No recording artist has meant more to me than Bobby Womack, who died on Friday aged 70. Certainly there have been better and more important singers – better soul singers, even – songwriters, guitarists and producers, but no one touched me the way Bobby did. As students, my friends and I discovered the incredible series of albums he made in the mid-Seventies – ‘Communication, ‘Looking For A Love’, ‘I Can Understand It’, ‘Fact of Life’ – and stayed with him ever after. I saw Bobby live twice – with a 25 year gap in between – and on the second occasion in 2004 I interviewed him for an hour or so in his hotel suite.
Trying to encapsulate his appeal is complicated. It’s partly that unlike obvious geniuses such as Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, Bobby was so very human: all too human, in fact, with a legacy of pain and loss largely of his own making. Unusually for soul, he was also an industry maverick rather than the captive of a particular record label, style or era. But mostly, perhaps, it was that Bobby Womack endured, and kept on enduring. Although it was good to see him get a late career boost through his association with Damon Albarn, it would be very wrong to see this, as some reports seem to imply, as his ultimate validation. In truth, most of Bobby’s best records were made before Damon was born, or at least out of short trousers.
It’s the songs that are the real validation. There are perhaps 40 or more that I could commend as near perfect, and I was once so carried away singing along to ‘Harry Hippie’ that I badly scraped my car against a wall. This past weekend I’ve been playing them all, but there are two in particular that I’d press on anyone interested enough to listen. ‘More Than I Can Stand’ is from his American Studios in Memphis period, and it’s a killer 1970 pop-soul single full of ingenious hooks. ‘Close to You’ is an epic 9-minute half-rapped, half-sung album track (from ‘Communication’), a year or so later. Both are beyond great. ‘The Poet 11’ from 1984 is the masterpiece-album.