Soul poet Bobby Womack, who came out of poverty in Cleveland to write “It’s All Over Now” for the Rolling Stones and the soul classic “Across 110th Street” for himself, described by Aretha Franklin as “the singingest brother,” died Friday morning at his Los Angeles home.
His older brother, Friendly Womack Jr., of Little Rock, Ark., confirmed that Bobby was found dead, in his bed.
Womack 70, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009. His career spanned the gospel and doo-wop late 1950s, the soul ’60s and the funky ’70s. He was a friend and confidante of Sam Cooke, Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones and Rod Stewart and the Faces. Janis Joplin wrote her song “Mercedes Benz” after Womack drove her home from the studio in his Benz.
“I was shocked, because I just spoke to him,” Womack said. “When I talked with Bobby last night he was getting ready to go to Amsterdam, they had seven dates out there and he was telling me that he was coming back to L.A. and he had a couple of recording companies he was looking at signing with. But things happen. God has control, and whatever happens, he is in control.”
Now, out of the five Womack brothers, only Friendly Womack, who is 73, and Curtis Womack, 71, survive.
The musician’s cause of death is not yet known, although he had suffered in the past from cancer and told reporters last year that he had Alzheimer’s disease. In early May, when he performed at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, he looked frail.
Womack said his brother, whose 2013 album “The Bravest Man in the Universe” drew praise, has at least two more albums in the can. Bobby had beaten colon cancer, but Friendly was skeptical about the Alzheimer’s. “His short- and long-term memory were fine,” he insisted. “You know how he was, he might have been joking.”
Worked with Aretha, Cooke
Bobby and his brothers had many ties to Detroit; The Womack Brothers’ first recording session was all gospel, produced by Sam Cooke at United Sound Systems on Second Avenue, for Cooke’s SAR Records. Bobby also had a long professional relationship and friendship with Aretha Franklin, playing guitar on her “Lady Soul” album, writing songs she recorded, and attending many of her parties in Detroit.
Although he joked about his lack of a formal education, Womack was a prolific, gifted songwriter. Among his many compositions; “It’s All Over Now,” released by the Womacks as the Valentinos in August 1964, was covered soon after by the Rolling Stones, and became their first British No. 1 hit. He wrote “Midnight Mover” and many other songs for Wilson Pickett.
He sang many of them himself: “If You Think You’re Lonely Now,” “That’s The Way I Feel About ‘Cha,” “Woman’s Gotta Have It” “Harry Hippie” and the ’70s soul classic “Across 110th Street,” revived by Quentin Tarentino for his 1997 movie “Jackie Brown.”
Womack had several comebacks, notably in 1981, when he recorded “The Poet” for Beverly Glen Records — an album that is considered one of his best.
Womack was born and raised in Cleveland. The Womacks were poor, but musical. Father Friendly Sr. sang around the kitchen table in a gospel group, after he got off work at the steel mill. He also had a guitar that Bobby and his four brothers coveted, and secretly played, when their dad was at work.
Bobby was left-handed, and because several of his brothers were right-handed, he couldn’t re-string his father’s guitar, but had to make do with it as it was.
“He played the guitar upside down!” Friendly said. “Most people who play left-handed changed the strings around. But he learned playing it upside down. So people that would sit and listen to a guitar player if they were a guitar player themselves, they could look and figure out the chords. But you couldn’t do that with Bobby, the chords would be upside down. He was more proud of that than anything.”
When their father found out that his boys had not only been playing the forbidden guitar, but also singing gospel harmonies, imitating his group in a sarcastic way, he didn’t get angry. Instead, Friendly Sr. bought them instruments and uniforms, and took them out on the road as the Womack Brothers.
It was out on the “gospel highway,” playing the dusty Southern circuit of churches and small auditoriums, that the Womacks met Sam Cooke, the tall, dapper lead singer of the Soul Stirrers.
A few years later, after leaving gospel music, Cooke scored his first secular hit, “You Send Me,” in 1957. He was interested in producing the Womack brothers, so in 1961 he instructed them to go up to Detroit from Cleveland and meet him at United Sound Systems, where they recorded several songs.
From those United Sound sessions came the Womack Brothers’ first single, “Somebody’s Wrong,” with “Yield Not to Temptation” on the flip side. When the single tanked, Cooke decided they would take a gospel song they’d recorded, and rework the lyrics in a secular way. So “Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray” became “Lookin’ For a Love,” (recorded in Chicago) and the Womack Brothers became the Valentinos. (The J. Geils Band recorded a hit version of “Lookin’ for a Love” in 1971).
To season the rough youngsters, Cooke sent the Womack brothers out on the road with James Brown, a famously tough road boss who taught them steps and insisted that they develop an act and look sharp, or go home. Bobby Womack recalled later that Cooke was amused when they returned to L.A. as graduates of the James Brown school, walking in unison, wearing perfectly pressed, identical suits.
By his own admission, Womack led an interesting and convoluted romantic life.
The Womack brotheres’ mentor, Sam Cooke, was fatally shot in December 1964 by a hotel manager in Los Angeles. A few months later Womack married Cooke’s widow, Barbara. The groom had just turned 21, Barbara was 10 years older, and the music world was stunned. Womack believed that anger about the marriage killed his career for a while.
Last year, he told the U.K. Guardian, “I was Sam’s guitar player, and after he died I married his wife. I thought: ‘OK, if I’m going to be there all the time to be his guardian angel, I might as well marry her and give him a reason to talk.’ But people went nuts. They went nuts! I used to get so many letters and so many threats.”
Cooke’s many friends in the industry, Womack believed, put out the word not to hire him. So he earned his living as a session guitarist. He wrote in his 2007 memoir “Midnight Mover” (John Blake) that he played on Elvis Presley sessions, including “Suspicious Minds” and “In the Ghetto,” as well as on Dusty Springfield’s classic album “Dusty in Memphis.” He played guitar on Aretha Franklin’s classic 1968 album “Lady Soul,” including on her version of “People Get Ready,” “Come Back Baby” and “(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone.”
And the Queen of Soul recorded Womack’s song “I’m in Love” in 1974 — it topped the R&B charts for several weeks.
While married to Barbara Cooke, for a time Womack went on the road with Ray Charles as his guitar player, just to make his own money. That ended after a while, because his boss, blind since birth, insisted on taking the controls of his tour plane from the pilot as soon as the plane was airborne, and flying it himself. Womack was beside himself. He wrote in his memoir: “Oh, Jesus me. Dear Lord,’ I prayed. ‘There’s a blind man flying the plane.’”
Womack liked to tell the story of how he drove Janis Joplin home from the studio in Los Angeles once in his Mercedes Benz, and Joplin started riffing on some lyrics, “Oh lord, won’t you buy me … a Mercedes Benz.” She later recorded it. He also described a gentle, hippie-esque Jimi Hendrix in his pre-fame days, playing guitar on the chitlin circuit and laughing at Bobby’s upside-down guitar playing.
The Womack family had many connections to Detroit, apart from many relatives who lived in the city, their United Sound sessions and Bobby’s friendship with the Queen of Soul, another one was the late Motown star Mary Wells.
Bobby’s brother Cecil Womack married Wells and is the father of two of her daughters. Wells separated from him, and in a move that shocked fans and friends, took up with his brother Curtis Womack, with whom she had her youngest daughter, Sugar.
Womack was remarried to his second wife, Regina, at the time of his death, and is survived by his wife, his two brothers, two sons and a daughter.
Funeral arrangements are incomplete.