Even by the standards of his peer group, soul man Bobby Womack led a turbulent, dramatic and complex life. Telling the story in his own words, the book’s opening pages set the tone for the torrid ride ahead. Caught in bed with his teenage step-daughter, Womack is chased down by his wife Barbara who gives him a new side-parting with a bullet from her gun. That Barbara is Sam Cooke’s widow and step-daughter Linda goes on to marry Bobby Womack’s brother Cecil sets a high bar for tortuous relationship dynamics among musical folk.
Cooke is pivotal to Womack’s story and this book. Womack’s father Friendly licked his four (later five) sons into the lord-praising Womack Brothers while the lads were in short trousers. After supporting the Cooke-led Soul Stirrers in their hometown of Cleveland Ohio, Cooke mentors the Womack Brothers firstly onto the Gospel Highway circuit and then as the (secular) Valentinos into the big time with the million selling Looking For A Love. Cooke drew the Valentinos to LA and his SAR label and Bobby Womack into his road band before his tragically senseless demise at Watts’ Hacienda Hotel in December 1963.
Womack’s account of how he came to marry Barbara Cooke, several years his senior, reads like scenes from The Graduate. The older woman persuaded her man (not yet 21, the wedding had to be delayed a week to enable Womack to tie the knot without his parents’ permission) that he was the one to guide her through the legal, musical and emotional morass left by Cooke’s death. The wider music business was scandalised, Cooke’s brothers beat Womack up and it isn’t long before Barbara is cheating on him anyway.
While learning to sing and harmonise, the junior Womack picked up his father’s precious guitar and learnt to play it left-handed with the strings upside down. Persona non grata in LA, Womack repairs to Memphis and Chips Moman’s American Sound studio for session work with Dusty Springfield, Aretha Franklin, Elvis Presley and many others as well as rediscovering his song-writing touch with many a hit for Wilson Pickett including I’m A Midnight Mover. Womack’s own journey into immortality as a recording artist is a disjointed and bumpy affair. After hits with covers versions of Fly Me To The Moon and (for me the definitive version of) California Dreaming, Womack finally hits his stride with Across 110th Street and She’s Gotta Have It. Womack has special affection for BW Goes C&W but covers his masterpieces The Poet and The Poet 2 in frustratingly spare detail. Some of this is redeemed by a discography at the back of the book comprehensive enough to satisfy the most ardent Bobby Womack completist.
My Story is a breathless read, barrelling along with priceless recollections of time spent and misspent with James Brown, Solomon Burke, Ray Charles, Jimi Hendrix, The Wicked Pickett, Janis Joplin on her last living day, Sly Stone on what could have been any one of his last living days, ditto Ike Turner, and many others. Womack’s private life, ill-served by two decades hard at the Devil’s Dandruff, is there in all its lurid detail: the sad lives of his children, the murder of his brother - the eponymous Hairy Hippy, failed relationships and marriages and above all the emotional scars left by his father and the early ghetto life endured by his family.
It is the writing style of My Story that makes it such a compelling read. It is as if an interviewer asks Womack ‘tell me the story of your life’ and off he goes, straight-ahead, taking no prisoners across an account of a life written in the raw and lived in the fastest of musical fast lanes.
Toby Broom (London, August 2020).
Bobby Womack: My Story 1944-2014 is a book by Bobby Womack with Robert Ashton (John Blake Publishing Ltd). Available to order on this site.