Bobby Womack is a genuine enigma. A constant and integral part of the American musical soundscape since before the “British Invasion,” Mr. Womack has been praised for his musical gift, yet vilified and ostracized for marrying his mentor’s widow. Recently his canon has been reinvented and he is enjoying a fruitful career resurgence.
Born dirt-poor into a musically inclined family, Robert Dwayne Womack got his start when his dad, Friendly Womack, Sr., created the gospel group, The Womack Brothers, featuring Bobby and his siblings. Working the gospel “chittlin” circuit, they opened for the top acts of the era including The Five Blind Boys, The Pilgrim Travelers and The Caravans. There fortunes changed when they opened for Sam Cooke & The Soul Stirrers. Cooke was poised to make the jump from gospel to secular and become the cat’s meow as “The Man Who Invented Soul.”
His resume is unmatched, having worked with such artists as Janis Joplin, Gabor Szabo, James Brown, Elvis, Wilson Pickett, Sly Stone, Ike Turner, Aretha Franklin, Patti Labelle, Wilton Felder and many others. Womack, in his own words, retreated from the music business after the demon cocaine waylaid his creative energy. Submitting to rehab he cleaned up in the early 90’s but work had become sparse–probably as much a result of lack of drive in the face of a changing industry as anything else. Serious health issues also have plagued the man who, at various times in his career, has answered to the monikers, “the Poet and the Preacher.”
In 2009 Damon Albarn, English musician/producer and co-creator of the alternative rock band Blur and the virtual band Gorillaz sought out Bobby and asked if would consider collaborating. Initially, Womack sang on two tracks of Gorillaz album Plastic Beach, released in 2010. Inspired by Albarn’s fresh studio approach, Womack’s creative muse returned and he started writing songs again. Albarn brought in XL Recordings label owner/producer Richard Russell and they co-produced Bobby Womack’s first studio album in 15 years. The result, The Bravest Man In The Universe cracked Rolling Stone’s top 50 albums of 2012 list and received the Q award for Best Album of 2012 in the UK.
With his career in nouveau fulltilt boogie mode and upcoming appearance at Bonnaroo, Womack is touring as relentlessly as his 70 year old body will allow. Having just returned from Glasgow, Scotland, Glide caught up with him by phone…
Mr. Bobby Womack, or should we say Mr. Robert Dwayne Womack. How’re you doing?
You know what? When I think about how long I’ve been out here and all the interviews I’ve done, I decided long ago to take them (interviews) more serious. The flow doesn’t come as easy as it used to. It’s like how many times can you fall in love? You get tired of telling that story. As long as you’re living you keep going. But I’m good!
You sound good. How many songs have you written over the years?
Oh man! That’s a crazy question right there. I really don’t know. I’ve just moved and I just found a tape that I lost some years back of “new” songs that I never used. I’ve got to go back through it and see what’s on it. Why I saved it in the first place. I tried to hide it so I wouldn’t lose it. I hid it from myself. At some point I even thought somebody might have stole it at a party or something. I was like, how did they get it outta here?
So it’s safe to say you’ve perhaps written many hundreds of songs over time?
Yes, I’ve written many songs. Sometimes I think about the first song I wrote with my brothers. All five of us slept in the same bed. Three at the top and two at the bottom. Through the night, it would get so cold that we would snatch the cover off each other. So we came up with this song called, Give That Man Some Cover.
We were laughing about it just the other day. Time flies. It’s been a joyful ride. I started in this business when I was seven, eight years old. I will be 70 next month, on March 3rd. God’s been good. I’ve been through a lot of changes. Don’t believe that when an artist walks out on stage and you see them that they look the same as they always did. People tell me I look the same as I looked thirty years ago. I tell them, come closer.
Is the recent work you’ve done with Damon Albarn and the Gorillaz the best success of your career thus far or is it the resulting resurgence, the new energy that has you reaching higher heights?
Working with another creator was different for me. You know in the creative process someone is always coming up with a great idea. With Damon and them, it was Damon who kept asking me to go on the road with them. I was like, “man, I don’t know, I gotta get my voice tuned up.” I was just making excuses. I also didn’t know how strong and powerful they were. It was amazing because they told me they had been fans of mine for years, way before they even got the group together they were doing the Womack (sic). That was an honor, but at the same time, I was really nervous cuz the era they were talking about was thirty years ago. I said to them, “man, do you know how old I am now? What if I can’t even sang anymore? You know, these things happen.” They said, “naw, you still got it, you just need somebody to turn you loose.”
I came up in an era where you had to please the record company, your manager and everybody else. Most times you didn’t get to please yourself. Damon and Gorillaz just stripped all that down. They would ask me questions like, “what is the first gospel song you remember sangin’?” I would start sangin’ it and they were running the tape.
Was that Deep River?
