It’s all too easy to feel like you’ve lost a friend when a musical hero dies. Their work has affected you so deeply, and has been in your life so long that they’ve become an innate part of your DNA. Too many heroes have left indelible scars upon their passing, but, thanks to one unforgettable day in late-2012, the impact Bobby Womack made on me – and indeed Clash’s reciprocated love – was profound and genuine. Today, I’ve lost someone who inspired me, who touched me with his humility, openness, and evident passion.
Photo shoots are notoriously long and often challenging days, especially when working with musicians. There is often a tangible tension in the air, as everyone orbits the star, trying to make them happy, trying to get great results while never wanting to make them uncomfortable. Bobby Womack was shot for the cover of Clash Issue 81, our end-of-year edition, in which his new album ‘The Bravest Man In The Universe’ (his first in 12 years, co-produced by Damon Albarn and XL boss Richard Russell) was voted our favourite of the year. This significant achievement validated a creative renaissance and the rejuvenated spirit that Albarn and Russell encouraged from Bobby, and he was so moved and motivated by the honour that he arrived on set absolutely ready to roll, with complete trust in everything we asked him to do.
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It turned out to be the best cover shoot I’ve ever been a part of. We’d been advised by his PR to ensure that we shouldn’t expect too much activity – he was 69, he had just conquered pneumonia and colon cancer, and was still in recovery. Our concept, therefore, kept things focused on the most expressive part of him: his face. Our research suggested he was man that loved his hats and shades, so we collected a vast range of adornments and spread them out on a table. Ranging from Westwood’s tall Mountie hats (way before Pharrell) to his own corduroy cap, he had the pick of headwear. His eyes, meanwhile, could be decorated with octagonal frames, designer shades, and a variety of sculptures made from found objects by eyedress artist Cyrus Kabiru.
It was a startling and disparate collection, and we didn’t know what his reaction would be. Some image-conscious young hipster may have run a mile. Bobby beamed as he scanned the assortment; “Whatever you want me to wear, I’ll wear it,” he grinned, genuinely excited. “You just give it to me, and I’ll put it on.” (Later, in our interview a week or so later, with time to reflect, he told me: “I was talking to my ex-wife last night and I was telling her out of all of the interviews, the commercials, and especially pictures [I ever did], I wear glasses and I said I never had anybody come up with that idea. It was real fresh to me… I really got off on it.”)
The day progressed with Bobby sat down for the duration, as around him the photographer, Rory Van Millengen, and Rob Meyers, Clash’s Creative Director, buzzed around him, moving the lights or replacing his accessories so he needn’t move. All the while, he’s regaling those on set with amazing stories from his past - remembering his mentor, Sam Cooke; remembering how friend and former bandmate Jimi Hendrix would hide his sandwiches when food was scarce on the tourbus; remembering his initial horror when first hearing The Rolling Stones had covered his song, ‘It’s All Over Now’.
It was a glimpse into history. It was a man so comfortable in his surroundings, so proud of his life, so happy to be able to share it, that he just glowed – sitting so still and serene – like Buddha, with devotees hanging upon his every word. “It truly was an honour to be embraced by his world for even that short day,” Rob commented today. “I’ll never forget his kind and inspirational words.”
In turn, our shoot would make a similarly substantial impact on Bobby. It spearheaded his return to the limelight, turning heads with our unique and stunning photography, and introduced him to a new generation of fans. It was the perfect album for the times - his gruff soulful voice had lost none of its emotive qualities, while Albarn and Russell’s thoroughly modern and complementary accompaniment was a marriage made in Heaven. So pleased was everyone with the results, XL reissued ‘The Bravest Man In The Universe’ with Rory’s photography on the cover. We were honoured.
An excerpt from our cover story is online to read now, here, and we’ll run the whole interview with the original photography soon. Discover for yourself the insight of a man thrilled to be back doing what he loves, and the story that led him there. I just wish he could have carried on. He said in our interview that he almost felt guilty that he was still around to make music, while Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, Teddy Pendergrass, Wilson Pickett and so many of his old friends weren’t, and that his role now was to “carry the ball” for them. He did so much more than carry it: he scored a touchdown.
While we await the cause of death, I take comfort in the fact that even despite his recent illnesses he created this final work of art, and even though he regretted that his biggest fame would arrive so late in life, he was still intent on enjoying it. “The break that should’ve came 30 years ago is coming now, and my body is falling apart,” he said. “My dream – the way it should have been – has just come along. I give the credit to God, because I don’t know what kept me around, but I’m gonna make the best of it.”
Thank God he did. Rest in peace, Bobby.
BOBBY WOMACK ON SOUL TRAIN, 1971 - 'THAT'S THE WAY I FEEL ABOUT CHA'
Words: Simon Harper