March 4, 1944−June 27, 2014.

The Poet, the Preacher, the Bravest Man in the Universe—Bobby Womack was an elemental wizard of soul. Most of the greats, at their best, always seemed to exist in their own pure, lofty dimension—but Womack's gruff soul proved to be incredibly earthy, immediate, and relatable, while his falsetto tapped the heavens with a strident spirituality born in the church. Like all the rest, his best work came from pain, and he had his fair share—just as much as he had triumphs—over the course of a career that was incredibly diverse and enduring.

He was nothing like a saint, either. Even after his passing, his name still evoked sour reactions from a few. His wedding to Barbara Campbell, the widow of his mentor Sam Cooke, just three months after Cooke's death, forever scandalized soul fans everywhere. Less known was the reason they later divorced: According to Womack's autobiography, Midnight Mover, Campbell caught Womack in bed with her teenage daughter and grazed his temple with a .32 caliber bullet. Known more were his vices and addictions. You could call him the patron saint soul singer of the bars, the after-hours clubs, the coke dens, the pimps and hustlers—environs I grew up knowing about way too young. As a young adult, his music perfectly soundtracked my own missteps, heartaches, and good times, like he understood me.

Robert Dwayne Womack was indeed "born the third brother of five," to quote his best-known hit—the first song of his I ever heard, while sitting in the Egyptian Theatre watching big bad Pam Grier power-stride through the opening credits of Jackie Brown—and the Womack Brothers rehearsed and toured hard under the thumb of their father, Friendly Womack Sr. Then came the Soul Stirrers and Sam Cooke, their young new singer whose charm had the girls fainting in the front pews. Out on his own, Cooke soon changed young Womack's life, making him his guitar player for a time, and turning the Womack Brothers into the Valentinos, who recorded secular sides for Cooke's SAR Records (despite Friendly Sr.'s warnings of tragedy and hellfire).

One of those songs, "It's All Over Now," was covered by a fledgling UK band called the Rolling Stones. It became the Stones' first UK number-one hit, and Bobby Womack grumbled about those white boys stealing his song (until he got his first royalty check). Womack was Cooke's protégé, 13 years his junior. In early 1964, Cooke first played him a song he'd just recorded at RCA called "A Change Is Gonna Come." "It sounds like death," Womack told him. Cooke agreed that the song was too heavy and dark, and he said that it'd never come out—"not while I'm alive," according to Womack. By December of 1964, Cooke was dead at 33, shot in a Watts hotel by the hotel manager under suspicious circumstances. Some said he got what he deserved, for straying from gospel. Just 11 days after Cooke's death, "Change" was released. Months later, Womack's name was mud, and he'd gotten his teeth pistol-whipped through his lip by Cooke's brother Charlie.

Womack put his head down and, according to his autobiography, "did whatever [he] had to do to survive"—playing on records for names like Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfield, and Wilson Pickett. Eventually, public opinion lightened enough, and he embarked on a successful run of solo albums starting in 1968 and continuing through the 1970s, his work spanning deep soul, pop, and country. He played on Sly Stone's There's a Riot Goin' On and inspired Janis Joplin's "Mercedes Benz" after Womack gave her a ride in his. He hit again in the early '80s with The Poet and The Poet II—and his instrumental "Breezin'" became a smash for George Benson.

While the hits kept coming, so did the body blows—in 1974, Womack's brother Harry was murdered by his girlfriend while staying in Womack's home. In 1978, Womack's 4-month-old son Truth (with his second wife, Regina Banks) fell behind his bed and suffocated. In 1986, his and Barbara's son Vincent committed suicide. Every time, those same folks said that Womack got what was coming to him.

Womack retreated to the drugs and depravity under the music scene for years and was mostly unseen for a couple decades—until 2009, when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He was then tapped by Damon Albarn to appear on Gorillaz' Plastic Beach album, which earned him a solo deal with Gorillaz' label XL and resulted in 2012's spare, scorched The Bravest Man in the Universe. Producers Albarn and Richard Russell gave Womack's career and outlook a new lease on life in the 21st century.

I saw the Seattle stop of Gorillaz' Escape to Plastic Beach Tour—and I silently prayed The Womack would be in attendance, too. Sure enough, Womack's gravelly baritone soared on "Stylo" and the stark "Cloud of Unknowing." I couldn't believe I was finally sharing air with The Last Soul Man. I'd been lucky enough to meet Marvin, Stevie, and Sly when I was a kid—but as an adult, passing Womack in the backstage hall, I couldn't muster a peep. But if I had, I guess I'd say what I'll say now: Thank you, sir. Rest easy. recommended