Bobby Womack: The world’s most underrated R&B artist?

Is there another R&B artist who’s more slept on than Bobby Womack?I don’t want to take away from legendarily neglected greats like James Carr, Linda Jones, and O.V. Wright. But Womack is a triple threat: singer, songwriter, and guitarist extraordinaire. He’s been eligible for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame since 1993, and finally on Saturday night Womack got that much-deserved honor. But what took so long?

Womack started as a Sam Cooke protegee, gave the Rolling Stones an early hit, worked as a sideman for Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin, and played on Sly Stone’s There’s A Riot Goin’ On. And so his always-at-the-edges-of-history career has gotten a share of ink over the years, and was the dominant theme in Ron Wood’s induction speech Saturday. But as a great songwriter, he’s been given short shrift. He wrote a few albums’ worth of songs for Wilson Pickett, then did the arrangements on those albums, and you can even hear Womack’s vocal mannerisms intact (if a little more Wicked). He wrote the early-fuzak anthem "Breezin’," which George Benson turned into a monster hit, and as recently as last year had a song on the British charts, courtesy of Kelly Rowland’s "Daylight" cover. (Alas, that song also featured Gym Class Hero Travis McCoy, who is not on our short list for underrated soul men.)

As a singer, Womack is a natural successor to Cooke — there’s still the sound of the church, and a bounty of three-note melismas. But Womack’s deeper register and sometimes straining voice tap into a darkness that Cooke seldom reached for (and which would have never gotten radio play in the early 1960s, anyway.) There’s not a lot of video circulating of Womack in his late-60s and early-70s prime. On the other hand, he’s still pretty great, as evidenced by the below clip of stripped-down renditions of "California Dreamin’" and "Across 110th Street."

Now, to be fair, he is getting recognition. And he has moved some records over the years. So, yes, I do have in mind one person (Jerry "Swamp Dogg" Williams — more on him in the future) who might be even more underrated than the great Bobby Womack. Do you have any contenders?

 

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