The music world lost a legend on June 27th, as celebrated soul man Bobby Womack died at the age of 70. He’d been due to release a new album, ‘The Best Is Yet To Come’, later this year – the follow-up to his sensational 2012 comeback, ‘The Bravest Man In The Universe’.
Said collection, co-produced by Damon Albarn and Richard Russell, was Clash’s album of the year for 2012 – and, accordingly, we featured Womack on our year-end cover. The interview from that issue (81) has never before appeared in full online, with complete photography. To mark the great man’s passing, here it is.
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Look, if you gonna go and reach, reach…
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You know someone is important when their personal assistant is a professional Barack Obama lookalike. Yes, even fake presidents follow in the wake of Bobby Womack: soul superstar, bona-fide legend, and full-time survivor. But when both men walk onto set for Clash’s cover shoot, shit gets real.
They’ve come to East London all the way across town from their record label’s Notting Hill base on a day packed with duties, and we’re fully expecting them to be grumpy for doing so. Added to this fact, we were expecting Bobby to be indignant at the suggestion he get changed for the camera – trust me, we’ve dealt with enough difficult divas and cooler-than-thou indie kids to know that image is precious.
So it was refreshing, and something of a relief, that while perusing our vivid assortment of vintage, designer and decorative glasses and hats, Bobby simply conceded: “Whatever you want me to wear, I’ll wear it. You just give it to me, and I’ll put it on.” Meanwhile, Arthur, Bobby’s aforementioned right-hand man, is whooping with laughter, claiming: “This is gonna be one to remember!”
He’s not wrong. What follows is three hours of the easiest and most fun shoot Clash has ever experienced, where in between swapping hats and shades, Womack entertains the studio with stories collected from his 60-year career (more on which later), some involving Sam Cooke, others Jimi Hendrix, but all delivered with a beaming smile.
We’re here today because Clash has judged Womack’s latest album, ‘The Bravest Man In The Universe’, made in collaboration with Damon Albarn and XL founder Richard Russell, our favourite long-player of the year. “That’s great news,” Bobby responds, genuinely grateful of the honour.
It’s an album that crowns his career, which bridges generations, genres and technologies, and one that nearly killed him. It’s music that affects the depths of your soul, that makes you want to dance, that makes you want to cry.
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‘Whatever Happened To The Times’ (2012)
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From the title track’s dark, humbling sermon, we experience the paralysing pain in ‘Please Forgive My Heart’, where Womack pleads over sparse piano and penetrating, warm beats. ‘Deep River’ is a stripped-back gospel original, just Bobby, his guitar, and a direct link to decades past, and then Lana Del Rey adds her ghostly refrain to ‘Dayglo Reflection’.
We hear the 2012 equivalent of Jackie Wilson in the irrepressible ‘Love Is Gonna Lift You Up’, while the pounding techno punch of closer ‘Jubilee’ comes complete with Womack’s seasoned baritone layered all over itself. Forward-thinking the album certainly is, and we’re in love with it. Looking back at its genesis, however, Bobby admits he could never have predicted its impact.
“Matter of fact, I didn’t have no idea at all. I just knew that it was different than anything that I had ever done. I mean, working with Damon and Richard, it was just different – their approach was different.” How so?
“One thing different was the way that we would come up with songs. I’d never sit down and work on material, except for when we got in the studio. They would throw something at me, and the next day I would come back with the song. It was just great, and it was very fresh. Plus, I had never cut with a band so small – it was only about three pieces. So I would say, ‘God!’ And they kept saying, ‘Yeah, I just think the most important thing is your voice should be out there. You got an incredible voice’.
“So, I was just saying, look, if you gonna go and reach, REACH! You can’t say, ‘No, don’t do it that way!’ We didn’t have that argument! We just went right in and kept going. It was magical.”
The Womack/Albarn partnership dates back to when Damon got in touch with Bobby asking him to contribute vocals to the Gorillaz album ‘Plastic Beach’ in 2009 – he sang lead on first single ‘Stylo’, and ‘Cloud Of Unknowing’. When Womack confesses to never hearing of Albarn’s outfit, you can believe him – even when talking about them now, he calls them ‘Gorilla’. Bless.
“I told Damon to send me some material and let me hear it. Now, my daughter just walks in when I was listening to the tapes, and she said, ‘Dad, what are you doing listening to Gorilla?’ I was shocked. I say, ‘You know them?’ And she said, ‘Dad, that’s one of the hottest groups in the country. What are you doing?’ I said, ‘Is that against the law? I’m just listening!’ So she said, ‘Well, I sure wish you would cut with them.’ She said, ‘Dad, that’s the way you can get back in it!’”
