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Bobby Womack: A Soul Icon Dreams Of L.A.

Bobby Womack calls himself the "last soul man," and his 1968 version of The Mamas and the Papas' "California Dreamin'" demonstrates that it's no exaggeration. A highlight of the just-released retrospective CD Bobby Womack: The Soul Years, Womack's cover opens with familiar strummed guitar chords and those famously bleak first lines — "All the leaves are brown / and the sky is gray" — but the Cleveland native's rough-hewn voice adds a load of psychic pain absent from The Mamas and the Papas' jaunty original.

Backed by his own elegantly mournful guitar, the steady tap of a drummer, and insistent horns, Womack flavors the song with gospel shouts and ad-libs ("Somebody help me, I wanna go so badly"). And at the coda, he doesn't fade out, instead opting to invent a whole new song — picking up the pace, crying out "California Dreamin'," rising to a falsetto. It sounds like a hopeless cause, but he did make it there: A year later, he recorded a bopping "I Left My Heart in San Francisco."

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Marc Silver
Marc Silver, who edits NPR's global health blog, has been a reporter and editor for the Baltimore Jewish Times, U.S. News & World Report and National Geographic. He is the author of Breast Cancer Husband: How to Help Your Wife (and Yourself) During Diagnosis, Treatment and Beyond and co-author, with his daughter, Maya Silver, of My Parent Has Cancer and It Really Sucks: Real-Life Advice From Real-Life Teens. The NPR story he co-wrote with Rebecca Davis and Viola Kosome -- 'No Sex For Fish' — won a Sigma Delta Chi award for online reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists.