry-picked by Rufus featuring Chaka Khan and New Birth right up through current artists like Jodeci’s K-Ci Hailey (a smoldering “Woman’s Gotta Have It”) and Ryan Shaw (the raucous “Lookin’ For a Love”). There have also been recent duets by Gerald Levert and Mary J. Blige (silky smooth take on “That’s the Way I Feel About Cha”) along with Kelly Rowland of Destiny’s Child and Travis McCoy of Gym Class Heroes (the thumping after-party jam “Daylight”). Womack played on Sly Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On and Janis Joplin’s Pearl (and was one of the last people to see her alive)—in fact she was sitting in his Mercedes Benz when she wrote her classic song of the same name. In addition, the rolling commentary he often wove into studio and live performances got him nicknamed The Preacher and laid some of the groundwork for rap alongside Hayes. His music also proved to be popular on soundtracks and among the people Womack influenced was filmmaker Quentin Tarantino (who used “Across 110th Street” in Jackie Brown, starring Womack’s old girlfriend Pam Grier.)
And while he’s professionally thrived, he’s had quite a screwed-up personal life—fighting his way out of poverty, losing a brother to the knife of a jealous girlfriend (and then hearing about it on the air during a radio interview) and having to bury two children—one who died as an infant from SIDS and one to suicide. Drugs became an easy way to self-medicate and before long he was struggling with a substance problem. But even in recent years, Womack continued to be productive with his last studio outing being the 2012 XL Records release The Bravest Man in the Universe, which was produced by Damon Albarn (Blur, Gorillaz) and label owner Richard Russell. According to Contact Magazine, at the time of Womack’s death, he was working on a number of projects including the unreleased Living In the House of Blues (featuring collaborations with Rod Stewart, Snoop Dogg and Stevie Wonder) and The Best is Yet to Come, an XL follow-up set to be posthumously released this year and featuring appearances by the late Teena Marie and Ronald Isley.