The Bravest Man in the Universe is the title of soul legend Bobby Womack’s latest album, his 27th studio album to be exact, and the first with original material since 1994’s Resurrection. If the title was a more accurate assessment of both his life and career, however, it would be called “still standing” or “soul survivor.”
For his musical legacy is steeped in an era many would call among the greatest in all of black music. Sam Cooke, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Jimi Hendrix, Sly and the Family Stone, Janis Joplin, The Rolling Stones… and if you can name a musical great from his era, Bobby Womack has a personal tie to them.
Born Robert Dewayne Womack on March 4, 1944 into a musical family, where his father was a minister who played the guitar and his mother played the organ. Bobby Womack and his four brothers [Friendly, Curtis, Harry and Cecil] began performing as The Womack Brothers on the gospel circuit when Bobby was just eight. In 1954, when he was just 10, they released “Buffalo Bill,” along with “Bible Tells Me So,” as Curtis Womack and the Womack Brothers.
Sam Cooke, himself, took an interest early, signing them to his SAR Records. At first, they recorded gospel songs but then, like so many others, made the switch to secular music, a move of which their father, in keeping with many elders of their time, highly disapproved. In fact, church black folk frequently boycotted records by one-time gospel artists and ostracized them from those circles.
Recording secularly as The Valentinos, their early work, like most “soul” music, was largely worldly twists on gospel songs. “Lookin’ for a Love,” their first single, played upon the spiritual, “Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray,” which they previously recorded.
In 1964, their future looked especially bright and Bobby’s talent was shining more and more. The Rolling Stones scored their first number one with a cover of The Valentinos’s “It’s All Over Now,” which Bobby co-wrote. Then tragedy struck: Sam Cooke was murdered that same year. Bobby may have very well carried the torch but marrying Sam Cooke’s widow just four months after Sam’s death stopped his career in its tracks.
“They used to have me on the bill as ‘the boy who married Sam Cooke’s wife,’” Bobby said in his episode of Unsung, which premiered on TV One earlier this year. Sam Cooke’s brothers even beat him. Radio disc jockeys flat out refused to play his music. So he turned to session work as a guitarist, playing on records for Joe Tex and Aretha Franklin. He also kept writing. “I’m a Midnight Mover” and “I’m in Love” for Wilson Pickett led to a record deal in 1968, with Bobby releasing his first solo album, Fly Me to the Moon. His gritty cover of “California Dreamin’” by The Mamas and The Papas was his first hit as a solo artist.
During the Sam Cooke scandal, he had turned to drugs. As he worked in the 1970s with Sly and the Family Stone, Janis Joplin, whom he was among the last to see alive, and many others, he was constantly high. But so was his career. His albums Understanding and Across 110th Street, the soundtrack for the classic Blaxploitation film, yielded such classics as “Woman’s Gotta Have It,” “Harry Hippie” and, of course, “Across 110th Street,” which was also featured in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, starring Pam Grier.