A true R&B and soul legend, Bobby Womack died last week at the age of 70.
Womack played African World Festival here in Milwaukee maybe 18 years ago. It was a hot muggy night, not unlike tonight.
That year, I was lucky enough to cover concerts by both Otis Rush and Womack on successive evenings. As I recall, there had been some trouble at Summerfest that year with young people and guns. Eventually, Summerfest bought in metal detectors at the entrance gate (to be fair, historically Summerfest has an incredibly low number of incidents).
By this point, Womack had been off the charts for a while, but his legacy was very much intact. His early hits with his brothers, as The Valentinos, under the wing of Sam Cooke (he would later marry Cooke’s widow after the soul superstar was murdered) and later collaborating with Sly Stone secured his place.
On that night, other stages featured acts ranging from smooth-groove oldies to urban contemporary. As Womack was working his magic on the crowd, whose median age I would guess at well above 40 years old, there came a series of loud pops at a nearby stage. My guess is Womack never heard this onstage.
As a wave of young people came toward us, rapidly surging toward Womack’s audience, what struck me was the look in the eyes of older folks who feared what may be happening as they tried their best to get out of the way. Many could not move very fast. If you have never been in a crowd situation like that is, it really is helpless.
It was hard to tell if the young folks really knew what happened as some appeared to be fleeing while others were running and laughing. But the look in the eyes of those around me said, "This is real."
Sensing that something serious was going down, Womack brought the band to a halt and gently began playing Sam Cooke’s hymn "A Change is Gonna Come." The chaos peaked and then the audience realized the song Womack was playing. A church-like calm came over the audience as order was restored. We owed that sense of relief to Bobby Womack’s sense of wisdom.
I never found out what caused the stampede from the other stage. It could have been a gun or firecrackers.
Last week at my 15-year-old son’s baseball game, the coach called for the parents to come over next to the bleachers while the game was still being played. Saying he never had to do this before, he explained that one of our kids was shot several times by his father. His older brother was killed. Details are still coming.
The tragedy is multifold – a brother and son are gone, another is injured. A father and husband’s fate is yet to be determined. A wife and mother has had her life torn apart. Both parents were very likeable folks.