Unlike Sam Cooke, who discovered him, or Sly Stone and Aretha Franklin, for whom he served as a session guitarist, or the Rolling Stones, who made his song “It’s All Over Now” their first #1 hit, Bobby Womack only intermittently got over beyond a particular niche. His, though, was R&B—a broad church then and now.
That was, in fact, where Cooke found him, singing for a family gospel act called the Womack Brothers, who changed their name to the Valentinos before recording secular music in an attempt to circumvent the routine backlash. Although his solo material became a feature of Billboard’s Hot Soul Singles chart from the ‘60s through to the 1980s, he’d mostly been dormant for a decade or two until his most recent, harshly abbreviated comeback. Womack was one of those musicians fated to be known most widely through other artists, whether Mariah’s teary invocation on “We Belong Together” or Pam Grier’s long poised glide through LAX to the tune of “Across 110th Street.” If you’re only familiar with the latter song from Jackie Brown, let the death of its creator last week lead you to the original source.
For reasons of timing and setting, Across 110th Street often gets called a blaxploitation movie, but it’s a loose-fitting tag. The film begins in a Harlem tenement circa 1972, as Mafia accountants count their weekly take with a couple of black adjuncts and hired cops. Some local crooks disguised in their own police uniforms break in, leaving behind an empty suitcase and a stack of corpses. In the atmosphere of crisis that follows, the Mob leans on its Harlem representatives to facilitate brutal revenge, while two mismatched NYPD men try to find the fugitives before they can get themselves killed. Anthony Quinn plays Captain Frank Mattelli as a flailing, unkempt mass of volatility, considered obsolete even by the gangsters who pay him off; Yaphet Kotto’s Lieutenant Pope, whom he’s forced to work under, is cerebral, sternly incorruptible, somebody following the rules almost out of fatalism. Neither adheres to the outlaw-hero archetype. Movies like Super Fly gained their force through personification, representing racist capitalism as a Mafia capo or corrupt police commander, but nobody in Across 110th Street is iconic. This is blaxploitation at its most noirish.
Greil Marcus wrote about the film in his book Mystery Train, arguing: “The violence was so ugly it exploded the violence of the genre … It wasn’t gratuitous, but it wasn’t ‘poetic’ either.” Across 110th Street was the first production shot with a new generation of handheld cameras, allowing the use of cramped interior spaces such as the Harlem brothel where one thief gets found out. What follows is the grimmest scene in a story made up of little else: When the smirkingly vicious Mob underling D’Salvio greets his quarry with a racial slur, another blaxploitation movie might move on to withering banter or a righteous comeuppance, but his impassive black henchmen ensure that everyone just cowers, watching the torture go on and on. It’s the violence of power sustaining power. The desperation permeating everything finds parallels in a lot of Bobby Womack’s best music, not least “Across 110th Street” itself: “The family on the other side of town / Would catch hell without a ghetto around / And every city you find the same thing going down / Harlem is the capital of every ghetto town.”
When Womack described a world that offered its captives nothing but fraught decisions, he spoke as somebody prone to disastrous choices in turn. After Sam Cooke was shot, 21-year-old Bobby married his mentor’s widow Barbara three months later; the relationship ended when she caught him in bed with her teenage daughter, and the older woman fired her own pistol during the ensuing chaos. By the late 1970s, he was addicted to cocaine. Womack wouldn’t kick drugs fully until much later, but in 1981 he still managed to record The Poet, probably his least erratic album. I’ve been listening to it again this past week, noticing how threatened certain songs sound for the first time. The #3 R&B hit “If You Think You’re Lonely Now” is a warning in the guise of a promise, as Womack bites off admonishments over stately funk: “And when the skeletons come out of your closet / And chase you all around your room / And the memories sail round like a ghost…”
In its film incarnation, “Across 110th Street” blares through the opening credits, made jittery and insistent by additional horns. This apprehensive tone complements what’s happening onscreen, but I prefer the radio version Tarantino used, with strings so self-consciously cinematic they could lend drama to a tricky flossing session. Maybe that was the point—reveal how Pam Grier commands the frame even while standing still for a minute. Like the movie he scored, Womack nonetheless eschews mythologizing, observing this anguished need from the inside. He was another junkie who couldn’t go free. The most harrowing lyric is a wordless one, that drawn-out “oooooooooooOOOOOooooooo,” notes darkened by bruises. Near the end of Across 110th Street, there’s a scene where Mattelli and Pope pull up NYPD files, trying to figure out which ex-con might be their man. As the bureaucrat recites a record of lives barely allowed to begin—one possibility got caught holding up a candy store when he was 12—Yaphet Kotto stands off to one side, tall but guarded, his eyes almost imperceptibly lowered. Finding dignity amidst frailty was Bobby Womack’s great gift, whatever the neighborhood.