The greatest songs in the universe: five of the best from Bobby Womack

Absolute Radio 60s DJ and soul music aficionado Pete Mitchell counts down his top five Bobby Womack tracks - and Damon Albarn talks about persuading Bobby out of retirement

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The greatest songs in the universe: five of the best from Bobby Womack
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Pete Mitchell

As Sony Award-winning DJ Pete Mitchell talks to Bobby Womack and Damon Albarn about Bobby's career and critically acclaimed comeback (Bravest Man in the Universe: the Bobby Womack Story, 6pm Sunday Absolute Radio 60s), he picks out five defining Womack tracks.

Across 110th Street

From the soundtrack of the 1973 crime drama film of the same name starring Anthony Quinn, this gritty, heartfelt song about everyday life in the ghetto was written and completed at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, in just two weeks, which is remarkable. From the era of the “blaxploitation” movie, it followed in the footsteps of Shaft, Trouble Man and Superfly, and matches them for dramatic and cinematic quality. Accompanied by searing orchestration by JJ Johnson with hard-hitting lyrics and music by Womack that truly reflect the drug-infested poverty-stricken streets of Harlem, you can tell Bobby has lived this life.    


The Bravest Man in the Universe

The title track from his 2012 comeback album after quitting the music business in 1994 through debt and drug addiction. After the persistence of Damon Albarn, who managed to coax Bobby out of retirement to work on his 2010 Gorillaz album, Plastic Beach, he returned to work on his first solo album in 20 years. Produced by Damon and XL Records boss Richard Russell, his new work has been described as one of the greatest comeback albums of all time. The track had been written by Bobby for Isaac Hayes and the Memphis Horns but was never completed and lay dormant for decades until Damon heard the song prior to recording the album.  At Albarn’s insistence, it became the title track. A killer comeback.


Hear Pete talking to Damon Albarn about persuading Bobby to come out of retirement


I Can Understand It

From the Understanding album of 1972, this was a top 10 hit for New Birth in 1973. Coming in at just under seven minutes long, this tribal-influenced tune has a touch of the native American about its rhythm, which is punctuated with a blistering soulful vocal, all underscored with Bobby's underrated guitar playing. Towards the end of the track it breaks out into a jam with Bobby riffing vocally in a James Brown-style and calling out “I wonder if you would all mind if I played my guitar for just a few more bars”. He then rips into a fuzz tone lead line outro which is blissful.


 What Is This

What this is, is Bobby's first solo hit from 1968 and the first illustration of how good his heavy gritty rhythmic guitar playing really is. He had played on sessions with Aretha Franklin, Joe Tex, Sam Cooke and Wilson Pickett by this stage and was developing as a songwriter, eventually penning songs for Wilson Pickett, George Benson and Janice Joplin among others. Although this was his first solo introduction, he would have to wait until the early 70s to see real success.


It's All Over Now [with the Valentinos]

Written by Bobby and Shirley Womack, this was originally recorded by the five Womack Brothers under the name of the Valentinos in 1964, and featured Bobby on lead vocals. It had the potential to be the group’s first big hit until the Rolling Stones heard it and covered it in the same year, giving them their first number one. Womack was furious — until he received his first royalty cheque for the million-selling single. Bobby went on to become good friends with the Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood and admires the group greatly.  


Hear Bobby discussing the making of It's All Over Now

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