'70s legend Womack is still singing strong

ON POPULAR MUSIC

May 15, 2008|By RASHOD D. OLLISON

At card parties that my family and neighbors threw during the Arkansas summers nights of my childhood, there was one artist whose music always solicited shouts throughout the room: Bobby Womack.

Sometimes, the loud card game - which always became heated as expletives flew through the smoky air - stopped completely. "Turn that Bobby Womack record up!" my aunt Phyl would command. "I gotta hear this. Stop the game, y'all."

The participants didn't seem to mind as everybody sang along to the record on the old hi-fi: If you get anything out of life/You got to put up with the toils and strife ...

Eventually, the bid whist game and loud cussing would resume. But the music of Bobby Womack was sacrosanct in my working-class family. So whenever somebody dropped one of his records on the turntable, you stopped and you listened. Womack's down-home lyrics of love and life, twangy funk grooves and tortured vocals made the Cleveland-born singer-songwriter one of the last great soul men of the '70s and '80s.

Yet you hardly ever hear his name mentioned alongside the likes of Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder or Marvin Gaye. Although Womack, who's also a gifted guitarist, didn't score as many pop hits as those legends, his greatest work of the 1970s is no less important.

This month, EMI, which owns the artist's classic catalog, is reissuing seven albums he recorded for the old Liberty, Minit and United Artists labels between 1968 and 1976. A compilation, The Best of Bobby Womack: The Soul Years, is also being released.

"When you do something good, it lasts," says the soul veteran, 64. "Listening to those songs, man, I learned when you write from the heart, it lasts. Period. If it hit you then, it hits you later."

Over the years, Womack's songs have been covered by an array of artists, including the Rolling Stones ("It's All Over Now"), Janis Joplin ("Trust Me"), James Taylor ("Woman's Gotta Have It") and K-Ci Hailey ("If You Think You're Lonely Now"). Hip-hop producers have long sampled his grooves. He was even referenced in Mariah Carey's ubiquitous 2005 pop smash, "We Belong Together."

You also hear Womack in commercials and movies these days. In 2003, Saab used his haunting 1969 take on "California Dreamin'." "Across 110th Street," probably one of his best-known hits, was prominently featured in last year's American Gangster, Denzel Washington's hit movie.

Like all classic music, Womack's greatest hits beautifully evoke a certain time, but the songs also transcend the era from which they came. His name was rarely absent from the R&B charts between 1968 and 1985. Womack says he always pushed himself to be original. That was the musical culture that shaped him.

"Man, the only thing I sampled was my mama's cooking," says the artist, calling from his Los Angeles home. "You had to start from the ground up. If you came out sounding like somebody else, you were laughed at."

During his early years as a session guitarist and budding singer, Womack was guided by his friend and mentor Sam Cooke. Echoes of the late pop legend's mellifluous singing style have always been detectable in Womack's music. But his sound was rougher. Where Cooke was silk, Womack was leather. He later developed an approach that was sweaty, unmistakably masculine, and free of transparent posturing.

In his songs - "That's the Way I Feel About Cha," "I'm Through Trying to Prove My Love to You," "More Than I Can Stand" - Womack readily laid bare his emotions. He wasn't too proud to beg or play the fool. But he didn't crumble into a mess of melisma. With a larynx-shredding shout here and a gut-venting groan there, Womack often movingly expressed his strength.

"It was easy for me to write," he says. "You just had to keep your eyes and ears open. You can talk about it all, even if it happened 30, 40 years ago. The more things change, man, the more they stay the same."

But time apparently has been kind to Womack. I caught his show about three years ago at Constitution Hall in Washington. Toned and slender, he looked and sounded remarkable.

"It's a blessing to get onstage at 64 and feel like I'm 21," he says. "Make sure the lights and sound are cool, I'm good. That's all I need. All I have to do is get into myself spiritually, and the people are there with me. It's like I'm going to church. Whoever wants to go, come on. But you're shortchanging yourself if you don't."

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

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