The third soul

Reading Nick Kent’s memoirs of his misspent 1970s as an ascendant music journalist (and hell-descending drug addict), I was struck by his simultaneous joy and horror at having helped give birth to punk. ‘Kenty’ is at great pains to point out that America didn’t ‘get’ punk, possibly because its only exponent of the genre was the too-weird Ramones.

Instead, America in the 1970s was gripped by a fever for funk and soul, kick-started by Sam Cooke in the 1960s and really set in motion by the 1969 release of Isaac Hayes’ Hot Buttered Soul (about which I waxed converted here). Kent is an inconsistent music aficionado: he extols the sophistication of Steely Dan but loathes the Eagles; he revels in the psychedelic wanderings of Hawkwind but finds the seminal post-punk act Public Image Ltd. rather dreary. The biggest revelation of the decade, for Kent, is the Sex Pistols’ breakthrough; on the other side of the pond, however, he raves about Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On.

Kent, in spite of his odd preferences, is right to allude to soul’s importance. All through the 1990s, as punk’s descendants crept back into the alternative shadows, R&B morphed into something chartable and marketable without losing sight of its illustrious forebear. Hayes and Gaye played their part in setting up R&B’s dominance, and their magnum opuses should always be lauded.

But alongside Hayes and Gaye, there was a third man.

As the liner notes to the reissue of Bobby Womack‘s 1972 masterpiece Understanding lament, he was “for too many years…too easily overlooked”. Womack, who will make his long-playing comeback next week with The Bravest Man In The Universe, was a “well-dropped name amongst the cognoscenti”, but also a deeply divisive figure in the soul community, whose far-reaching talents were often a sideshow to his songwriting and session-playing day jobs. His most high-profile gigs? Playing guitar on Sly And The Family Stone’s There’s A Riot Goin’ On, and writing the Rolling Stone’s first number 1 hit “It’s All Over Now”. His most ill-reputed crime? Taking up with Sam Cooke’s widow following the premature death of soul’s pioneer.

While Gaye and Hayes impressed critics by respectively branching out into social commentary and vamping on the same chord for fifteen minutes, Womack was the man who pushed soul in the most truly sophisticated directions, shot through with a healthy undercurrent of insanity. He was a gifted, raging guitarist, but some of his most inspiring compositions foregrounded other elements—like on the motorik funk of “Simple Man” and the brass-heavy “Thing Called Love”.

On the opening selection of Understanding, “I Can Understand It”, every piece of the puzzle is assembled for six-and-a-half thrilling minutes. He later mined the same rich seam of creativity for “Across 110th Street” (for modern audiences, this was prominently used in the opening tracking shot of Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown), but the original demonstration of his versatility is even better. Over a constant Motown thump, Hayes’s crazed wailings fight with impassioned piano chords, melodramatic strings, and torrential lashings of electric guitar. It’s an eclectic mixture of volatile substances (there’s the spillover from the madness of the There’s A Riot Goin’ On sessions), which doesn’t explode thanks to a judicious fadeout which leads into the more stripped-back, laid-back “Woman’s Gotta Have It”.

Womack was soul’s most fervent explorer, and he remains its greatest survivor. Little surprise, then, that his two most recent projects have been similarly genre-melding. His memorably deranged vocal contributions to two Gorillaz songs on 2010′s Plastic Beach LP brought him into contact with Damon Albarn, another polymath; Albarn co-produces on The Bravest Man In The Universe, which aims for the same feat Richard Russell performed behind the mixing desk for Gil Scott-Heron’s final salute, I’m New Here.

Russell and Albarn combine on the Womack album, to set his guitar-work and inimitable voice against unlikely instrumental textures. On “Please Forgive My Heart” (see above), previewed earlier this year, there is a snickering, restless beat, an elegant house piano figure, and wandering fretless bass. At the very end, after we’ve been floored by Womack’s luxuriant croon, he turns in an exquisite, prolonged sigh on acoustic guitar. Womack really had it all—it’s a pity we were so indifferent back then.

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