Bobby Womack 1944-2014: Music Legend Overcame Drug Addiction, Enjoyed Career Resurgence
Legendary soul singer Bobby Womack, 70, who overcame decades of drug abuse to resume his music career and be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, has died. The cause of his death hasn’t been determined.
Across a career spanning six decades, Womack wrote and sang such songs as, “Lookin’ for a Love,” “If You Think You’re Lonely Now” and “It’s All Over Now,” which the Rolling Stones covered and made a No. 1 hit. Learning of Womack’s death — a close friend said he was found dead Friday morning, having passed sometime overnight — the band played the song in tribute to him at its weekend concert in Belgium.
Womack had survived cancer twice and was living with diabetes. After news broke of his death, #Bobby Womack was a Twitter trending topic. Rolling Stones’ guitarist Ronnie Wood took to the social media outlet to pay tribute to Womack, marveling at his ability to connect with audiences.
“I’m so sad to hear about my friend Bobby Womack — the man who could make you cry when he sang has brought tears to my eyes with his passing,” Wood tweeted. “My heart goes out to his family & friends and everyone who loved his music. Bobby you will be greatly missed.”
Womack’s compelling life of extreme highs and lows was captured in the 2013 BBC documentary, “Across 110th Street.” Womack openly confronted and discussed his most enduring medical condition — addiction — in interviews and in his memoir, “Midnight Mover: The Greatest Soul Singer in The World.”
‘All of Them Died Because of Drugs’
Womack’s recovery story had a positive ending. He attributed getting clean with the revival of his career in pop music, unlike several friends and peers he’d lost to drug addiction.
“I think the biggest move for me was to get away from the drug scene,” Womack told the Associated Press in 2012. “It wasn’t easy. It was hard, because everybody I knew did drugs. … They didn’t know when to turn it off.
“So for me,” he added, “looking at Wilson Pickett, close friends of mine, [such as] Sly Stone, Jim Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and I can go on and on and on, and I say all of them died because of drugs.”
Womack’s most recent performance came about two weeks ago at the Tennessee music festival Bonnaroo. A member of his band told Elements Behavioral Health that Womack also performed in December at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills. One of his longtime back-up singers, Lisa Coulter, said Womack and the band were booked for a European tour, including shows in London and Paris, that was to start in July.
His last album, “Bravest Man in the Universe,” was selected by Rolling Stone as among the best albums of 2012. That and his 2009 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame crowned his storied career as a songwriter, guitarist and singer laced with tragedy, addiction and ultimately triumph.
Born March 4, 1944, and reared in a slum of Cleveland, Ohio, Womack’s impoverished childhood included him sharing a bed with four brothers. He sometimes made light of his circumstances, including living among rats, wrote Rolling Stone’s Gavin Edwards in a comprehensive remembrance. But the withering pain and shame of poverty bled into his soulful voice.
Womack taught himself to play on his father’s guitar and began performing with his four siblings as a gospel act called The Womack Brothers; they played at local religious events, according to the magazine and the Amazon.com description of his autobiography. According to various published biographies, a fortuitous break came in 1956, when their father arranged for the brothers to open for a gospel band led by Sam Cooke, who became a mentor. In 1961, the group changed its name to the Valentinos and followed Cooke into soul music.
Epic Level of Drug Abuse
A few years later, Cooke was shot to death in Los Angeles, and Womack a few short months later married Cooke’s widow, Barbara. His career took a hit for the perceived betrayal. Rolling Stone quoted Womack saying the marriage ended a decade later when his wife found Womack in bed with her teenage daughter. It was part of the tumult and self-destructiveness resulting from Womack’s drug use.
It was at an “epic” level, Edwards writes, when Womack told Rolling Stone in 1984:
“I was really off into the drugs. 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. Me and Sly [Stone] were running partners. He didn’t think about making music; he had a genuine partner. He said, ‘I don’t feel like I’m goofing off, because Bobby Womack’s doing it.’ ” Womack would play guitar on Sly and the Family Stone’s album, “There’s a Riot Goin’ On.”
By the mid-1970s, however, disco eclipsed soul music and Womack has written that his life devolved into a crippling level of substance abuse disorder. According to the New York Times, Womack issued two of his most critically praised albums in 1981, “The Poet” and “The Poet II,” featuring duets with R&B/soul vocalist Patti LaBelle. In the Rolling Stones’ 1986 album “Dirty Work,” Womack teamed with Mick Jagger on “Harlem Shuffle.” It took until the late 1980s before Womack admitted himself into rehab treatment for cocaine addiction. Sobriety, he said, delivered him back to musical success.
He had not lost his singular singing voice, and after dozens of albums and millions of records sold, a winning collaboration of his soul singing with the electronic sounds of the band Gorillaz in the 2010 song “Stylo” led to his acclaimed album, “The Bravest Man in the Universe.” Rolling Stone reported that Womack was working on another album called “The Best Is Yet to Come” that was to feature collaborations with Stevie Wonder, Snoop Dogg, Eric Clapton, Rod Stewart and Teena Marie.
Just last week, Coulter told relatives she’d spoken for an hour with Womack and that he displayed no signs of his various afflictions, which included colon cancer. “He sounded great,” she told her uncle, “and was very sharp.”
Womack is survived by the woman he says he married, divorced, then remarried, wife Regina Banks, and four children, Gina, Bobby Truth, Cory and Jordan. Rolling Stone reported that three other children predeceased Womack: a stillborn child, a son who died at four months, and Vincent, who was 21 when he killed himself.
On Saturday, condolences and tributes were shared by a bevy of musical greats, among them the Rolling Stones during a concert.
“He was a true pioneer of soul and R&B, whose voice and songwriting touched millions,” the Rolling Stones said in a statement posted to their website. “On stage, his presence was formidable. His talents put him up there with the greats. We will remember him, first and foremost, as a friend.”