If you go back to his roots in a family gospel group Bobby Womack has spent nearly 60 of his 68 years singing before audiences. He possesses one of soul music’s great growling voices, which he has applied to dozens of songs over the years. The Rock & Roll Hall of Famer has had a puzzling career, having terrific success on the R&B charts (more than 30 charting hits) but not as much in the pop sphere, where he only charted four times — and not necessarily with his most enduring songs.
He’s written hits for others, and played guitar on some of the great recordings of the ’60s and ’70s. Womack has also endured his knocks, starting early in his career when he was shunned by the industry for marrying the widow of his mentor, Sam Cooke, just three months after Cooke was killed. If there’s a pained tone to his voice, he came by it the hard way. In addition to Cooke’s death, Womack’s brother and ex-Valentinos bandmate Harry was stabbed to death by his girlfriend in 1974. He’s also had to bury two sons, and struggled through a stout drug addiction.
Faith and anguish course through his voice, which retains its rich texture on the new “The Bravest Man in the Universe,” Womack’s first new recording in 13 years and his first set of secular songs in nearly 20. The album sprang from Womack’s involvement in Damon Albarn’s Gorillaz project, with Albarn and XL Records’ Richard Russell helping him make a record that sounds contemporary while touching on his distinguished past. It’s Womack’s best recording since “The Poet” back in 1981 and seems to be drawing renewed attention to a great soul musician whose cultural reach is far greater than the four pop hits he made in the 1970s. Here are just some of the places Bobby Womack has appeared in addition to his solo recordings — which between 1969 and 1975 were filled with some magnificent music.
1. Rolling Stones
The second American LP by England’s newest hitmakers included Womack’s “It’s All Over Now,” which was the band’s second charting single in the States. Womack also co-wrote songs, sang, played guitar and produced Stones’ guitarist Ron Wood’s 1975 album, “Now Look.” Wood and Keith Richards guested on Womack’s 1994 album “Resurrection.”
2. “Jackie Brown”
Womack’s “Across 110th Street” was used prominently in the opening and closing scenes of Quentin Tarantino’s 1997 film. Because “Jackie Brown” was Tarantino’s homage to old blaxploitation films it makes sense that it was the title track to the blaxploitation classic of the same name. Womack’s song hit the R&B charts, but didn’t cross over into pop. The 2007 film “American Gangster” also used the song.
3. Sam Cooke
Cooke was Womack’s mentor and boss. Womack played guitar for Cooke, who also brought the teenage phenom out to Los Angeles, where Womack and his brothers recorded for Cooke’s SAR Records as the Valentinos (their “Looking for a Love” would later be covered by the J. Geils Band). Shortly after Cooke was shot and killed in Los Angeles, Womack married his widow.
After Mos Def and Damon Albarn take vocal turns through “Stylo,” Womack’s voice cracks through the song’s casual groove. Womack also sings on “Cloud of Unknowing,” also from the 2010 album “Plastic Beach,” and toured with Albarn’s rotating collective.
5. Session work and songwriting
Aretha Franklin’s 1968 classic “Lady Soul” included some of her biggest hits ((“Chain of Fools” and “(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman”)). Eric Clapton, Joe South and Womack were among the guitarists who played on the record. Sly Stone enlisted Womack to play guitar on his band’s 1971 masterpiece, “There’s a Riot Goin’ On”. Womack is also pictured in the collage on the album sleeve. He also played with Dusty Springfield, Joe Tex and Ray Charles. Soul singer Wilson Pickett recorded more than 15 Womack-penned songs, including “I’m in Love,” “Jealous Love,” “I Found a True Love” and “I’m a Midnight Mover.” One of Womack’s best-known songs, “Mover,” hit No. 6 on the R&B charts and No. 24 on the pop charts in 1968. Janis Joplin recorded his “Trust Me.”
6. Pop songs
Womack could infuse seemingly square mainstream pop songs of all stripes with enormous soul. Among his notable covers: “Sweet Caroline,” “Fly Me to the Moon,” “California Dreamin’ ” and “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: Arena Theatre, 7326 Southwest Freeway
Tickets: $37.50; 713-772-5900 or www.arenahouston.com