In 1963, Bobby Dwayne Womack was just 19 when he wrote “It’s All Over Now”—inspired by his uncle’s woman troubles—for he and his brothers’ band, The Valentinos. Although the song gave the Rolling Stones their first number-one hit and has since been covered dozens of times—aside from the Dirty Dozen’s take with Dr John on vocals or Ry Cooder’s—few versions have approached the funky gospel of the original. Incredibly, “It’s All Over Now” wasn’t a hit for the Valentinos but it did help launch Womack’s rich solo career, which culminated in his soul masterpiece “Across 110th Street” and other huge solo hits since.
It’s doubtful there is another musician who was fired from Ray Charles’ band yet participated in so much of soul music history, either in session work or composition for singers like Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, and Sam Cooke. Womack never learned to read music but still managed to work as one of the world’s best studio guitarists and impressive hit songwriter. He wrote George Benson’s “Breezin’” and added atmospheric guitar work for Elvis’ “Suspicious Minds,” Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man,” Sly Stone’s “It’s a Family Affair,” Aretha Franklin’s “Chain of Fools” and so many other hits.
Womack’s poor and hungry childhood was spent with his four musical brothers, in a tough Cleveland neighborhood, overseen by a strict father. The gifted Bobby risked whippings to play his father’s forbidden guitar and secretly taught himself to play it left-handed even though it was strung for a righty.
The guitarist quit the fifth grade to sing with his brothers on the gospel circuit until their group was discovered by Womack’s influential mentor Sam Cooke, who was then still with the Soul Stirrers. Cooke left gospel music not long after, and signed the Womacks to record secular music on his new SAR label. Wider success eluded the Womacks, except for Bobby, but their first big hit “Looking for a Love” got them a spot with the James Brown Revue at the Apollo Theater in Harlem.
In his irresistible 2007 autobiography Midnight Mover, Womack admits that when Mick Jagger had asked to use his “It’s All Over Now,” he had never heard of the Rolling Stones (nor did Womack ever think Mick Jagger’s voice the equal of the blues singers he emulated—then again, Jagger also disliked how Womack “preached” when he talks a little at the beginning of his songs). At first, Womack was annoyed that an imitative white blues band from England wanted to record his song. That is, until royalty checks started to arrive in the mailbox. Later on, the Stones adopted Womack as a mascot, something that didn’t completely suit him, since he was paid to tour with them but not to sing or play, except in jams after the shows. But Womack did record on the Stones’ Dirty Work album, and he and Ron Wood became close friends. Wood helped get Womack inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009.
For all his success, Womack has carried heavier life burdens than most of us. After being widely hated and ostracized for his marriage to Sam Cooke’s widow Barbara soon after Cooke was killed, Barbara and Womack later lost their son from that marriage to suicide. In his second marriage, Womack lost an infant son in a tragic accident.
In 1972, Womack had a hit with “Harry Hippie,” which he now sadly attributes to his beloved younger brother, Harry. In 1974, Womack invited Harry to come out to Los Angeles to get back on his feet again. Tragically, drug-crazed Los Angeles was hardly the place to find peace. Harry, lost in drugs and floating through life as the song goes, was stabbed to death in Womack’s own kitchen by Harry’s unbalanced girlfriend. It was yet another loss the singer has had to endure and his own years of heavy drug use to hide from such pain only made it that much worse.
Womack’s greatest composition, “Across 110th Street,” found new life in Quentin Tarantino’s 1997 film Jackie Brown and again in American Gangster in 2007, but Womack’s many other classic hits continue to stand as some of soul’s best: “Woman’s Gotta Have It,” “If You Think You’re Lonely Now,” “I Wish He Didn’t Trust Me So Much,” and “That’s the Way I Feel About Cha.”
Womack’s 2012 The Bravest Man in the Universe was his first album of new material in 18 years. His last visit to Jazz Fest was in 1992, and this year he’ll be at the Congo Square stage on the last day of the Fest.