Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Bobby Womack's I Left My Heart in San Francisco

With Friday’s passing of legendary R&B recording artist Bobby Womack, the press is ablaze with obituaries and accounts of his contributions to popular music. They are many, but San Francisco residents may be most interested to learn of his unique, funked up interpretation of I Left My Heart in San Francisco, a detail The San Francisco Chronicle obituary failed to mention. Released about six years after Tony Bennett’s, Womack’s version charted on the Billboard R&B in 1969, the same year the song was selected as our City Song.*


The library has copies of Womack’s moderately-hard-to-find autobiography entitled: Midnight Mover: My Autobiography: The True Story of the Greatest Soul Singer in the World (due for reprint in November 2014). Hoping to learn why Womack chose to record I Left My Heart in San Francisco, I picked up his book and was met with so many great stories. It is a fun and fascinating recounting of his musical education and collaborations with the greatest musicians of the Rhythm and Blues, Doo-Wop, Funk, and Rock genres. Some of my favorite details from the book include:

Womack learned his exceptional, left-handed and upside-down, guitar playing style in the family gospel group the Womack Brothers, lead by their father Friendly Womack. His father’s guitar (obtained in exchange for four haircuts) was strictly off limits to his sons, but they would sneak the instrument and play to the radio when their father was at work. Young Bobby’s skill was discovered one day when he replaced a broken string with a shoelace and presented it to his dad hoping he wouldn’t notice. Instead of being angry he was thrilled by his son's talent.

Sam Cooke was Bobby Womack’s greatest mentor and it was he who arranged for the five Womack Brothers to tour with the James Brown revue. This experience, which Womack describes as a musical boot-camp, plus his long term-relationship with Cooke instilled a professionalism that Womack prided himself upon throughout his life.

As a session musician with Memphis’ American Sound Studios, Womack collaborated on such iconic albums as Aretha Franklin’s Lady Soul, Dusty Springfield’s Dusty in Memphis and Elvis Presley’s Suspicious Minds. As a songwriter, Womack influenced Wicked Wilson Pickett’s career by collaborating on over seventeen songs including I’m a Midnight Mover, She’s Good to Me and I’m Sorry About That. Womack also co-wrote and recorded It's All Over Now, the song that only a month later the Rolling Stones covered, earning them their first UK No 1 hit.

Stories include the inspiration behind Janis Joplin’s song Mercedes Benz just before her death. (After a recording session too drunk to drive, Joplin left her Jaguar behind and got a lift in Womack’s Mercedes. As they drove, the stream of lyrics came to Janis and she insisted on a ride back to the studio where, with most of the band now gone, she recorded the song.  The next day she was dead.) There are also tales of touring with another left-handed guitarist--Jimi Hendrix, to recording in Ike Turner’s lock-down, drug-fueled studio, to the friendship and shenanigans with local artist Sly Stone.

Bobby Womack and Sly Stone, as reprinted from The San Francisco Chronicle
(Photo By Ebet Roberts/Getty Images)

Womack’s legacy as a songwriter is arguably greater than that as a guitarist and singer, so what lead to his cover of I Left My Heart in San Francisco? Well, after working with Wilson Pickett he was simply out of songs and with a Liberty Records album deadline imminent it seemed to be a good solution. At the same time he covered Tony Bennett’s Fly Me to the Moon and the Mamas and the Papas’ California Dreamin’ which were even bigger recording successes. Throughout his life, as often as Womack ‘gave’ hits to other artists, he also interpreted others’ works for his own recordings.

* Please note that I Left My Heart in San Francisco was selected as our City Song in 1969 but fifteen years later, through a leaflet campaign and voting the song San Francisco from the 1936 film of the same name was chosen as the more popular song. Instead of stripping the first of its honor, in 1984, the Board of Supervisors declared a compromise naming two city songs: I Left My Heart in San Francisco is our official City Ballad and San Francisco is our official City Song.

To learn more about Bobby Womack, please enjoy:

Midnight mover : my autobiography : the true story of the greatest soul singer in the world / Bobby Womack with Robert Ashton. 

The bravest man in the universe [sound recording] / Bobby Womack. 2012

Everything's gonna be alright [sound recording] the American singles singles 1967-76 / Bobby Womack. 2013

The best of Bobby Womack [sound recording] 2003 

High contrast [electronic resource] / Gábor Szabó/Bobby Womack. 2003 (originally released in 1971)

Work with Gorillaz:

Plastic Beach [sound recording] / Gorillaz. 2010

The fall [sound recording] / Gorillaz. 2011 

The library’s online database Hoopla also has the following sound recordings:  The Poet, The Poet II and Someday We’ll be Free.  You will need your library card and PIN, as well as to create a Hoopla account to use this resource.  The process is easy.

The library also subscribes to Rock's Backpages which has over forty articles, interviews and album reviews on Bobby Womack.  Your library card number and PIN are needed to access. 

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