Recently, I was reading an article about Bobby Womack collaborating with Damon Albarn for Bobby’s forthcoming album The Bravest Man In the Universe. Bobby had chosen Damon to produce his new album, which will be his first secular album since 1994s Soul Seduction Supreme, a stunning live set. Since then, Bobby hasn’t produced much in the way of music, just the occasional gospel album. Now you may be wondering how the former Blur frontman became involved with Bobby Womack, after all their music is very different. Well, that may be the case, but Damon and Bobby having previously collaborated, on Gorillaz’s 2010 album Plastic Beach. On that album Bobby provided the vocals for two of the tracks. That’s where the connection came about. Now having read that article, I decided to revisit some of Bobby’s earlier music, and what was just his third solo album 1971s Communication.
Communication was released in September 1971, and was Bobby’s third solo album. His two previous album had been 1968s Fly Me To the Moon released on Minit Records, which reached number 174 in the US Billboard 200 and number thirty-four in the US R&B Charts. Like his debut album, My Prescription was released in 1969, on Minit and reached number forty-four in the US R&B Charts.
However, by the time Bobby came to release Communication in 1971, he was now signed to a major label, United Artists. Recording of Communication took place earlier in 1971, with eight tracks being recorded with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, who played on so many great albums backing Bobby. They were a combination of cover versions and three original tracks, written or co-written by Bobby. One of these was That’s the Way I Feel About Cha, co-written by Bobby with Jimmy Grisby and Joe Hicks. It was chosen as one of the two singles released from the album. The first was the title-track Communication, which reached number forty in the US R&B Charts. When That’s the Way I Feel About Cha was released, it fared much better, reaching number twenty-seven in the US Billboard 100 and number two in the US R&B Charts. On the album’s release, it reached number eighty-three in the US Billboard 200 and number seven in the US R&B Charts, much better than his two previous albums. It seemed that life on a major label suited Bobby Womack, with a top ten US R&B single and album under his belt. However, what did his major label debut Communication, sound like? Was this classic Bobby Womack? That’s what I’ll now tell you.
Communication opens with the title track Communication, one of the singles released from the album and a track written by Bobby himself. It’s a slow and dramatic opening with searing guitars, rhythm section and rasping horns giving way to Bobby’s holler, then vocal. With his backing vocalists and blazing horns, Bobby sings and roars his way through the song, almost preaching, against a backdrop of chiming guitars, punchy drums and horns. Later, a wailing Hammond organ enters, adding to the atmospheric arrangement, as Bobby delivers his lyrics with a combination of emotion and passion.
There’s a much more uptempo and uplifting sound on Come L’Amore. written by Bob Hilliard and Leon Ware. This sees Bobby accompanied by sweeping strings, rhythm section and searing guitars, while female backing vocalists gently accompany him. Later, horns punctuate the arrangement, adding just the finishing touch to a hook laden, catchy arrangement, on this beautiful track, which is one of the album’s highlights.
On Communication Bobby covers five tracks, with one of them, a lovely thoughtful cover of James Taylor’s Fire and Rain. It’s a very different version from the orginal, with guitars giving way to a short monologue from Bobby, before he thoughtfully and tenderly delivers the lyrics against a backdrop of rhythm section, organ and chiming guitars. With backing vocalists accompanying Bobby during the track, in almost a call and response style, this works well and is really effective. Later, the arrangement grows slightly, becoming slightly more dramatic, with bursts of swirling strings joining the rhythm section, guitar and organ combo. Similarly, Bobby’s style grows more powerful, and becomes a bit more dramatic as the song progresses. As the song closes, I realize that this is a quite beautiful and brilliant cover of James Taylor’s songs, adding something that was lacking….soul.
Probably one of the best known and best tracks on Communication is the final song on side one, (If You Don’t Want My Love) Give It Back. It’s only rival for than honor is That’s the Way I Feel About Cha. However, this is an irresistible slice of the finest soul from Bobby, with one of his best vocals on Communication. Set against an excellent hooky arrangement with chiming guitars, atmospheric Hammond organ and driving, punchy rhythm section, Bobby tenderly sings, then hollers his way through the track. With female backing vocalists Patrice Holloway, Pam Grier and Janice Singleton accompanying him, Bobby pleas with his lover to give his love back, “to set him free and get out of his life.” These heartfelt and emotive pleas are sung against one the best and catchiest arrangements on the album and are vintage Bobby Womack.
