Bobby Womack: six great performances

Our resident Womack obsessive shares his favourite moments from the late soul legend's incredible career

Stars pay tribute to Bobby Womack
Bobby Womack – a life in pictures
'A talent undimmed to the end'

In our year off between school and university, 1981-82, my best friend and bandmate Dominic May scoured the markets and secondhand record shops of Kent for new sounds to entertain us. The triumphant result of this vinyl quest was the discovery of Bobby Womack – which he shared with me, and who became a lifelong shared joy. Here are five great tracks from the soul man.

I Don’t Wanna Be Hurt By Ya Love Again

Bobby stretches his vocal cords to explain how love can sometimes exert a vice-like grip on a man, “just like a fish hooked on a line”. It contains my favourite bit of Bobby’s famous cod philosophy double-speak, which I’ve carried throughout the years (and may have misheard): “Take it, and leave it where it is.” Try living by that one.

Across 110th Street

From his soundtrack to the 1972 Harlem gangster film starring Yaphet Kotto and Anthony Quinn, Bobby lays bare the everyday fight of life in the ghetto, where “pimps [are] trying to catch a woman that’s weak” and “pushers won’t let the junkie go free”. It’s a stark reminder of how different New York City was in the 70s to Woody Allen’s 80s playground and its gentrified present. And the song made a welcome return in the opening scene of Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown.

Fact of Life/He’ll Be There

A full sermon about life on the road. In the first part of the song, Bobby explains his need to share the essentials of Womackian philosophy – “Where it was, know what I mean? Where it is.” It’s a complicated business, involving a young lady sitting backstage with time on their hands and Bobby “feeling her vibe” throughout his show and letting her know he’s staying at the Holiday Inn, room 234. After some talking, the piece suddenly bursts into song, to explain: “Don’t get hung up on me, cos tomorrow I might be going on down the road.” And – quite selflessly, really – he tells her to stick with her man because “he’ll be there when your sun goes down”. He still wouldn’t say no to a shag, though, because “I have to get it where I can”.

If You Think You’re Lonely Now

I’m not a great fan of Bobby’s 80s Poet and Poet II albums, which is where a lot of his fans came in. But this is an eloquent song, with lovely guitar work. Bobby’s proficiency as a guitarist was not enough appreciated – such as on his version of All Along the Watchtower – so great were his songwriting powers.

How Could You Break My Heart?

It starts with a ringing phone. He wonders if she’s there. “All the clubs are closed.” She answers. “Hey baby, it’s me.” But it’s late, and she doesn’t want him turning up and ruining her beauty sleep on a work night, so she leaves him to the night streets. “Damn, it’s cold…” He wants to talk a while, so he pours it out to the record-buying public instead of his intended paramour. It’s got all the Bobby tricks: screaming, pleading, brilliant guitar twiddles backed by matching voice twiddles and a singalong ending. A joy.

Please Forgive My Heart

Damon Albarn invited Bobby into the extended fold of Gorillaz for their album Plastic Beach, and his standout contribution was to share vocals with Mos Def on Stylo. The collaboration ultimately led to Bobby’s valedictory solo album with XL, The Bravest Man in the Universe. In Please Forgive My Heart, his life’s lessons and reflections just seem to pour out. My friend Dom and I saw him perform it live at the Forum in London at the end of 2012. I’m glad we were there to say farewell.

Contributor

Paul Simon

The GuardianTramp

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