For over thirty years, I have loved soul music. Growing up, it was one of my favorite genres of music. Since then, it has been a life long love affair. Over the years, I’ve collected music by numerous artists, groups and on certain labels. Some of my favorites have been Bobby Bland, Esther Phillips, Al Green, Otis Clay, Marvin Gaye, OV Wright and Minnie Riperton. Among my favorite labels have been Stax, Chess, Hi and Atlantic, which together, produced some of the most important, memorable and influential soul music ever. One artist I haven’t mentioned, but who has long been a favorite, is Bobby Womack. He was one of the first soul singers I ever heard, and his music was hugely influential on me. Before the introduction of compact discs, I had every one of his albums on import. Stupidly, after replacing them with CDs, I sold them. Not a good idea. Now, they’re probably worth a lot of money, and as everyone knows, nothing produces such a lovely, warm sound as vinyl. However, I can’t turn back the clock, it’s just a lesson to us all, never sell your beloved vinyl. Anyway, when I first started listening to Bobby Womack’s music, one of his albums I always loved was Understanding, released in 1972. In this article, I’ll look back nearly forty years, at one of Bobby Womack’s greatest albums, Understanding.
Back in 1972, Bobby Womack was a successful solo artist, after many years working with either his family group The Valentinos, or as a session musician. Since 1968, he’d released three solo albums, Fly Me To the Moon in 1968, My Prescription in 1969 and Communication in 1971. His previous album Communication, was his first for his new record label United Artists. Before that, he’d been contracted to the Minit record label.
In 1972, he was due to deliver a new album to United Artists. So, in 1972, he started recording the tracks for what would become Understanding. To record his new album, he headed to the American Sound Studio in Memphis, and Muscle Shoals in Alabama. When he reached Muscle Shoals, he set about assembling some of the best session musicians of the time. This included, drummer Roger Hawkins, bass played David Hook, keyboard player Barry Beckett and guitarists Tippy Armstrong and Jimmy Johnson.
One other guest artist would contribute to the album, the maverick genius that is Sly Stone. Bobby Womack had played guitar on There’s A Riot Goin’ On. Sly and Bobby had taken to hanging out together in LA, whilst Sly was waiting to record his next album, which would be There’s A Riot Goin’ On. The pair met when after Sly had purchased a mansion in Bel Air Road, which previously belonged to John and Michelle Phillips, of the Mamas and Pappas.
It was whilst recording a Sly Stone session that Harry Hippie, one of the singles from the album, came about. Jim Ford, a singer and songwriter had happened to be at the Sly Stone session and had an idea for a song. Together, Ford and Bobby worked on the track, and eventually, Harry Hippie took shape. It was a tribute to Bobby’s brother Harry, who like in the song, lives a laid back and carefree life. Sadly, in 1973, the song became hugely poignant for Bobby when Harry was murdered by his girlfriend with whom he’d liked for five years. Harry Hippy became a huge hit for Bobby in 1973, reaching number eight on the R&B Charts. It also gave Bobby his first gold single.
When Understanding was released in 1973, it reached number seven in the Billboard R&B Charts and number forty-three in the Billboard US Pop Charts. Woman’s Gotta Have It, the first single taken from the album gave Bobby his first number one on the Billboard R&B Charts. Add to this, the later success of Harry Hippie as a single, and Bobby Womack’s career was definitely in the ascendency. 1972 certainly proved to be a good year for Bobby, further cementing his reputation as a successful solo artist.
Understanding opens with I Can Understand It, a song Bobby wrote himself. It’s also one of the best songs on the album. This is apparent from the opening bars played by the guitar, and when Bobby half-sings, half speaks the introduction. After that, the track chugs along a mixture drums, keyboards, guitars and Bobby’s brilliant vocal. For much of the song it’s a mixture of strong and raspy, soaring high, full of character. Accompanying him, are backing vocalists which are the perfect foil to his vocal. Their voices compliment his vocal beautifully. Behind him, the arrangement is full, drums drive the arrangement along, guitars scream and soar, as Bobby sometimes growls. A bass and keyboards play, the keyboard accompanying Bobby’s soaring, growling vocal. Rounding off this brilliant track are some great lyrics, where Bobby sings about a problematic relationship. They’re a mixture of serious, sadness, irony and humor. These great lyrics, combined with a brilliant performance from Bobby and his band, make this a truly brilliant track.
Woman’s Gotta Have It is a song that gave Bobby a number one single in the R&B Charts. He cowrote it with Darryl Carter and Linda Cooke Womack, daughter of the late Sam Cooke. They wrote the song to warn a man who was taking his wife for granted. Here, the track has a wonderful arrangement, one of the highlights being Mike Leech’s bass playing. The personnel used on the track includes some great musicians, including, organist Bobby Emmons, guitarist Reggie Young, Hayward Bishop on drums and percussion and Bobby Wood on piano. An organ plays at the start of the track, its sound setting the scene and atmosphere. Again, Bobby half-sings, half speaks the introduction, accompanied by Mike Leech’s bass. This plods along, dark and moody, as guitars, drums and percussion combine. Meanwhile, Bobby gives some advice about keeping a woman happy. Not only does Bobby provide a brilliant track, but marital advice is given free. His vocal is passionate, as it soars, and he veers between snarls and a much softer vocal. In the background, the arrangement surrounds Bobby, yet never overpowers his vocal. Although everyone contributes towards the track’s success, Bobby’s vocal and Mike Leech on bass, are the stars of this great track.