Side two of Communication opens with a medley where a spoken word monologue is sung against a meandering arrangement, where chiming shimmering guitars and rhythm section combine, before giving way to a version of They Long To Be Close To You, written by Bacharach and David. With strings sweeping in, their lush sound combining beautifully with Bobby’s tender vocal, chiming guitars and rasping horns. Bobby’s version of Bacharach and David’s classic is gorgeous, with the lushest of strings, combining perfectly with gently rasping horns and shimmering guitars, as he delivers the lyrics thoughtfully and carefully. His phrasing is perfect, as he adds emotion and passion, his voice growing in strength and power as the songs heads to the finish, with backing vocalists accompanying him. Although this song has been recorded by many people, how many people will have given such a gorgeous, passionate and thoughtful rendition of the track?
From Bacharach and David to a song previously recorded by Ray Charles, Everything Is Beautiful. Bobby doesn’t try to copy Ray’s seminal version, instead, delivering the song in his own unique way. With an organ, driving rhythm section, lush strings and rasping horns, augmented by backing vocalists, the track swings along beautifully, the arrangement having a real gospel feel to it. The song is suited to Bobby’s husky, rasping vocal, and he throws himself into the track, wanting to record a fitting follow-up to Ray Charles’ version. This he does, delivering the song with aplomb, combining passion and power perfectly.
That’s the Way I Feel About Cha is the track that vies for the title of Communication’s best track with (If You Don’t Want My Love) Give It Back. It’s a close call, these two great tracks running the other close. Co-written by Jimmy Grisby and Joe Hicks with Bobby, the track meanders into life, with Bobby’s half-spoken vocal accompanied by searing, soaring chiming guitars and the rhythm section. With strings sweeping in, Bobby gives a heartfelt and emotional delivery of the lyrics, while the rhythm section play thoughtfully and subtly. Almost ever-present are the chiming guitars, which add to the track’s sound. As the track progresses, Bobby’s voice becomes stronger and louder, with backing vocalists and an organ entering. By now, the arrangement has grown, and so does the emotion and drama thanks to Bobby’s heartfelt delivery of the lyrics.
Communication closes with a traditional gospel song, Yield Not To temptation. This takes Bobby back to his gospel roots, and he sings the song with a tenderness, accompanied by his trio of female backing vocalists, while the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section and an organ combine to produce a lovely understated arrangement that’s perfect for the track. Although very different to the rest of the album, it’s still a very beautiful track and a thoughtful way to close the album.
Although this was Bobby’s third album, Communication was Bobby’s debut for a major label, United Artists. On Communication, Bobby was backed by some of the best musicians of that era, the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. With such talented musicians accompanying him, it’s no wonder that the album sounds so good. Of the eight songs on the album, five covers and three original tracks there’s not one weak track. Even cover versions of tracks ranging from James Taylor’s Fire and Rain, Bacharach and David’s (They Long To Be) Close To You and Everything Is Beautiful, written by Ray Stevens and made famous by Ray Charles, Bobby Womack gives each song his own unique twist, interpreting each thoughtfully and with the requisite combination of emotion, passion and if required, power. Not only did Bobby play guitar, organ and arranged the strings, but he also produced the album. This was a brave decision given it was his major label debut. However, his gamble payed off, resulting in a top ten US R&B album and single. Since then, Communication is regarded as one of Bobby’s best albums. This is just one of many great albums that Bobby Womack has recorded during his long career, which will soon see a new addition The Bravest Man In the Universe, Bobby’s forthcoming album produced by Damon Albarn. If it’s anywhere near as good as Communication, then it’ll be a welcome addition to Bobby Womack’s back catalogue, which is brimming with quality waiting to be discovered. Standout Tracks: Come L’Amore, (If You Don’t Want My Love) Give It Back, They Long To Be Close To You and That’s the Way I Feel About Cha.