“Just yesterday morning, they let me know you were gone…” – James Taylor’s Fire and Rain
His best hits collection is titled The Best of Bobby Womack – The Soul Years. But weren’t they all, soul years?
Two weeks after performing at the Bonnaroo Music Festival in Tennessee, Womack, at age 70, died of unknown causes on Friday. (The man was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease two years ago and dealt with a number of health issues, including cancer.)
The tributes for the triple-threat soulster – a scorching vocalist, a hotshot guitarist, a hit-making songwriter – are rolling in across social media, with words from the Rolling Stones’ Ronnie Wood leading the way: “I'm so sad to hear about my friend…the man who could make you cry when he sang has brought tears to my eyes with his passing.”
A song of Womack’s, It’s All Over Now, was among the Stone’s earliest hits.
Womack composed others of course, including, with J.J. Johnson, Across 110th Street, the scene-setting title cut to a 1972 blaxploitation crime drama. The track was a super-fly mediation and sound advice on the grip of drug scenes and personal addictions: “Hey brother, there's a better way out,” Womack sang the words he lived and wrote. “Snorting that coke, shooting that dope, man you're copping out. Take my advice, it's either live or die. You've got to be strong, if you want to survive.”
Womack himself struggled with drug issues; he went straight in the 1980s.
Beyond his own compositions – do seek out the declamatory reflection and riveting minimalism of Please Forgive My Heart, from his 2012 comeback album with Damon Albarn (of Blur and Gorillaz), The Bravest Man in The Universe – Womack had a flair for interpretation. His gritty, husky vocals infused unique energies into the songs he covered. Womack’s reimaginations may not have always worked – his funked up version of I Left My Heart in San Francisco should have been left on the recording studio floor – but they never lacked for inspiration. His California Dreamin’, for example, involved visions of brass, plucked nylon strings and a touch of soul-psychedelia, along with a measure of despair that the Mama’s and the Papa’s could only dream of.
Womack’s top cover? It’s hard to argue with his take on James Taylor’s Fire and Rain, a memorable folk song from 1970 detailing Taylor’s experiences with depression and the suicide of a friend. Womack walks his way deftly through his own version, replacing the gentle, blue-eyed soul of sweet-baby James with a different shade. The spirituality is deepened and the dire imagery is downplayed – it is the hope that is highlighted.
On the intro to Fire and Rain, Womack says this: “You know everybody has their own way of, ah, doing anything. I’d like to take this particular song for instance. It’s been done by many, but I gotta do it my way.”
He did. Where Taylor sang “My body’s aching and my time is at hand,” Womack sings “My body’s aching but I realize my time is ahead.” In a way, it is still ahead. Womack’s next (and final) album is set to be released this year. The title is The Best is Yet to Come.