The next track sees Bobby cover And I Love Her, a track made famous by The Beatles, and written by Lennon and McCartney. This was on one of their earlier albums A Hard Day’s Night. Bobby’s version is slow and tender, beginning with a guitar playing, and he half-sings, half speaks the introduction. After that, he takes care with the vocal, singing it slowly, tenderness being the order of the day. Mostly he resists the temptation to let loose. Around him, the arrangement has a lushness. A guitar plays a solo, strings play and drums just keep time. It’s a lovely version of this song, with Bobby producing a beautiful, sympathetic cover version.Bobby’s voice soars at the start of Got To Get You Back, he’s protesting, saddened asking why his lover has to go. Meanwhile, slowly, the band are starting to play. Guitars, drums and keyboards join Bobby, who by now, is almost frantic. His voice is loud, he sings fast, rasping and growling powerfully with frustration. The effect is stunning, demonstrating Bobby’s talents as vocalist. The as if spent out, he slows things down. Likewise the arrangement is more subtle. Now Bobby is calmer, singing the song slower, much more restrained, though sometimes he cuts loose, screaming and snarling. Behind him, the band play really well. A combination of guitar, drums, saxophone and backing singers accompany him. Overall, Bobby’s passionate performance and a great arrangement, produce another great track.
When you hear the start of Simple Man, guitars play in the distance, a bass buzzes. Straight away, you can’t wait for the song to open out. Thankfully, it quickly does, Bobby sings, accompanying him are drums and guitar, setting the pace. In the background, that bass buzzes, a trumpet plays and a guitar solos, it screams brilliantly. By now Bobby’s found his feet, and his vocal veers between restrained then soars, snarling, screaming. Later he whoops and hollers. All the while, the arrangement is growing, keyboards filling out the sound, a glimpse of symphonic sound appears. Guitars and drums are ever present. In some ways, Simple Man sounds like a prototype for the future Blaxploitation music, that would become extremely popular. However, Simple Man was a fantastic example of music that was still to become popular.
Over the years, Bobby Womack has recorded a variety of styles of music, including a country and western album BW Goes CW. The next track, Ruby Dean has a country sound and feel. It’s totally unlike any other track on Understanding. It opens with Bobby accompanied by an acoustic guitar playing. As he sings emotionally, strings sweep behind him. When they depart, the arrangement has a much more country feel, with guitars, drums and harmonica playing. Bobby’s vocal is much more restrained, as he sings the lyrics, which are tinged with sadness, about a mother who neglects her child, and goes looking for “love” elsewhere. Although totally unlike the other tracks on the album, Bobby sings the song really well, and his more restrained performance brings out the best in the song.
A brass section plays at the start of Thing Called Love, giving the song a dramatic sound and feel. A guitar accompanies the brass section chiming brightly, as Bobby sings. His voice starts much quieter, slowly it get stronger. During the track, it’s this mixture of a quieter style, then stronger and louder. Behind him backing singers accompany him, the brass section punctuate the track, and guitar and drums complete the sound. This is one of the best arrangements on Understanding. Given Bobby’s use of such talented musicians, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. On this track, Bobby gives one of his best performances on the album. Here he’s soulful with a capital S, giving a passionate and dramatic performance.
On this album, Bobby covers two well known songs. The first was The Beatles’ And I Love Her, the other is Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline (Good Times Never Seemed As Good). Bobby’s version is very different to Diamond’s. Of the two versions, I prefer Bobby’s, it’s got much more soul in it. He brings the song to life. It begins with guitar and piano playing. When Bobby sings, his voice is strong and clear, he sings slowly, accompanied by strings, guitar, drums and piano. By now Bobby is really injecting life into the song, transforming it. Likewise the fuller arrangement suits the song, especially the addition of strings sweeping in the background. Drums play an important part highlighting parts of the song. Overall, it’s a brilliant version of this song, and for me, Bobby’s version is the definitive version.
Harry Hippie the song that pays tribute to Bobby’s late brother Harry, closes the album. It’s as if Bobby has kept the best song until the end of the album. Not only is it the highlight of Understanding, but one of the best songs Bobby has ever recorded. When the song starts, a keyboard plays, then Bobby sings slowly, accompanied by a guitar playing. Backing singers accompany him. Bobby’s sings the song brilliantly, taking care with the lyrics, his voice is clear and strong, his phrasing perfect. Behind him, strings play, slowly, drums keep the time. However, it’s Bobby’s vocal and some heartfelt and beautiful lyrics about his brother that make the song. Since the first time I heard the song I’ve loved it, and over thirty years later, it still remains one of my favorite songs.
This isn’t the first time I’ve written about Bobby Womack, previously, I wrote about his album The Poet II. In that article, I wrote about Bobby’s career, from his days with The Valentinos, until present day. After I’d written that article, I felt that it was only fair to write another article on one of his classic albums. That’s why I’ve written this article, that and to tell more people about Bobby’s brilliant music. Understanding was one of his best albums, but during his career, he has produced many great albums. His most popular period was between 1968 and 1975. By 1976, his music had fallen out of favor. No longer was his type of music popular. For a long time, his music failed to trouble the upper reaches of the US Charts. All this changed in 1981 when he released The Poet. It provided Bobby with a number one in the Billboard R&B Charts. Its follow-up The Poet II, reached number five in the Billboard R&B Charts, as did 1985’s So Many Rivers. Since then, his music hasn’t been as popular, and he hasn’t released a studio album since 2000. However, during his career he has released over twenty studio albums, of which Understanding is one of the best. If you’ve never heard Bobby’s music and don’t know what to buy, my advice is from his early period Understanding and Communication are two great albums. They’re available on one CD on the Stateside label, part of EMI. From his later period I’d recommend The Poet and The Poet II, both of which are fantastic albums. Should you just want a compilation album, my advice would be Midnight Mover, The Bobby Womack Collection, a two disc set which features all his early music. Regardless of which you choose, you’ll hear some brilliant soul music. Standout Tracks: I Can Understand It, Woman’s Gotta Have It, Thing Called Love and Harry Hippie.