Giving Bobby Womack his due
1/2/2014, 1:41 p.m.
It’s crazy to actually see change come to fruition right before our eyes. Speculating on the effects the changes will have is even crazier. In this case, I’m speaking about the gentrification phenomenon. Can you imagine if one of the realest songs ever penned were recorded in today’s Harlem? It might have a whole new texture. Violins will provide the backdrop to a glee club crooning in unison:
“Across 110th Street, police corruption is obsolete
“Across 110th Street, we can find a quaint place to go eat
“Across 110th Street, you’ll find no litter on the concrete
Across 110th Street, living amongst New York City’s elite”
Yuck! In the year 1972, Harlem was nothing nice—and that’s putting it mildly, from what I hear. The chaos and angst from that era was captured with a grit and passion that connected nationally in the form of the Top 20 Billboard single “Across 110th Street” by Bobby Womack.
During a little research session on the song and the era, I discovered a clip featuring Womack being interviewed by then brother-in-law and host of the “hippest trip in America,” “Soul Train,” Don Cornelius. Womack was asked what it was like to wear the hats of singer, songwriter and producer of his then burgeoning litany of hits. He replied, “It’s like being free … just to open up and express yourself is a beautiful feeling. It’s no confusion at all because I know what I want to do, and I can do it better than telling somebody else how to do it.”
Despite a few major acknowledgements (Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction and the consequential tribute album, Calvin Richardson’s Grammy-nominated “Facts of Life: The Soul of Bobby Womack”), the works of Womack had been virtually buried for at least a decade. In 2010, however, a momentous change occurred in the form of a musical project from the United Kingdom called Gorillaz. For the virtual band’s third album, “Plastic Beach,” Womack was featured as a lyricist and singer for the album’s lead single, “Stylo,” featuring Mos Def. Womack was given carte blanche as a creator during the recording and told Q magazine, “I was in there for an hour going crazy about love and politics, getting it off my chest.” The album went gold and platinum in several European countries, which led Womack to a recording contract with the London-based XL Recordings and his latest project, “The Bravest Man in the Universe.”
All this led to a night in December at the City Winery as Womack, adorned in a red leather suit, looked and sounded the part of just what he is—one of the last bad mutha—shut-yo-mouths left standing. Playing in New York for one of the first times in nearly a decade, Womack, with a full on band in tow, executed a lesson in what soul music is and does. It’s not about hit records, it’s about connecting. If it just so happens that if your hits do connect, then all the better.
That’s the difference between a night of nostalgic oldies from a star of a certain decade and a night of “church” from a true icon. So when he sings the lyrics, “You don’t know what you’ll do until you’re put under pressure/Across 110th Street is a hell of a tester,” a few of us still relate, unfortunately. The roller-coaster ride of relationships divided the room, with a few hands devilishly raised in praise of “I Wish He Didn’t Trust Me So Much,” the tough love of “That’s the Way I Feel About Cha” or “If You Think You’re Lonely Now” and the final plateau of “Love Has Finally Come at Last” and “(No Matter How High I Get) I’ll Still Be Looking Up to You.”
The highlight of the night was the tribute to his former mentor Sam Cooke. “A Change is Gonna Come” is truly a work of art in and of itself, and Womack’s duet with his daughter Gina was a perfect way of saying, “I made it, my man.”
Few connected better than Womack then and now.
Over and out, just like 2013! Holla next week. Till then, enjoy the nightlife.