Bobby Womack, a charismatic soul singer who played guitar for Sam Cooke and wrote the Rolling Stones hit “It’s All Over Now” and the enduringly popular “Across 110th Street,” and who turned a turbulent life into a resurgent career as a professional “soul survivor” from a bygone era, has died at 70.
His death was announced by Sonya Kolowrat, his publicist at XL Recordings, on Friday. No other details were immediately available.
Womack’s career transcended genre and era. A teen prodigy in gospel music, he became one of the most celebrated soul singers of his generation.
Besides “It’s All Over Now” (a career highlight) and “Across 110th Street” (which he co-wrote with J.J. Johnson, and which was featured on the soundtracks of the 1972 crime drama of the same name and Quentin Tarantino’s 1997 film “Jackie Brown”), his hits included “Lookin’ for a Love,” “Nobody Wants You When You’re Down and Out” and “Daylight.”
He was known for his “consciousness” raps, the philosophical sermons that introduced his songs and earned him the nicknames “The Poet” and “The Preacher.” Womack had once aspired to be a preacher, he said, because preachers got “the best part of the chicken.”
Womack endured personal tragedy and struggles, including the stabbing death of his brother Harris, the deaths of two sons, a controversial marriage to the widow of Sam Cooke months after Cooke was fatally shot in 1964, and periods of drug use.
He “drew on his religious upbringing and love of music, emerging as a survivor with even deeper messages to impart,” declared the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where Womack was inducted in 2009. He was “a music-business survivor, elder statesman and champion of old-school soul.”
Critics noted the gritty, sandpaper-like timbre of his voice. Womack said his singing style blended the smooth approach of Cooke, his mentor, with the raspier quality of Archie Brownlee, lead singer of the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, a gospel group that Womack had accompanied while in his teens.
Cooke discovered Womack as a youth, when he was singing in the family gospel group the Womack Brothers. Cooke recruited the young men to branch out from gospel and renamed them the Valentinos. “It’s All Over Now,” which they recorded in 1964, became the Rolling Stones’ first hit in Britain.
At first upset that the Stones had recorded the song, “I was still screaming and hollering right up until I got my first royalty cheque,” Womack was quoted as saying. “Man, the amount of money rolling in shut me right up.”
While trying to establish a solo career and while facing the negative public reaction to his marriage to Cooke’s widow, Barbara, Womack worked as a session musician in Memphis and in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. He accompanied such performers as Aretha Franklin and Joe Tex. For Wilson Pickett, he wrote such hits as “I’m a Midnight Mover” and “I’m in Love.”
Womack also backed up Hungarian jazz guitarist Gabor Szabo on the album “High Contrast,” which featured the first recording of Womack’s instrumental piece “Breezin’,” later popularized by George Benson.
By the late 1960s and early ’70s, Womack had reemerged on the rhythm-and-blues charts by interpreting pop standards such as “Fly Me to the Moon” and “California Dreamin’.”
“That’s the Way I Feel About ‘Cha,” later covered by Aretha Franklin and others, was one of many records he began with a spoken recitation.
His first gold-certified record, “Harry Hippie” (1972), written by songwriter Jim Ford about Womack’s brother and bass guitarist Harris, criticized the bohemian counterculture.
In 1974, while at Bobby’s home, Harris Womack was stabbed to death by a girlfriend. She had discovered women’s clothing in the closet and assumed that Harry was two-timing her, according to an account in the Daily Telegraph. The clothes had been left by a girlfriend of Bobby’s.
It was a difficult period for Womack. His marriage ended in divorce in 1970. His son, Truth, from a later marriage to Regina Banks, died in infancy. Years later, he recalled the painful loss of a son from his first marriage, Vincent, who reportedly committed suicide.
Through the ’70s and ’80s, Womack charted with several songs — “Woman’s Gotta Have It,” “If You Think You’re Lonely Now” and “I Wish He Didn’t Trust Me So Much” among them — that dealt frankly with love and betrayal and occasionally mirrored the instability of his life.
Womack once told Pickett that cocaine helped his prolific songwriting. He had embraced the drug during the sessions for Sly and the Family Stone’s 1971 album “There’s a Riot Goin’ On” and found himself in its thrall.
“I understand my life,” he told an interviewer last year. “There are so many things that happened. Everybody gonna lose something.”
Womack — his middle name was Dwayne — was born March 4, 1944, in Cleveland. His father, a Baptist minister, encouraged his sons to start a gospel ensemble.
When Cooke offered to record the Womack Brothers as a gospel group — provided that they also record rhythm and blues as the Valentinos — Womack’s father objected strenuously.
“Pop got annoyed and said he would throw us all out of the house because of the shame it would bring him and how we were going over to the devil,” Womack told an interviewer. “I countered by saying we didn’t have any money, so could he please throw us out next week instead!”
A complete list of survivors could not immediately be confirmed.
In 2010, Womack recorded with Gorillaz, the English duo of Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett, who created a cartoon “virtual band” to go with their music. On their album “Plastic Beach,” Womack sang “Stylo” with rapper Mos Def.
After touring with Gorillaz, Womack became ill and was in a coma for 17 days. He suffered from cancer, and it was reported in early 2013 that he had Alzheimer’s disease. During the tour for his album “The Bravest Man in the Universe,” co-produced by Albarn, Womack was unable to remember lyrics to many songs.
Womack often reflected on — and marveled at — his own durability.
“I’ve been as crazy as anybody could have been,” he told the Daily Telegraph in 2013. “What particular reason do you lose the Marvin Gayes and the Sam Cookes, the Ray Charles, Jimi Hendrix — the list goes on; I say it never stops, the world keeps bouncing and those other artists go underneath. But I’m still here.”