Bobby Womack

By Paris Pompor


From doo-wop to Muscle Shoals R’n’B-country, blaxploitation soundtrack Across 110th Street to electronic-soul, Bobby Womack's canon is vast and spans 27 studio albums and countless collaborations. Not surprisingly, when it comes to set-lists, he says: "I never know what's going to happen till I get on stage.”

Despite an extended family dogged by tragedy and trials, career fluctuations, last year's cancer scare and now a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, in conversation a cheery Womack easily regales anecdotes from a 60 year career. Anticipating a big throat-clearing cough that never comes, his gravely voice recalls Marlon Brando's Don Vito Corleone minus the cotton ball enhanced menace and New York accent. After all, Womack grew up in Cleveland where by age eight, he and four brothers were hawking gospel harmonies, before cutting records as The Valentinos under the tutelage of soul patriarch Sam Cooke.

"When I go on stage, it's a good feeling to say: What would you all like to hear that I haven't done?" says Womack. "That's real to me. I might want to play a song 15 minutes longer. I wish I had the professionalism of some guys: they do the exact same show [night after night]. They cough at the exact same time, same conversation, they laugh and it's over. I can't control the spirit. It's not a machine. When you plug me in the wall, you're not going to get exactly what you want. You might get more than you want."

At 69, Womack’s chatter is still peppered with the bravado of the twenty-something hot-shot making records for the Minit label alongside Ike and Tina Turner, Aaron Neville and bands like the O' Jays. In those days: "Man, I used to chase every girl with a skirt on like a man going insane," Womack chuckles. In concert Womack still feels like that striking young man with the tightly cropped Afro, eye-catching outfits and colossal rose-tinted glasses.

"As I'm coming down [off stage], I become 69 again," Womack quips. “Energy? I know where it comes from. It comes from the people. I feed off that.”

Though many Womack compositions have become classics, he has also been a master interpreter of other people's songs since his first LP hit the shelves in the '60s. As his distinctive versions of California Dreaming and Fly Me To The Moon demonstrated early on, covering a song can be an art in itself and one that should involve making it your own.

So how did Womack feel in 1964, when The Rolling Stones released a fairly photostat cover of It’s All Over Now, months after Womack and his brothers wrote and recorded the song? Bare in mind the Womack original made very little chart impact, while The Stones scored their first British number one with it, springboarding them to international stardom.

"I was very disappointed," Womack admits, "because we had worked so hard. It seemed like forever to get a record [out], but we had started so early. All of a sudden we're making this transition going from gospel to pop - which was dangerous territory to be thinking about doing - and somebody else steals it! That's the way I looked at it: They're taking our break and people think they [wrote] it!"

Mentor Sam Cooke tried explaining how fortuitously lucrative the situation was, Womack recalls: "Bobby, this is going to be one of the biggest things you've ever done. People are going crazy for this group, The Rolling Stones. I said to Sam: Well why don't they roll their own hit?

Womack eventually befriended The Stones, working with them years after his first hefty writers' royalty cheque for It's All Over Now arrived. Still, “it wasn't the money that drove me,” he says. "It was the people I could reach."

How he would reach them was not yet a sure thing. In between The Valentinos breaking up (a split partly brought on by Womack marrying Sam Cooke's widow soon after Cooke passed away) and launching his solo career as a soulful singer-songwriter, Womack had become an in-demand session guitarist with an incredibly distinct style. Influencing Jimi Hendrix's playing and largely credited with inventing the 'wah wah' sound, Bobby Womack's guitar work features on everything from Aretha Franklin's Chain Of Fools and its associated album, through to Janis Joplin's Pearl LP, making him the last person to see Joplin alive.

Given that his father, the wonderfully named Friendly Womack, wouldn't allow his sons to play the only guitar in the house, a young Bobby had to sneak in practise time when his father was out, making his proficiency all the more amazing.

"Me and my brothers would listen to the radio and everything that would come on," recalls Womack. "Our game, to pass the time away was: If a song comes on, I've got to play along all the way through, whether I'd heard it or not. If I missed a note, I had to pass [the guitar] to somebody else. I was so desperate for that guitar, that they would be saying: I can't believe he's still got the guitar and this is the third song. Bob, you've heard this song before! I would say, No I've never heard it, I'm just sliding into it."

Years later, Ray Charles would make the same remarks, amazed at how Bobby would "slide" into new songs and arrangements without ever having heard them before.

"The only thing I dislike about having more than one talent," muses Womack, "is that one suffers. When I was playing guitar, that's all I wanted to do, 24 hours a day. Once I started writing songs and got success... I started saying: man I love my guitar, but I'll only use it for writing. I never would go to sleep, I'd stay up all night writing."

Luckily, Womack's soulful and weighted voice was every bit as unique as his guitar style, giving the songs he wrote a distinct and winning character.

As he continued forging a solo career, like many of his generation and subsequent ones, Womack was battling a growing drug addiction on the side.

“Man, I was so wasted," he chuckles whilst trying to piece together fragments from one particularly hazy decade.

“Some [people] ask me questions like: What made you write that song?"

To which he replies: "I don't even know HOW I wrote it!"

Daylight, from 1976, is a case in point. The lyrics start: Here I go again, it's five o'clock a.m. but the party is still going strong.  Apparently Womack penned it in Boston at a post-gig party where Kris Kristofferson had dropped in.

“I didn't even know I'd ever met him,” Womack laughs. "I think he helped write that song!"

Luckily, "there was usually someone straighter than me" at these shindigs who years later has been able to fill in the blanks. "To look back on it sometimes, it's a miracle," says the 69 year-old whose memory is now threatened by a degenerative medical condition..

In the end, Womack decided he had "to get away from the business to get back to it.” And so began detox and a self-imposed career hiatus lasting much of the ‘90s.

When long-time fan Damon Albarn invited Womack to contribute to Gorillaz’ 2010 LP Plastic Beach, Womack was "super excited but scared,” worrying that the touring might mean hanging out with "a bunch of cats getting high."

He told Albarn: "I don't want to go back there," warning the producer that if there were drugs involved, Albarn would one day "look up and I'll have packed up and left."

Instead the two formed an enduring partnership, recording Womack’s first LP of original material in almost 20 years, The Bravest Man In the Universe. Released in June 2012, a month after Womack’s successful surgery for a cancer scare, its positive reception has prompted his first ever solo tour to Australia.

"I think about the Wilson Picketts, the Marvin Gayes, Sam Cookes, Ray Charles, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin," says Womack. "These are people I knew well. Today I look back and think: Damn it's so scary all those artists are gone… Why am I still here...? I have to take this seriously. I'd rather not be here once I'm too old to do what I do.

"What I still get off on, is turning the people on [with music] and them turning me on in return. I'm excited. I want that excitement to continue."


Friday & Saturday
24 + 25 May 2013
Sydney Opera House

Interview/story by: Paris Pompor
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