musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

I found a copy of the 40th Anniversary Edition of Across 110th Street, the classic soundtrack by Bobby Womack, when I was in Kuala Lumpur recently. That got me in a Womack mood all over again. To say that Bobby Womack has been around the musical block would be an understatement. Few artists have collaborated with so many other musicians and have recorded such a wide variety of music as Womack. His songs can have soul, funk, gospel, jazz, rock, blues, and even country touches, and Womack occasionally adds a philosophical rap as an introduction to some of his songs too. Whatever he records, even if it’s a well-known cover such as “Fire and Rain” or “California Dreaming”, you can guarantee it’s going to be special.

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Startling as a ten-year-old singing gospel songs in a group with his brothers, he had the fortune of having Sam Cooke as his mentor, married Cooke’s widow, started a solo career, collaborated with Ron Wood and other members of the Rolling Stones, survived a drug addiction, battled colon cancer and diabetes, sang with Damon Albarn’s side project, The Gorillaz,on their Plastic Beach album, and then just when you thought Bobby Womack was a relic from another era he released the powerful The Bravest Man in the Universe, his first studio album in 18 long years.

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Listening to The Bravest Man in the Universe, you can’t help but notice that Womack’s vocals sound a little tattered around the edges, but they still retain their trademark gritty power and passion. What threw many old fans for a loop on this new album, however, was the producer’s liberal use of synthesizers, drum machines, samples (including one from the late great Gil Scott-Heron!), and other contemporary sonic touches. It sure didn’t sound like a classic Bobby Womack album, which bothered more than a few longtime fans, but once you got your head around these jarring new sounds, it all clicked and flowed. This one grows on you. The fact that is made many “Best of the Year” lists confirmed its quality.

 

Bobby Womack is indeed a survivor, someone who seemingly battles back from every setback or obstacle appearing stronger than before. He recently admitted that he’s been having memory lapses, suggesting to some that he may be in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. But if you know anything about “The Bravest Man in the Universe,” you know not to count him out just yet.

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Bobby Womack began his musical career in 1954 at the tender age of ten, singing in a gospel group with his siblings, aptly named Curtis Womack and the Womack Brothers. Two years later, Sam Cooke saw the Womack brothers and was impressed enough to take them under his wing, later changing the name to The Valentinos to reflect their switch to a more pop oriented style. With teenager Bobby on vocals, the group soon started charting and enjoyed several hits. In 1964, a song written by Bobby “It’s All Over Now,” became a huge hit when it was covered by the Rolling Stones. In December of that year, however, Sam Cooke was shot and killed at a Los Angeles hotel. Only weeks after Cooke’s passing, Womack moved in with Sam’s widow, Barbara, and the two were married within three months. After Cooke’s passing, The Valentinos broke up and Bobby started doing session work before releasing his first solo album in 1968. That led to a long and successful career as a recording artist, with hits such as “Looking for a Love” and “Woman’s Gotta Have It” selling millions of copies.

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Womack also reaped a big hit with the theme song from the film Across 110th Street in 1972. That song enjoyed renewed popularity after being used in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown film soundtrack in 1997. The Anniversary Edition of Across 110th Street that I got in KL is a 2-CD set that includes both the original soundtrack on the first disc (sadly, with no bonus cuts) and two of his studio albums from the same period on the second disc. While Across 110th Street is indeed a classic soundtrack, and it has much more than a few cool Bobby Womack songs, the glue that holds the soundtrack together are the instrumental contributions from jazz trombone legend J.J. Johnson, who composed and conducted the musical score to the film and co-wrote the title cut with Womack. If you like Johnson’s compositions on this album you should also check out another amazing soundtrack he did in the 70s, Cleopatra Jones.

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Forty years after it was released, Across 110th Street still stands as one of the better soundtracks of the “Blaxploitation” era. Although it barely cracks the 30-minute barrier, the music is a scintillating brew of soul and funk, Womack’s distinctive vocals and Johnson’s propulsive score. The bonus disc with the anniversary edition contains two studio releases by Womack; his 1973 album “Facts of Life” and the 1974 follow-up “Lookin’ For a Love Again.” I had heard many of those songs before, thanks to various Womack compilations that I own, but I had never heard each album in its entirety, so it made for a worthwhile listen. As with many studio albums of that era, there are some gems and some filler. Many of Womack’s originals are very solid if not splendid, but some of his cover attempts, such as “All Along the Watchtower” and “A Natural Man”, are not as potent.

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After his mid-70s heyday, Womack’s solo recordings weren’t quite as potent and the hits became fewer, until he bounced back with the critically acclaimed The Poet in 1981. In addition to Womack’s solo recordings, he has collaborated with artists as diverse as Sly Stone, Jim Ford, Aretha Franklin, Gabor Szabo, Wilton Felder from the Crusaders, Ronnie Wood (some of his songs appearing on Wood’s classic Now Look album), and more recently The Gorillaz, the supergroup formed by Damon Albarn of Blur. There is also talk that Womack has been recording a blues album, one that will feature guest appearances by many of his musical friends. Whatever Womack is able to record as this point can only be seen as a bonus, and I look forward to hearing him release more new music.

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