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Paul Mann: Soul Legend Bobby Womack’s Last Great Concert

Legendary soul singer, musician and music producer Bobby Womack, whose professional music career spanned nearly 70 years, passed away June 27. The 70-year-old icon had just made a very special concert appearance at Bonnaroo, the premiere music festival in the United States, on June 14.

Womack began touring with his family's gospel group, The Womack Brothers, in 1954, when he was only 10 years old. The band was discovered in 1956 by another legendary soul singer, Sam Cooke. The band changed their name to The Valentinos, and Cooke helped them produce their first hit song, “Looking for a Love” in 1960.

The group scored their next hit song in 1964 with the surprisingly country-tinged ballad "It's All Over Now,” which a still teenage Womack actually co-wrote. Their version was rising on the R&B charts when the Rolling Stones covered it. The song became the Stones' first No.1 hit in England and helped launch their career.

The Valentinos had a less successful career, after their mentor Cooke was shot and killed in Los Angeles. Devastated by the loss, the brothers disbanded the group. Womack moved to Memphis and became a very successful sessions guitarist for some of R&B's greatest stars of the time. He recorded his first solo album, Fly Me to the Moon, in 1968. By 1972, Womack had no fewer than five hit solo albums to his credit and became a huge crossover pop star.

I was lucky enough to catch his masterful performance at the gargantuan Tampa Stadium when I was a high school student in Florida. The stadium was reserved for performances by the biggest rock stars of the era, like Rod Stewart and The Faces, and Santana. Sitting in the crowd of 20,000 people, I was a bit overwhelmed by the performance. It was in the early years of my concert attendance, and I had cut my teeth on the likes of Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and the Rolling Stones.

Womack’s concert opened my eyes to a whole new world of jam music. The monumental concert went on for more than fours hours, with a small army of musicians filing on and off the stage throughout the performance.

Womack went on to produce a huge library of music and collaborate with the biggest names in pop music. But decades of drug abuse took its toll, and the music icon developed a whole host of medical problems, including a bout with Alzheimer's disease in the last few years. The addition of Womack to this year’s Bonnaroo music festival came as a welcome surprise to many music fans familiar with his legacy.

I made sure I was early for his late Saturday afternoon set, during the peak crowd at the three-day festival. But no more than a few thousand people crowded the tent stage where Womack was set to play, with so many other well-known pop stars attracting large crowds on the other stages. I must admit I was apprehensive to see the legendary performer again, as I had such good memories of his 1972 show and was aware of his recent medical challenges.

I was hoping that he wouldn’t have a meltdown, much like the infamous performance several years ago by Sly Stone at the Coachella music festival. Many of us were looking forward to that reclusive legend's first appearance in recent memory, but that performance turned into a documented disaster, with the singer arriving late to join the band that had bravely soldiered on without him. When he did arrive, he was in such an incoherent state that he could barely sing or play keyboards and finally slithered offstage after 30 minutes or so. It was a big disappointment to fans of the innovative soul singer.

While waiting nervously for Womack, apprehension grew as the set was delayed for technical reasons. The crowd dwindled as impatient fans began heading toward the other stages. But finally the band began to play and people began to wander back toward the music. Womack quickly joined the group of veteran R&B musicians, and it was clear he came to perform.

Addressing the crowd in a clear, loud voice, Womack appeared overjoyed to be perfuming for the sweaty young crowd, now tightly packed about the stage. The 70-year-old icon proceeded to sing, dance and play ferociously throughout his entire hour-long set. When it was time to close the show, the feisty singer was in no mood to go and launched the band into an overtime song. Eventually the band’s manager had to come out and forcefully drag the singer from the stage. Womack could still be heard singing as he was led backstage.

I was hoping the illustrious R&B legend would make a special appearance at the midnight super jam. That monumental performance included a 3½-hour jam led by Skrillex and featured an army of guest performers, including Stephen Marley, Janelle Monae, Robby Krieger and Lauryn Hill, just to name a few.

Sadly, Womack didn’t make it to the party, but I was sure happy that I was able to see the enigmatic icon perform one last time.

— L. Paul Mann is a Noozhawk contributing writer. The opinions expressed are his own.

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