Just months before his death, the legendary singer of "Across 110th Street" told TIME about his life, lived as heartfelt and wild as his songs
It’s called soul music for the intensity with which its singers deliver a lyric: hearts on fire, the best seem to testify as they sing, wrenching their body when they perform, bellowing a message, funky and free. Bobby Womack was the quintessential soul man. The superb singer and songwriter, who wrote hit songs later put onto wax by the Rolling Stones, Janis Joplin and Wilson Pickett, and made a string of iconic R&B albums in the ’70s before having a career resurgence in recent years, lived his life with the same passion and, at times, reckless abandon that made him a dynamic musical force. He died last week at age 70.
“The only way you can create is you gotta be free,” Womack told TIME a few months before his passing. “That’s what you’ve gotta do to be in this business. You’ve got to be on fire.” His talent was always burning, but Womack, known for his gravelly voice and recurring bouts with cocaine abuse, never reached the commercial heights of his contemporaries like Marvin Gaye, Al Green and Otis Redding.
Born dirt-poor in Cleveland, in 1944, the third of five sons, Womack and his siblings formed the Womack Brothers — later renamed the Valentinos — a gospel-singing kiddie crew, in the ’50s. They found a mentor and champion in Sam Cooke, who inspired them to branch out into secular music; he later employed Womack as a guitarist in his band. “When I first started recording, I was just so loose,” Womack said of a fertile songwriting period in the early ’60s that spawned his first hit in “It’s All Over Now,” a 1964 chart-riser that got pushed to the side by the Stones’ cover. “I would just come up with an idea, and Sam Cooke would say, ‘What is that?’ And I’d say, ‘Oh, just something that I’ve just got.’ It just came to me out of nowhere.”
Record deals and solo chart success eluding him, Womack relocated to Memphis and backed up Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Dusty Springfield and Pickett before heading West to indulge in the excess of the budding Laurel Canyon music scene. He forged friendships with Joplin, Keith Richards, Ron Wood, Sly Stone and Frank Zappa. His drug consumption was heavy during this time. “I was really off into the drugs,” he told Rolling Stone in 1984. “Blowing as much coke as I could blow. And drinking. And smoking weed and taking pills. Doing that all day, staying up seven, eight days.”
“I was used to basically working by myself, answering to myself,” Womack explained, and this independent streak made him both successful and destructive in equal measure. In the early 1970s, Womack had a creative hot streak — the title track to the Womack-penned 1970 blaxploitation movie soundtrack Across 110th Street ranks among his finest work; his slow-grooving crossover hits during this period included “That’s the Way I Feel About Cha” and “Woman’s Gotta Have It.”
His personal life hit the rocks after his first marriage, in March 1965, to Sam Cooke’s widow, Barbara, just month’s after his mentor’s death. The union brought the disapproval of Cooke’s family and friends, but Womack went ahead and created a home with Barbara and her 12-year-old daughter with Cooke, Linda. Just five years later, Barbara discovered that Womack had been having an affair with Linda. She loaded a pistol, told him to get out of the house and took a shot at him; it grazed his scalp. They divorced later in 1970. He later married Regina Banks; they split up and then remarried in 2013.
“When it’s coming to you from nowhere for so many years,” Womack said of his knack for seeming bursts of creative inspiration, “believe it or not, it do get stale.” Aside from a hit single in “If You Think You’re Lonely Now,” off 1982’s acclaimed The Poet, Womack faded from the spotlight during the coming decades, a time most notable for his one-off collaborations and a trip to drug rehab.
Despite being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and cancer in the 2000s, Womack, who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009, re-emerged when U.K. rock singer Damon Albarn recruited him for work on the 2010 Gorillaz album, Plastic Beach. The pair, along with Richard Russell, head of XL Recordings, recorded Womack’s critically acclaimed comeback album, 2012’s The Bravest Man in the Universe. Its skittering electronic beats provided a fresh template for Womack’s still powerful vocals. “Damon would say, ‘I just want to get you in the raw,’” Womack remembered of the sessions in West London. “I would always argue with him: You need a couple instruments. He said, ‘I think your voice is what’s important and the message of your songs. Everything else is background.’”
In addition to a supposed in-the-works album, tentatively tilted The Best Is Yet to Come, with Stevie Wonder, Rod Stewart and Snoop Dogg, Womack said he and Albarn were planning to regroup in the studio at the end of this year to record a gospel album. “He was saying that he got a lot of response from the two gospel songs that was on the last album,” Womack said. “I wouldn’t have thought of it. He would say, ‘I just want to get you in the raw.’”
Womack is survived by Regina Banks and four children: Gina, Bobby Truth, Cory and Jordan. He died two weeks after playing the Bonnaroo festival in Tennessee.