Artist: Bobby Womack and Peace
Title: Across 110th Street
Description: single; album track, Across 110th Street
Label: United Artists
Release date: 1973
First heard: 1997
Help me sing it …
Bobby Womack and I share a birthday: March 4. I was able to bond with him over this vital piece of information in 2003 when he came into 6 Music to promote his Lookin’ For A Love: The Best of 1968–1976 compilation and shot straight into my ever-fluid Top 10 favourite 6 Music guests chart (jostling with Rita Marley, Siouxsie Sioux, Kings Of Leon, Gerald Scarfe, Peter Flannery, Damo Suzuki, Glenn Gregory, Carol Decker and potty-mouthed Sylvain Sylvain). I loved meeting this soul legend – the man worked with Sly Stone, married Sam Cooke’s widow and had a song covered by the Rolling Stones when he was barely out of his teens – and it was privilege enough to bask in his aura, never mind to play out Across 110th Street, one of my favourite funk-soul numbers.
A prerequisite of live music radio it may be, but I can promise you, it’s very weird to sit in a radio studio listening to a classic song booming out over the loudspeakers – and the airwaves – while the person who wrote and recorded it 30 years before sits directly across the desk from you. It seems rude to chat over the playback and yet rude to sit in silence, so you tend to toggle between the two. (I’m guessing it’s weirder if you wrote and recorded the song.) I recall stupidly asking Bobby, “What was across 110th Street?”, just to say something, and he grinned and replied, “Listen to the lyric.” It’s good to have Bobby Womack effectively tell you to to shut up.
Penned as the theme song to the 1972 “blaxploitation” crime thriller of the same name in collaboration with bebop-schooled composer JJ Johnson and recorded with the backing group Peace along with four other original tunes, the lyric to 110th Street says it clearly enough, although in its genesis it’s not 100% straightforward. Bobby rasps, “I was the third brother of five,” which he was, raised a Baptist in Cleveland to a minister father and church organist mother and something of a child prodigy. But the film – which I’ve never seen – is set in Harlem, not Cleveland, and 110th Street is the boundary between “white” New York and “black” New York. (This was far more of an unofficial “colour line” in the early 70s; it certainly sprang to mind when a cab driver taking me from Manhattan to JFK in the 90s drove that way to avoid the congested tunnels and, yes, we crossed 110th Street.)
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Womack’s autobiographical take on “breaking out of the ghetto” dovetails perfectly into an urban blues for New York, where rich and poor rub along in a melodramatically heightened way, the whooshing hi-hat, intricate guitar, anxious keyboard jitters and lazy whooo-oo-oo-ooohs of that intro setting the scene with cinematic evocation. “Doing whatever I had to do to survive” in a “day to day fight”, he dreams of “a better way of life.” What’s potent about this bulletin from the frontline of the racial struggle is its ghetto’s-eye view. Pimps “trying to catch a woman that’s weak,” drug dealers who “won’t let the junkie go free” and that emblematic “woman trying to catch a trick on the street.”
Inevitably, this vivid, urgent, soulful lament to social exclusion and ethnic deprivation becomes a freedom song, those bah-bah orchestral stings pointing up the pledge, “Hey brother, there’s a better way out.” As Bobby said to me in 2003, years before his trendy rehabilitation by Damon Albarn and Gorillaz: listen to the lyric. And listen right to the end, when the fly-on-the-wall commentary (“look around you”) gives way to broader political observation.
The family on the other side of town
Would catch hell without a ghetto around
In every city you find the same thing going down
Harlem is the capital of every ghetto town
Every ghetto town like Cleveland, for one, whose African-American population increased sevenfold between the 20s and the 60s, as city jobs drew workers north (the ethnic mix was still over 50% black in the 2010 Census). The great soul music of the 60s may have been political by its very creation, but it was rarely explicit above a certain seam of despair. Marvin Gaye moved the goalposts at the dawn of the 70s and Across 110th Street seems to be to be in the great tradition of What’s Going On – and indeed Ball Of Confusion by Whitfield and Strong for the Temptations around the same time.
As you know from other entries in The 143, soul about boy-meet-girl is fine by me. But soul and funk with content frees your mind.
Oh yeah, that’s what the world is today.