Some Kind of Wonderful: Remembering Bobby Womack

Bobby Womack, 1974
Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns

Bobby Womack performs in his Los Angeles office in 1974.

To the people who knew Bobby Womack, or bought his records, heard his tunes covered over a seven-decade career, or caught his stellar live performances,  this left-handed guitarist, a southpaw like Los Angeles Dodger pitching legend Sandy Koufax, was a melodic and lyrical force of nature.

Bobby was a soul survivor who spent plenty of time on a pain train that we thankfully didn’t have to ride along on with him.   

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Over the last 40 years around Hollywood, at least a few times a year, I would inevitably encounter Bobby Womack at a concert, recording studio, band rehearsal room, LP preview listening events, a restaurant -- usually Thai -- and any number of record company lobbies. I’d also catch him at a dentist or post office, various supermarkets, sometimes at the midnight hour or even six in the morning, backstage or in dressing rooms of countless shows, usually headlined by English rock royalty.

My very first Womack sighting was decades ago at the Hollywood Boulevard law offices of Walter E. Hurst, who represented Sam Cooke, the Valentinos (Womack’s old band), J.W. Alexander, Lou Rawls, Eddie Cochran and Jack Nitzsche, among others. Bobby Womack kept his pit bull dog in one of Hurst’s vacant spaces.

Kim Fowley was a client of Hurst and was truly saddened to learn of Bobby‘s death.

“Bobby Womack was a pioneer,” Fowley volunteered. “He was one of the first songwriters in the black community to acknowledge the British music invasion. He would kibbitz with us white rock guys and sit in one of Walter’s chairs talking shop. Bobby was a wonderful person who was kind, informative and encouraging. He understood the rock ‘n’ roll music game for what it was.”

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I remember once in 1983 at the  Chan Dara Thai restaurant in Hollywood immediately after I was “put on waivers” by a girl who I thought I was deeply involved with. After I was cut from her team, I nursed two Thai iced coffees. I was definitely in the bummer tent. And in walked Bobby Womack. He had just left United Artists Records up the street on Sunset Boulevard.  

He pulled up a chair and patiently listened to my splitsville saga. Bobby took a long and deep breath, lit a Kool menthol cigarette, and then explained to me some real facts of life about skin, sin and particularly the fascinating erotic and neurotic aspects of women, concluding with, “Man, where do you think all my songs come from?”

For the first 30 years, Bobby would recognize me and just say, “Hey Pisces!”  The last 15 years, if I ran into him on the street or a record store, it was, “Hey Writer!”

In 2004, I mentioned Bobby in my first book "This is Rebel Music" where I cited him in the text.  It was a moment just after we were waiting in line at a Sam Woo’s Korean BBQ on Sepulveda Boulevard in the San Fernando Valley. He had just parked his Buick Electra 225 deuce quarter and strolled into the joint beaming. “BW” had the title theme and ending credits cue on Quentin Tarentino’s "Jackie Brown" with “Across 110th Street.” Bobby had just gotten paid.

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He happily offered to buy me a head of a pig on a spit at the take-out counter. It sure looked scary, but it tasted awfully good. However, that was the last time I ate pork. 

Later during an interview, I pressed him for some revealing music business tales. He laughed, “I can’t tell you the wildest crazy shit I saw in a studio because I would need an aspirin,” he coyly confessed. 

One of the last times I saw him on Ventura Boulevard in Van Nuys. He yelled out “Harvey the writer!”

Womack was preparing for a tour of England. He embraced me and profusely thanked me for including him in my books "Canyon of Dreams The Magic and the Music of Laurel Canyon" and" Turn Up the Radio! Rock, Pop, and Roll in Los Angeles 1956-1972."  He was so overjoyed, he had tears in his eyes. “Great books! Great books! Man, ‘Black Santa’ is definitely gonna take care of you this Christmas!” 

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Then, a few hours late,r I bumped into him again at the Marie Calendar’s bakery on Ventura Boulevard. Bobby proudly stated that one of the last business transactions Allen Klein’s ABKCO did on his behalf in 2009 was to administer the licensing request when Mariah Carey sang “We Belong Together” and sampled his “If You Think You’re Lonely Now.”

In May of 2013, I was on-screen, along with Damon Albarn of Blur and the Gorillaz, Chuck D of Public Enemy, writer Barney Hoskyns, Bill Withers, Regina Womack, actor Antonio Fargas, and the Rolling Stones’ Ronnie Wood in the BBC-TV documentary on Womack directed by James Meycock. 

Just last month I suggested Womack’s anthem “Across 110th Street” be played on Biggles.FM radio on The  California Music Show in England, hosted by DJ Mike Grant. He was doing a segment on my Radio! book and asked me for some quintessential SoCal music to program in a guest segment.   

In one taped conversation with Bobby in 2009, the R&B hero reminisced about visionary Curtis Mayfield and singer Dee Clark. Womack lamented, “I didn’t know I loved them this much until they aren’t around. Maybe it’s the Pisces thing where we become messengers for some people who aren’t here. Yeah. But boy, sometimes I’m telling you I need some help with these messages. Sometimes they go too fast.”

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Bobby Womack himself remarked a few years ago, “As long as I’ve got that breath and God-given talent every time someone thinks of soul music will remember me and say, ‘That’s one mother f---er who wouldn’t die.’”   

When I informed music historian Paul Body of the news that the immortal Bobby Womack had just flashed, he replied, “It’s getting awfully crowded in soul heaven.”

Harvey Kubernik is the author of "Turn Up the Radio! Rock, Pop and Roll in Los Angeles, 1956-1972" (Santa Monica Press)