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If I’m still living, I wanna keep living. I wanna try out the new things…
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Impressed by Damon’s work ethic, clean lifestyle and professional attitude, Bobby found himself a new partner, and even agreed to tour with Gorillaz, accompanying them across the globe, even though he’d only perform his two songs each night. “They said, ‘You only gotta be on stage 10 minutes’,” Bobby remembers. “I said, ‘Ten minutes? It takes me that long to burp!’”
But it was an impetus that re-awoke Bobby’s passion and drive, setting himself up for something more. After all, he’d practically retired after his last record, ‘Christmas Album’, in 2000.
“All the people that I grew up with – Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, Teddy Pendergrass, Wilson Pickett – all them people are gone! I say, if they left me here to carry the ball, I gotta do it where they feel proud of what I’m doing. And that right there kept me in the game, and just waiting on the opportunity – if it ever came along, I would open up. And it came along, and I opened up. If I’m still living, I wanna keep living. I wanna try out the new things.”
All of which led to Bobby, Damon and Richard convening in London and New York to start work on an album with sessions that blurred the lines of master and protégés. There’s a video on YouTube that provides an insight into what happened behind the scenes with the trio. We see Damon handling piano and keyboards and Richard programming the drums, both immersed in the man and the moment, and Bobby freestyling over their choppy beats. They look like they’re having a ball. Life was good.
Then, things took a turn for the worse. Already diagnosed a diabetic, in early 2012, while putting the finishing touches to this album, the 68-year-old was struck with a string of health problems. He was hospitalised for three months, where he was in a coma for 14 days, had pneumonia three times, and told he had prostate cancer (the tumour was removed, and later proven to be non-cancerous). He hid his medical problems from the public, and thought this exciting new venture would never see the light of day.
“I thought, ‘Boy, isn’t this a drag?’ Now the break that should’ve came 30 years ago is coming now, and my body is falling apart. My dream – the way it should have been – has just come along.”
In turn, having faced death, this became the most important album Bobby had ever worked on. “They allowed me a chance to be me. That means when you grow from materialistic things, your attitude changes as a writer, your attitude changes as a person, your attitude changes period. And I think for the better.”
Apparently healthy now – “but not like I wanna be” – Bobby still has ambitions left. “It’s like somebody breathing life into a dream that you’ve always had,” he says. Yet he can’t guarantee there will be a follow-up to ‘The Bravest Man…’.
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To say, ‘Oh yeah, we’re gonna do another album’, I say, who knows if I’ll still be around…
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“Because, from my sicknesses and all the things that I went through in my life, I say you can’t predict what’s gonna happen tomorrow. I live for today and try to put as much into today, but to say, ‘Oh yeah, we’re gonna do another album’, I say, who knows if I’ll still be around?”
The thought of losing Bobby at this juncture is heartbreaking. Not only would a reprise of this twilight promise be unfulfilled, but the world would lose a true musical icon, a conduit to a bygone era and departed heroes. Another long, rich and intriguing branch of music’s family tree will cease to grow.
It began to bloom in Cleveland, 1952, when Bobby was just eight-years-old, drafted into a gospel vocal group with his four brothers by his Baptist minister (and aspiring guitarist) father, Friendly Womack, with little choice: “My father just said, ‘Hey, you gonna do this or I’m gonna beat you into the next week’, and if you didn’t want that whipping, you wouldn’t say no.”
The Womack Brothers were a sensation on the gospel circuit, and even though Curtis Womack was the lead singer, it was his younger brother Bobby that would steal the spotlight. The group caught the eye of Sam Cooke, himself then a member of gospel group The Soul Stirrers. After leaving to go solo and follow a secular musical direction, Cooke soon launched his own label and publishing company, SAR Records, and in turn signed The Womack Brothers, converted them to secular (against the wishes of Friendly), changed their name to The Valentinos, and relocated them to Los Angeles.
Bobby was the group’s main songwriter and guitarist – a role with which he’d moonlight with Sam Cooke on tour and in the studio. Womack was brought to international attention when The Rolling Stones covered his Valentinos hit, ‘It’s All Over Now’, a move which still rankles Bobby.
“I was saying, ‘Let them get their own song! Write your own song!’ And [Sam Cooke] said, ‘Bobby, you don’t understand. You’ll be a part of history through them.’ He said, ‘You’re giving them their first shot in America and all around the world.’ And I kept saying, ‘Yeah, but I still don’t want them to record the song.’ And he said, ‘Bobby, I own the publishing!’”
