Soul Survivor – Bobby Womack’s Traumatic Triumph

As 'The Bravest Man In The Universe' album tops our Best of 2012 chart

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 sixty-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, that 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.

From the title track’s dark, humbling sermon, we experience the paralyzing 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; Lana Del Rey adding her ghostly refrain to ‘Dayglo Reflection’; the 2012 equivalent of Jackie Wilson in the irrepressible ‘Love Is Gonna Lift You Up’; the pounding techno punch of closer ‘Jubilee’, replete with Womack’s seasoned baritone layered all over himself. 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, 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!’”

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 ten 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.”

This is an excerpt from the January 2013 issue of Clash magazine. Find out more about the issue.

Words: Simon Harper
Photography: Rory Van Millingen
Fashion: Zoe Whitfield
Creative Direction: Rob Meyers

*Click here to investigate the rest of our Top 40 Albums of 2012

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