This review contains mentions of sexual assault.
Bobby Womack’s music would have been a soothing ointment for the year we all lived, forced to be apart from loved ones and giving eulogies while thousands of miles from the final resting place. But it’s become harder to listen to Bobby Womack. His ministry of love, with its testimonial delivery carried by a gravel tone that’s one-part rock star, one-part blues-bar regular, has taken a darker pallor through the decades.
In 1981, he released The Poet, a beautiful interrogation of love, lovemaking, desire, and despair. Three years later, he would release The Poet II, completing his dual dissertation of the one emotion we can’t live without but have never been quite able to figure out. With his star finally reaching the heights that had eluded him, stories of alleged sexual assault fell to the wayside or became salacious industry gossip rehashed only to outline that Womack was wild. Hardly ever was it to inquire on the welfare of the women involved, particularly Barbara Womack, the musician’s wife, who’d been previously married to soul legend and Womack’s mentor Sam Cooke.
In 1964, after Cooke was shot, Womack married the still-grieving widow and took in Cooke’s 11-year-old daughter, Linda. Five years later, Barbara would catch him in bed with his now 17-year old stepdaughter. Recalling that moment, Bobby said, “I’m lying there kissing Linda and the light comes on—‘You dirty fucking bastard. What are you doing with my daughter?’ It was Barbara.” Numerous publications called it an affair, Bobby escaped with a bullet graze, and Barbara packed up her bags and left. “If You Think You’re Lonely Now,” a standout track from The Poet, has brought millions of listeners to the pinnacle of romantic bliss tinged with regret. But listening to it—a perennial favorite—compels me again to consider what it means to examine the brutal histories of men. What do we do with the deeply personal emotions brought to the surface by work that allowed us to cry and encouraged us to love?
On a scale of artistic inventiveness and an engagement with violence against women, the former has borne greater importance when it comes to taking stock of a public figure’s legacy. Marking the 40th anniversary since its release, The Poet will soon be reissued accompanied by The Poet II, and both are notable for putting Womack on the map in a definitive way. In the ’60s and ’70s heyday of soul’s reinvention, with a little help from R&B, it was no secret that Womack had a musical gift, having supported acts such as Aretha Franklin and the Rolling Stones both vocally and with his gold-churning pen. But true fame never quite lasted, and someone else’s light always seemed to burn a little brighter. That is, until 1981. In less than 40 minutes on The Poet, Womack delivers beautiful range, both in his lyrics and melodies. “Lay Your Lovin’ On Me,” “Stand Up,” and “So Many Sides of You” are funky, disco-inflected jams perfect for the roller rink with friends and the one you could love. The latter could seamlessly blend as a more mature pop hit, written by Womack alongside Jim Ford, a prolific songwriter who knew how to meld emerging genres with the standard forms that still brought fans to the record store.
Six years before the album’s release, Womack’s brother Harry was stabbed to death by his girlfriend, and it’s that life-shifting loss that bleeds through “Just My Imagination.” While the lyrics speak of romantic love, the melody is somber and funereal, the chorus almost gospel-like in its acknowledgment of incomparable grief. The sadness feels like one you can’t quite come out and say, so you use a lesser tragedy to address the one that’s too painful to share out loud. It’s a tender projection of the shades of grief: the memories of joy, the waves of loss, the stages of healing.
“Secrets” sneaks up on you. It’s a ballad dedicated to an alluring lover and filled with the familiar labels of “mystery” when the answer is usually more straightforward: sensuality and sex come when you feel safe. This idea has evaded even the best of music’s crooners, content to chalk it up to an inexplicable cause. The song made me think of Barbara and how she might have felt around Bobby as his intentions for her welfare and her daughter changed. When she left, Linda married Bobby’s brother Cecil and wrote several songs for Bobby, including “I Wish I Had Someone to Go Home To,” from The Poet II. A successful singer-songwriter in her own right, Linda never addressed that experience with Bobby, its impact on her relationship with her mother, or the ensuing years that found her collaborating with someone who had most likely taken advantage of her when she was still a teenager.
It’s the women who shine on the second album; Linda’s pen and the Godmother of Soul, Patti LaBelle, who is an effervescent presence on “Love Has Finally Come At Last” and “Through the Eyes of a Child.” Her appearance on the former arguably led to Bobby receiving his first top-10 R&B hit since 1981. LaBelle was ascending as a solo star in 1984, and Womack hitched a ride. In a 1996 interview, LaBelle recounted in painstaking detail being sexually assaulted by her mother’s boyfriend when she was 12, and again by singer Jackie Wilson and his assistant at a Brooklyn theater in the early ’60s. “It was like my schoolteacher or somebody, someone you look up to is trying to take advantage of you,” she said. “I was saying, I can’t believe this is Jackie Wilson.”
Linda Womack and Patti LaBelle are two women who experienced sexual violence in their lives. While they were able to heal and move forward, one can only imagine what we would have lost had their voices been silenced by the men who harmed them. “Where Do We Go From Here” is the final song on The Poet, and in more ways than one, that is the question, isn’t it? What do we do with Bobby Womack and his music? Not because of “cancel culture,” but because violence against women has been so normalized that acknowledgment and accountability are seen as solely punitive moves to discard a person and their contributions instead of protecting future generations.
The Poet and The Poet II are good albums that exist because opportunity and space were made for them. It’s their range that illustrates our capacity to exist alongside multiple truths, possessing the emotional bandwidth to address each with the required amount of compassion and care. Womack was an impressive artist. His music touched millions of souls. We should have the ability to listen and hear the women the same way we listen to ourselves. The inner conflict can be private, but the listening should be public and universal.
Buy: The Poet / The Poet II
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