Yeah. They’re running the tape and say, “Bobby, you should record this”. I say, “Deep River?” They say, “Yeah, it gives people your history in a sense. It’s so interesting that you are able to still talk about it, sing about it.” But I was thinkin’, “how can I sing gospel with all these other songs.” I’m from the school that says gospel belongs in the place that it belongs in. In reality though, music belongs anywhere. After the album was released, I got a call from Damon. He said, “Bobby, why don’t you cut a full gospel album? We’re getting more requests for your gospel songs, than anything on the whole album.” I said to him, “I’ve done that before, looks like I’ve come full circle.”
You’ve been quoted as saying that when you jammed with Bob Dylan, he was so shy that he would hardly face you.
I was at Ronnie Woods’s house. Ronnie said to me, “you ever met Bob Dylan?” I said, “I’ve seen him but never really met him. I would love to meet him.” Ronnie said, “I’ll call him and maybe you can play something together.” I’ll never forget that when we played, I was looking at him and the whole time, he has looking at the wall. I couldn’t believe that he would be shy of me. If anything it should’ve been the other way around, me in awe of him, cuz you know, Bob Dylan is history.
Did you have a conversation with him?
We never talked. I didn’t really get a chance to get to know him. I saw him smile a couple-a times at certain things I did on the guitar. Ronnie told me, “He’s bashful like that. That’s very normal for him. He’s just a quiet guy and with you being there, he’s kind of freakin’ out!” Ronnie and I have been friends for a long time. I’ve known him since before he was a Rolling Stone. I knew him when he was with Faces- when he would collaborate on songs with Rod Stewart, much like Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. Same kind of dynamic. That’s going back many years. I’ve watched him grow. I remember saying to myself, “hasn’t he matured?” It takes that much to get where he is today. Nobody knows what’s up ahead.
The only thing I regret about still being here in music is that today everything is electronic in the studio. After a certain point I don’t see any musicians. Everybody has played their part and gone home and the vocals are all on me. They say, “you can carry it, your voice is strong”. Yeah but I long to hear musicians playing together, collaborating. I think that’s a beautiful thang. I thank that’s the way records are made. I thank the most important thang is the sincerity in your story. You also have to exude that spiritual vibe cuz people gotta feel it. If they can’t feel it, it ain’t music.
Don’t you have a Blues album project in the works?
You know I started a Blues project album centered around one of the artists I admired most when I was a little boy, Bobby Bland. He was sangin’ all those Gospel kind of things that I heard in church. I was overwhelmed with him. Near the end of his life he was barely hangin’ on yet still performing. I felt like his voice was still there. I wanted him to have a number one record before he checked out. I thought I could give it to him cuz I was just that serious. I wanted to put more work on him, put some money in his pocket and show my appreciation for a great Blues singer.
People talk about your B.B. King, but as far as I’m concerned, Bobby Bland broke a long time ago. He was doing a lotta things that people weren’t even talking about. When I approached him about it though, for some reason he wasn’t feeling it. He said, “I’m not the artist I used to be. When’s the last time you heard me sang? I can’t hit the tops like I used to. I can think it, but I haven’t done it in years.” I told him, “I’m gonna play songs so soulful, you won’t even have to reach up no more. Just sang it”. I cut about 10 tracks on him. Strong soulful tracks, but he wouldn’t do ‘em. I sent him the tape and his wife said, “He’s workin’ on ‘em, he’s workin’ on ‘em. I didn’t know, I went over it in my mind and I figured it out. Bobby’s been ripped off so many times that even though we were friends, he would hate to think that on his last move, he got taken advantage of again. So the album is in the can with my voice on it, not Bobby Bland’s.
Aren’t you planning to do a thing with Stevie Wonder?
Well you know, I cut a record with Stevie Wonder. It was about a cousin of mine and titled after him, Cousin Henry…
He’s in your book isn’t he?
He is in the book. Matter of fact, he just had a stroke and can’t speak. I’m surprised Henry’s still around. With Stevie though, I had an idea that since we’re always bumpin’ into each other at airports—he’ll be goin’ east and me west, that the next time I saw him I would say to him, “Man why don’t we sang something together”? The idea would be to show people the difference in what made us unique. His style of delivering a song versus my style of delivering a song. They are totally different.
When I asked him Stevie said, “Yeah, we can do that. When you wanna go in”? To make a long story short, Stevie loved the song and we cut it. The song is dedicated to veterans of war like my Cousin Henry who went to war and came back alcoholic. Henry did stop drinkin’ eventually but I believe no man comes back from war the same way he went.
Let’s talk about Jim Ford. I know you and Sly Stone were fond of Jim Ford. How creative a person was he?
He was one of the most creative guys that I have ever met. He was the kind of person you loved to be around, but at the same time, he was crazy. He didn’t mean it; he was just that way. He would say, “Let me tell you something N-word, I’ma tell you one thang.” And I’d say, “WHAT?’’ And he’d still be talking. He could always come up with a song and would want to sell it immediately.
