Bobby Womack: Soul Survivor

By: Kayceman

I was the third brother of five
Doing whatever I had to do to survive
I'm not saying what I did was alright
Trying to break out of the ghetto was a day-to-day fight

I got one more thing I'd like to talk to y'all about right now
Hey brother, there's a better way out
Snorting that coke, shooting that dope, man you're copping out
Take my advice, it's either live or die
You've got to be strong, if you want to survive

Bobby Womack
On his 1972 hit "Across 110th Street" soul legend Bobby Womack sings, "You've got to be strong if you want to survive." Originally penned for the blaxploitation film of the same name, the track was later used in 1997 by Quentin Tarantino for his film Jackie Brown and most recently in 2007's American Gangster. But, more than just a tough soul-funk classic fit for the silver screen, the sentiments reflect the difficult path Womack has traveled.

Born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1944, Womack battled addiction, murder, personal tragedy and a very fickle music business to become one of the soul genre's most influential and endearing artists. He studied under Sam Cooke, toured behind James Brown, was Ray Charles' guitarist, did session work with Aretha Franklin (Aretha Now, Lady Soul), Elvis Presley (#1 hit "Suspicious Minds"), Sly Stone (There's A Riot Goin' On) and Janis Joplin (Pearl), wrote several Top 10 hits for Wilson Pickett and even wrote and recorded The Rolling Stones' first U.K. number one hit, "It's All Over Now." Yet through all this Womack was virtually unknown by the public for much of his early career as he struggled to find success as a solo artist. Now at age 64, Womack has survived long enough to witness the release of The Best of Bobby Womack: The Soul Years (released May 27 on Capitol/EMI). Looking back over the past 50 years Womack is reflective: "I just love what I do" he says. "I'm not out looking for a [record] deal, but I'm still here."

Featuring 22 hits from the '60s and '70s, the album illustrates Womack's deep influence on the foundation of R&B and soul music. Womack grew up in a very religious house and began signing gospel as a youngster with his siblings in the Womack Brothers quintet. In 1953 they opened for Sam Cooke's band, The Soul Stirrers, which eventually lead the brothers out of the church and into popular music. It would also lead to them being kicked out of their home.

"When we started to make that change [to popular music], my father was very religious and he inspired us and got us started but he never thought we would want to sing anything other than gospel," recalls Womack. "So, that really hurt him bad, and it bothered us, too. But, we were hooked on the singing, which he had given us and we just wanted to grow with it, and, at the same time, I felt it was a good way to put us in a better position financially, to get my father and mom in a house and stuff like that."

The Valentinos
After their father kicked them out, Cooke wired the brothers enough money to buy a car and head out to his L.A. office. After signing with Cooke's SAR label, the Womack Brothers embraced R&B and changed their name to The Valentinos. The next few years were fertile and eventually found Bobby Womack joining Cooke's band. Sam Cooke would become Womack's mentor, friend and idol.

"The big thrill for me was meeting Sam Cooke," says Womack. "His spirit was big, and he was the kind of person that you didn't have to hold back with, you could open up. Make a long story short, I ended up playing guitar for him and learning a lot about the stage - how to work a house, how to write, just learning period."

While it's true Womack learned his trade by shadowing Cooke, it was more than just music he was ingesting. Womack looked up to Cooke and came to emulate him in all walks of life.

"I had a lot of respect for him because I like the way he carried himself," offers Womack. "I would always say, 'Man, I never see you in a bad mood.' And he said, 'Well, I have them days, but when you do, don't take it to the people. People depending on you and into you so much, they think you're real, and they believe you are real.' He used to say, 'You don't never want to kill they spirit by your attitudes. You can't turn it on and off.' That stuck with me a long ways, and I always want to be that way."

Following the sketchy 1964 murder of Sam Cooke things became increasingly difficult for Womack. A few months after the tragic shooting, the then 21-year-old Womack married Cooke's distraught widow, Barbara Campbell, who he would later divorce in 1970. Although he claims he was simply trying to look after his mentor's wife, the marriage made Womack an outcast in the music community and almost crushed his career.

Continue reading for more on Bobby Womack...

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