The iconic pop culture image that will introduce many unfamiliar fans to the massive soul and undiluted ecstasy of Bobby Womack’s voice is Blaxploitation siren Pam Grier, as Jackie Brown in Quentin Tarantino’s movie of the same name, mouthing the words to Womack’s groove of heartbreak in the inner city, “Across 110th Street.”
A woman of flawless beauty, using her full, red lips to slowly emphasize Womack’s impassioned plea for peace in the war on the streets, is, because of the endurance of film, what many Womack neophytes will envision when they read the legendary soul singer’s name in obituaries, or hear it in television broadcasts announcing his death.
It is also a perfect metaphor for the power of Womack’s lyrical and melodic presentation of life, love, and loving. Unlike rap and unlike rock ‘n’ roll, but very much like the tradition of soul that formed Womack in the womb of musical greatness, his sexual testimony is one of mutual pleasure. It is an expression of masculinity that gains lasting, body-aching, and spirit-raising pleasure only if the man is comfortable and confident in the assuredness of giving a woman pleasure.
Womack—a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee originally hailing from Cleveland—died at the age of 70 from complications of Alzheimer’s. He did so after singing for a lifetime in the style of Otis Redding, James Brown, and Wilson Pickett—men who shouted with the gravel of the dirt road, the primal scream firing from the loins and the gut, and the spiritual joy of gospel deliverance.
His greatest influence was, undoubtedly, one of the original soul masters, Sam Cooke, who mentored him. The relationship led to a scandalous affair between Womack and Cooke’s young widow—an affair that would end long before the mark of Cooke’s passion would wear off Womack’s vocal chords.
Womack took Cooke’s gospel-style shouting, removed some of the sweetness, and injected a little more grit, to score dozens of hits, including “It’s All Over Now,” which the Rolling Stones covered to gain their first number one hit in the United Kingdom.
Daryl Hall (of Hall & Oates) recently told me in an interview: “Soul is not a style. It’s life. A lot of people think they are soul singers when all they’re doing is copying a style. You have to breathe it and live it.”
The life of Bobby Womack took him through many triumphs and tragedies, full of broken bones and hearts, where many of the worst wounds were self-inflicted. But the one consistency was his passion. His soul life never ended when other parts of his life came crashing down around him. Womack lost two children—one to suicide and one to an accident—and his response was to lose himself, burying the torment of his loneliness in a mountain of cocaine. While under the haze of addiction, Womack behaved cruelly toward several women, verbally and physically abusing wives and girlfriends. Sobriety brought a new, kinder, and gentler Womack, who often expressed remorse and regret over his past offenses. It also brought new health problems, including cancer and the condition he would spend his final days fighting: Alzheimer’s.
Bruce Springsteen is fond of reminding his listeners to “trust the art, not the artist.” Regardless of what happened off-record during Womack’s career, what happened on-record was a beautiful celebration of sexual and romantic reciprocity; the commitment to mutual pleasure now suffering serious neglect in pop music, most especially R&B’s rebellious child, hip hop.
Rappers express their libidinous desires in the boring, one-note language of conquest. They issue commands, make demands, and announce their intentions with the certainty and authority of a military general. The woman’s wish for participation is irrelevant, and the pleasure she might gain from the experience, even less important—a non-factor not worthy of consideration. The much-maligned terminology of addressing women in rap— “bitch”, “ho”—only reinforces its narrow vision of sexuality. It is the myopic and solipsistic vantage point of the crotch.
Rock ‘n’ roll, while often more playful in its articulation of lascivious fun, is also too often the soundtrack of a one-way sexual transaction. The man enters a world of carnal delight where the woman’s role is of a submissive and unfeeling usher.
Soul music, especially in the high moments of Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On,” Aretha Franklin’s “Do Right Man,” and Sylvester’s “You Make Me Feel Mighty Real,” is out for physical release and orgasmic triumph, much like rap and rock, but it also wants to guarantee that the partner benefits equally from the exchange of skin on skin.
Bobby Womack was one of the greatest exemplars of the mutual pleasure program of soul music. In “That’s The Way I Feel About ‘Cha,” Womack’s voice moves from tender to tough in a testimony of devotion for a woman who’s pushing his love too far. “Please, please answer baby if I ever come knocking at your door / Cause what’s out there knocking, baby / The world don’t give enough of,” Womack howls and moans, making a promise of sexual sanctuary for the object of his affection.
Shirley Brown and Bobby Womack scorch the speakers in their duet of sexual energy, reaching the simultaneous climax of Brown and Womack shouting, “We come together in the heat of the night.” The keyword of the double entendre is “together,” and the passion in Brown and Womack’s mutual cry makes clear that without harmony, there isn’t much to the song, or much to the sex that the song celebrates.
The anthem of Womack’s career—often audible in stepper clubs—is “Woman’s Gotta Have It.” Singing advice for lost men everywhere, Womack as a teacher is delicate as a whispering librarian and as ferocious as a roaring lion. Beginning with the sweet words, “Do the things that put a smile on her face,” the song is the apotheosis of Womack’s give-and-take, ebb-and-flow rhythm of sexuality. To create music, two players must play in sync together, allowing each other the freedom to enjoy what they are doing, and for the notes, chords, and parts to fully wrap themselves around each other.
“A woman’s gotta have it / You got to give it to her / She’s got to know that she’s needed around / When you kiss her / You gotta make her feel it / She’s gotta know that she’s not walking on shaky ground,” Womack screams as a soulful sage in the chorus. “You gotta give her what she wants when she wants it,” he whispers a few moments later.
“Woman’s Gotta Have It” is sexuality at its most powerful and enjoyable, because it breaks the ancient taboo of acting as if women can’t enjoy what happens in between the sheets as much as the men. With the uncompromising sexual politics of the crotch, men—no matter how promiscuous or unconventional—reaffirm the taboo, simply by refusing to acknowledge that women’s pleasure exists. In “Woman’s Gotta Have It,” or the tender ballad “If You Can’t Give Her Love, Give Her Up,” Womack bears witness— through the grace of melody and the strength of shouting in key—that women’s pleasure is not only something that exists, but something a real man should strive to create.
Whether or not her apocalyptic hand-wringing over “hookup culture” is reasonable, Donna Freitas in her book, The End of Sex, demonstrates after years of surveys and studies that most college students are dissatisfied with their sex lives. The dissatisfaction likely does not result from promiscuity, but from a lack of understanding of intimacy. Pop culture—through pornography and rap—is presenting a narrow vision of sexuality. Revisiting the soul music of Womack is a good first step to rescuing the reciprocity necessary for real intimacy.
The southern soul singer Theodis Ealey offers an explicit take on the sexual advice school of R&B crooning. In his hit, “Stand Up In It,” he instructs that the physical pleasure of women is of equal importance to any other service a man thinks he can provide. As the song fades out, Ealey concludes, “And you know what Bobby Womack said / A woman’s gotta have it / He was right.”
Now and forever.