He claimed he wrote “Ode To Billie Joe,” and I believe just maybe he did. The thing about Jim was that before you could make a deal, Jim wanted his money and be done with it. He didn’t want to wait on no royalties. Cuz he might be waiting a long time. He could write songs that were so special. He wrote a song that I still might have to record called, “I’d Be Ahead If I Could Quit While I’m Behind.” He’d say, “I’m never gonna get it, but I’m a keep chasin’ it. I would be ahead if I just quit!” Working with him I’d let him write lyrics and I’d come up with different melodies. Sam Cooke liked to work that way too. Guys like that I miss a lot. It’s funny you’d mention Jim Ford. He was very important in my life.
I read back in the Eighties when Sly Stone completed a stint in rehab, you took him on the road with you. How big a challenge was that?
That was a challenge because Sly is a Pisces like me. He felt that if he had you committed, he’d make you believe anything. He was just that way. He was very conniving and believable. We don’t speak to often these days. I heard the reports of him living in a van and I know why he was doing that. It was because he felt comfortable knowing that he could leave at anytime. Now, at the house, somebody’s always gonna be knocking at the door. Nine times out of ten, the wrong people. And when paranoia sets in, it’s been there awhile.
You were on the “There’s A Riot Goin’ On” sessions. Was that the most difficult recording session you ever participated in?
No, it was one of the most creative because when I walked in they were already playin’. Sly would say, “B play something, whatever you feel, whatever you hear.”
Janis Joplin, out of the blue I understand, called you up on the last day of her life. You had never met her before, is that right?
Had never met her before in my life. She called me up and said, “hey, this is Janis Joplin.” So, I started laughing and replied, “Yeah this is James Brown, what do you want?” Cuz, I didn’t thank Janis Joplin knew how to reach me. And she said, “Everybody is recording your songs. I just want to cut one of them. Can you come down and bring me a song?” I had just left doing something with The Pointer Sisters.
I went down to the studio and ended up giving Janis a song entitled Trust Me. But she listened to a bunch of tunes of mine after settling on that one. She would ring a bell as a played each song, signaling me to go on to the next one. I’m like, “Janis, that’s just the intro.” After she recorded Trust Me, we left the studio in my car and talked. I asked her what her biggest problem about the music business was. She said, “everybody thinks I’m trying to be Tina Turner.” I said, “I never heard that before in my life. Who is everybody? I think you are so original and different from Tina.”
I had recently been divorced from Barbara and had bought a brand new Mercedes 600. Janis had a Porsche. She said, “How did you pay for a car like this?” I said, “From people like you paying me for the songs I write.” She said, “boy, this is a beautiful car.” She was laughing and just on the spot started singing, “Oh Lord won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz, My friends all have Porsches, I must make amends…” She wanted to go back to the studio immediately to cut it. So we went back in the studio and I remember the producer Paul Rothchild saying, “Janis, can’t this wait until tomorrow?” She replied, “There might not be no tomorrow.” She got her way and we cut the tune. Afterwards I drove her to her hotel because she had consumed too much alcohol. At the hotel she confessed she was waiting for her heroin connection. I had some cocaine.
I offered her some but she said, “I don’t like to be up, I like to be down.” When the guy called up he asked her who was in the room. She said, “Womack.” He told her he wasn’t coming up unless I left, so I left. As I was getting on the elevator, I heard him coming up the steps. To this day I wonder who he was.
To be honest with you, I felt somebody selling heroin was totally different from someone selling cocaine. I was thinking how does this guy know me? I would never cop anything from him. For some reason, he must’ve felt I knew him. In the dope world you meet everybody. Maybe he thought I could point him out. I went on home and Paul Rothchild called me in the wee hours of the morning saying that Janis was dead. I think about Janis a lot. She had a hard life. She ran away from her past and tried to escape through music. She said she was mistreated and viewed as the ugliest girl at school. People only started giving her credit after she became Janis Joplin the singer.
That’s why you have to believe in what you do. People love you and think they know you for a lot of reasons. They don’t know you through a song. They were just touched by what you had to say. You don’t find out about yourself until later in life, if you’re able to live that long.
Wrapping it up Bobby, did you see Bruno Mars Superbowl halftime performance?
No I didn’t but I heard great thangs about it. He’s in a position where they expect you to come in and kick ass. He did that!
You just returned from some European dates. You’re home resting up. When are you going back out?
I’m going back out in March. I’m not sure how long we’ll be out. It’s funny. You know I live in L.A. Sam Cooke brought me and my brothers out here when we were young. As a matter of fact, his grandchildren are staying with me now. And yes, they all can sang! The point I’m trying to make is that I only do perhaps one show a year here in L.A. But when we do I’m gonna call you and have you come to the show so we can see each other in person, maybe a couple of hours before the show. We can just kick it. Know what I mean?