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FROM THE DIGITAL CRATE

 

By Mark Anthony Neal | With thanks to NewBlackMan

 

Saturday, January 21, 2012.

 

Mention the phrase “Soul Man,” and a litany of names are conjured such as Otis Redding, James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Al Green, Isaac Hayes, Marvin Gaye, Jackie Wilson, Teddy Pendergrass and of course Sam Cooke.  Even newbies like Anthony Hamilton and Jaheim are likely to make the cut, particularly for those for who like their contemporary Soul, down home and gritty.  For far too many, Bobby Womack is unfortunately an afterthought.

 

At the height of Soul Music’s popularity in the 1960s and early 1970s, the male Soul singer’s status rivaled that of his “race man” peer. The Soul Man icons of that era congealed grand narratives of tragedy—shot dead in a motel; shot dead by your father; shot dead in a game of Russian Roulette; killed in an airplane crash; scorched by a pot of boiling grits—wedded to even more complicated personal demons—physical abuse of wives and girlfriends; sexual assault of younger female artists; sex with underage girls. 

 

These dynamics reflected the binary tensions of the foundational myth of the Soul Man tradition; namely that this was the price that these men were damned to pay for offering their Godly gifts of song for sale in the marketplace of the flesh.  Thus in an era when Martin Luther King, Jr. and others made the claim that African-Americans were the moral compass of American society, the Soul Man becomes the shifting locus for a noble struggle—decidedly secular—against good and evil.

 

 

Though Ray Charles is thought to be the most important creative force in the development of Soul Music, it was Sam Cooke who was the template for the Soul Man. Possessing good looks and a virile masculinity Cooke had emerged from his apprenticeships as lead vocalist of the gospel groups the Highway QCs and The Soul Stirrers, very much as Gospel music’s first  sex symbol.  And it was this particular appeal that helped solidify the foundational myth of the Soul Man; While Cooke clearly sang of the lord—often in that fluttering feathery riff that became his signature—he clearly desired the flesh as evidenced by the philandering that purportedly instigated (in part) his murder in 1964. That Cooke was murdered as he was transitioning from his status as a popular balladeer into a more formal role as a race man—his posthumously released “A Change is Gonna Come” is seen as a core text among Civil Rights era anthems—only heightens the gravitas associated with his role as a Soul Man.  

 

Cooke’s death, along with a decade of bad romantic relationships and near fatal accidents before, was affirmation to many of the “true believers” that he was being disciplined for the sin of not only breaking ranks with the Gospel world, but literally opening up the floodgates for many others—most  famously Aretha Franklin—to do so.  One of those who came on through, was Bobby Womack.  Recording  as the Valentino’s in the early 1960s, Womack and his brothers were tutored by Cooke about the professional aspects of the recording industry.  Womack’s own musical sensibilities were greatly influenced by Cooke, as the latter became a father figure.  

 

Womack’s instincts in the aftermath of Cooke’s death, was to offer counsel and comfort to Cooke’s widow Barbara, but three months after Cooke’s death and just as Womack  turned 21-years of age, he went a step further, marrying  Cooke’s still grieving wife.  “They didn’t let his body get cold in the ground” was how the Pittsburgh Courier quoted family members in response to Womack and Barbara Cooke’s marriage, as Cooke’s young charge and his widow were easily cast as deviants in opposition to the fallen Soul Man.

 

It was in the context of this drama that Womack began a solo career of some distinction, initially establishing himself as a solid session musician (he played guitar on Aretha Franklin’s classic I Have Never Loved a Man) and an in demand songwriter, whose credits include tunes recorded by Wilson Pickett, The Rolling Stones, Janis Joplin, George Benson (“Breezin’”) and the aforementioned Franklin. 

 

After releasing a string of singles, beginning with “I Found a True Love” in 1965 for the legendary Chess label, Womack released his first solo album in 1968 with Fly Me to the Moon on the Minit label.  It would still be a few years before Womack would hit his artistic stride, recording a sequence of stellar recordings for the United Artist label in the early 1970s that included signature tracks such as “I Can Understand It,” “That’s the Way I Feel About Cha,” “Woman’s Gotta Have It,”  “Across 110th Street” (from the movie soundtrack of the same name) and “Lookin’ for a Love,” a song which Womack originally recorded with his brothers in 1962.

 

Though Womack’s music was well regarded by black audiences and received the support of black radio, he never made the crossover inroads that his friend and mentor Sam Cooke did.  On his nearly 10-minute version of The Carpenters’ “(They Long to Be) Close to You,” recorded on his 1971 album Communication, Womack gives some insight into his commercial struggles.  In the song’s opening monologue, Womack recounts a record executive who walked into one of his recording sessions and admonished Womack for not being “commercial enough.”  According to Womack, “I don’t care what it is, if I can get into it, it’s commercial enough to me.” Indeed that was Womack’s mantra, as the Disco era hit in the mid-1970s and a generation of Soul Singers were tossed to the side by record labels, save the few who adapted, like Johnnie Taylor, who scored the biggest hit of his career with “Disco Lady.”

 

Womack kept recording and made a bit of a comeback in the early 1980s recording for the independent label Beverly Glen.  On his first album for the label The Poet, Womack recorded what is perhaps his most recognizable tune, “If You Think You’re Lonely Now,” a song that was rumored to be one of the late Richard Pryor’s favorites. It was during the midst of this resurgence that Womack finally responded musically to the drama that initially unfolded in the months after his mentor’s demise.  “

 

I Wish You Wouldn’t Trust Me So, rather casually tells the story of a man who has fallen in love with his best friend’s wife.  By the time the song was released in the summer of 1985, most listeners were not privy to the singer’s relationship with Cooke’s widow, who Womack had divorced a decade earlier.  To complicate matters, Womack’s brother Cecil married Linda Cooke, the daughter of Sam and Barbara Cooke.  During the time that Bobby Womack recorded “I Wish I Wouldn’t Trust You So Much,” Curtis and Linda Womack were popular songwriters and artist in their own right  recording as “Womack & Womack”; the duo, for example, penned Teddy Pendergrass’s hit “Love T.K.O.”

 

Arguably Womack’s last great hit, “I Wish You Wouldn’t Trust So Much” captures all of the dramatic tension that that made Womack’s music so compelling in the first place, but it was also a reminder of the kinds of secrets that likely kept Womack from being fully embraced by the listening public.

 

***

 

Mark Anthony Neal is the author of five books including the forthcoming Looking for Leroy: (Il)Legible Black Masculinities (New York University Press) and Professor of African & African-American Studies at Duke University. He is founder and managing editor of NewBlackMan and host of the weekly webcast Left of Black. Follow him on Twitter @NewBlackMan.

 

 

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