Bobby Womack
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  • Bobby Womack

Just days after he announced that he was cancer-free, XL Recordings released two more songs from Bobby Womack's upcoming album, The Bravest Man in the Universe (the 68-year-old has beaten both prostate and colon cancer).

In case you missed it, Larry Mizell, Jr. posted the label's making-of video here. Wrote Larry, "May God bless Damon Albarn and Richard Russell for giving The Womack a platform to sing his truth in 2012." Amen to that. And collaborating with Albarn is nothing new: Womack appears on the Gorillaz' Plastic Beach.

Like Mizell, my introduction to the singer/songwriter/guitarist came through "Across 110th Street," title track to the 1972 film of the same name. As he notes, it also appears in Jackie Brown, but I first heard it on 1991's Pimps, Players and Private Eyes, a compilation of blaxploitation selections put together by Ice-T through his Rhyme Syndicate imprint. Other numbers include Marvin Gaye's "Trouble Man" and Curtis Mayfield's "Pusherman." Not exactly the deepest of cuts, but definitely the best, and Ice-T opens the 10-track set with The Womack.

Below: a couple of old tracks and a couple of new ones.

More recently, Andrea Arnold used Womack's music in Fish Tank, my favorite film of 2010. In it, Mia, a 15-year-old council dweller, becomes obsessed with Colin, her mother's Irish-born boyfriend (Michael Fassbender, who next appears in Ridley Scott's Prometheus). Colin's seduction music: Bobby Womack. He's particularly fond of the Doctor's* 1968 cover of "California Dreamin'," and it's not hard to see why: Womack finds the funk in the Mamas and the Papas, a fine harmony group, but hardly a funky one. This quote from Quint Kik sums up his achievement quite nicely, "Womack makes the lyrics come alive in a way you can really smell those brown leaves and feel the chilly presence of a gray sky on a winters' day."

* Another not-as-hyperbolic-as-it-sounds Womack nickname: the Last Soul Man.

The year before, Womack played guitar on Ray Charles's theme from Norman Jewison's In the Heat of the Night, which won the Oscar for best picture.

But that was then, this is now, and here's Womack on the following 2012 track: "Deep River is a song that was sung back in the plantation days, where blacks sung to deliver messages. It was like their newspaper, they would talk to each other in the fields—that's what my father used to tell me. He would say, 'They would sing a song and if it was bad news they would sing it in a torturing way. If it was good news they would make it happy'. Talking about, 'I want to cross over into campground'. Campground was free country. Everybody wanna be free." Director Jamie-James Medina filmed Bobby performing the song in his home.

Next: the Lana Del Rey duet. The minute XL announced that Womack had recorded a song with the former Lizzie Grant, the Twitterverse let out a collective sigh. Everybody's entitled to their opinion—that's what Twitter's all about—but it's a backhanded swipe at Womack, and I don't appreciate that. Similarly, I can't imagine that Johnny Cash came up with the idea to cover Soundgarden's "Rusty Cage" or Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt," but he rose to the occasion, justifying his faith in producer Rick Rubin, though I'm sure he had the right to say, "I don't think so."

About the album, Russell has stated, "Bobby's musical history is so spectacular that it was hard to believe how free of ego he is, and how open to new ideas. But Bobby seemed to relish the opportunity to make something modern and original."

For Womack 101, check out this piece Mizell wrote for The Stranger in 2007.

XL Recordings releases The Bravest Man in the Universe on June 12. Andrea Arnold's latest film, an adaptation of Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, features a black Heathcliff and plays the Harvard Exit on June 8 and 9 as part of SIFF '12.