Decision made, Womack surely benefitted from the song hitting number one in the UK and its consequent royalties, but what runs deeper is the racial implications of white artists stealing the music of black artists. Despite the Stones’ intention of paying tribute to Womack, it’s one more example in a long line of unfair treatment to artists never given the chance of exposure.
“I look at the black artist as they come a long way,” Bobby sighs. “But it’s a lot of people paid heavy, heavy dues, and was never recognised for anything.”
Following Sam Cooke’s murder in 1964, Bobby was left reeling. The Valentinos were put on ice while he tried to forge his own career – which was marred right at the beginning by controversy when he married Cooke’s widow, Barbara. (Furthermore, Bobby’s brother Cecil went on to marry Sam and Barbara’s daughter, Linda; the pair would later record as Womack And Womack.)
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‘Across 110th Street’ (1972), as used in the movie Jackie Brown
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Session work with Aretha Franklin, Sly Stone and Janis Joplin led to his own deal with United Artists in the early-’70s, and a proto-funk, raw soul-rock direction that delivered hits such as ‘Harry Hippie’, ‘Woman’s Gotta Have It’, ‘Lookin’ For A Love’, and ‘Across 110th Street’, from the soundtrack Womack composed to the film of the same name.
The latter is a song that still packs a punch – its gritty descriptions of life in the ghetto (“Been down so long, getting up didn’t cross my mind”) are no less potent today, and is testament to Bobby’s incisive and profound talents. He recalls to Clash how he had to persuade his label to let him do a soundtrack – they weren’t sure, however, if this film was right for him.
“I can write about the ghetto – I was born in it. I lived in it all my life. It’s nothing new. And so it happened. And even today, I say the ghetto still will never go out of style. People can still relate to that song. That song was written 40 years ago, but look what it says. Look how we’re living today. So I think all of that comes from being somewhere, and you’re there for a reason. I like to make the reason a positive reason for it to work and give other people hope, and the only way you can do that is through music.”
Bobby’s success waned from the late-’70s, partly due to the effect his brother Harry’s 1974 murder had on him, and then throughout the ’80s, as a drug dependency made his output unpredictable and his personal life precarious.
“I used to play it because I loved to play it,” he reasons, “but once I started seeing that the guitar had a way of making more money for me and putting me in a bigger position, then I lost the craving and the creativity for wanting to play the guitar, unless it was going to bring a song. You see what I’m saying? So when you lose that, you lose the true you.”
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Because creative people are so creative, they think they can figure everything out, and drugs is one thing you can’t figure out…
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A spell in rehab changed his perspectives and his fortunes, and saved his life. “I would like to be able to enlighten new artists and new entertainers that’s coming up: don’t even stop and waste your time,” he advises. “Because creative people are so creative, they think they can figure everything out, and drugs is one thing you can’t figure out. While you’re figuring it out, you know you’re hooked. Creative people are the worst when it comes to that. I seen Marvin Gaye walk past a lot of stuff, but he could not walk past that. The bigger he got, the bigger it got, until you knew what was going to win in the end. The drugs will win.”
As is evident, Albarn’s phone call was the light at the end of a very long and dark tunnel. It pulled Bobby through, and out into a world that’s entirely grateful to see him back, and all the better for his experience and hard-earned advice.
“I say one thing to the young generation: if you love this business, you must have a passion for it, because your passion will be tested every day,” he stresses. “Most artists get ripped off before they get started, and when they really learn the business, they’ve already made tonnes of money. If they still can go behind that, they wasn’t doing it for the money, they was doing it because they love the music. And you will get through it.”
His own love reignited, his star shining brighter than ever, Bobby Womack is right where he belongs: lost in music. ‘The Bravest Man In The Universe’ is not only a most appropriate title, it’s a testimony to a life dedicated to the pursuit of music and the joy it can bring to others. We hope, Clash signs off, that Bobby can stick around to continue his good work.
“Well I’m hoping too,” he nods. “Matter of fact, I don’t even think of it like that. Even though it comes on my mind, I just say, ‘God, let me just do a tour around the world, then I’ll let it go’. But I just feel the best is yet to come.” Hallelujah.
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RIP Bobby Womack, 1944-2014
Words: Simon Harper
Photography: Rory Van Millingen (website)
Fashion: Zoe Whitfield
Creative Direction: Rob Meyers