LISTENING again the other day to Channel Orange by hot young R&B ace Frank Ocean, and trying to get a hold on what it is that might explain the widespread critical acclaim that has accompanied a degree of commercial success that seemed much more understandable, I found myself wishing, more than once, that he would sing less like an autotuned Stevie Wonder and more like Bobby Womack. In fact, I also found myself wondering, albeit briefly, why people who sing like Bobby Womack don’t seem to make records anymore. Then I remembered that they do. Well, Bobby Womack does anyway.
So I put on his The Bravest Man In The Universe, released a little unexpectedly last year, co-produced by Damon Albarn and Richard Russell — the latter had been responsible for the last Gil Scott-Heron album — and all was right with the soul music world again.
For various reasons, Womack’s career has been anything but consistent, and so littered with comebacks that one album was even called Resurrection. Not all of his records have been winners, but when he’s been on form there have been few singers to match him for downright gut-wrenching soul. The Rolling Stones understood that, all the way back to when they turned his It’s All Over Now, originally by Womack and his teenage brothers masquerading as the Valentinos, into their first number-one hit.
He has been a fine guitarist too, playing on Sly & the Family Stone’s groundbreaking There’s A Riot Goin’ On, a gig that can’t have done much for his battles with addiction, and the Stones’ Dirty Work, among many others, but it’s his voice, dark, rasping and powerfully passionate, that has been the main attraction through decades of gospel, soul, R&B, funk and related if not precisely distinguishable subgenres.
Usually that kind of singing is associated with the down home and the Deep South, and, like so many of his colleagues, Womack did record, most effectively, in 1970s Muscle Shoals, Alabama. But in 1981 he released The Poet, again somewhat out of the blue, and demonstrated, comprehensively and I hope permanently, that a voice like his is not incompatible with a slick modern production recorded in Los Angeles. Granted that was 30 years ago, but let’s think about 1981 for a moment.
Out on its feet though it might have been by then, disco had left an indelible mark on the R&B landscape, and black American pop was somewhere between Off The Wall and Thriller, headed inexorably towards crossover’s commercial wonderland. Real soul music was virtually nonexistent, and that which did exist was pretty nondescript.
The Poet tapped into this sonic zeitgeist while avoiding the worst excesses of the synths and the syndrums as Womack’s vocals never lost their connection with their roots back on the chitlin’ circuit.
A comparison between the acoustic guitar and voice demos of Games and Secrets on the record’s remastered 1999 reissue and their final versions is instructive. The production, by Womack himself, may have tarted them up in contemporary musical finery, but they retained their essence throughout.
There’s plenty to dance to among the album’s eight tracks, of course, but, appropriately, the centrepiece is the quietly soulful Just My Imagination ("playin’ tricks on me again y’all"), dressed in an affecting ensemble of synthesised strings and steel guitar. It was written by Bobby’s brother, Cecil, who died a month ago, apparently in South Africa, and who almost became, by a complicated series of marriages, Bobby’s stepson-in-law as well. Indeed, he would have done but for Bobby’s timely divorce from Sam Cooke’s widow.
If, as seems entirely possible, Womack is prevented by gathering illness from making another album, judicious selection from his patchy catalogue still leaves us with plenty of riches, with The Poet at the very summit.