VOICE OF A SOUL MAN
Bobby Womack’s early gospel singing has kept him grounded through a sometimes troubled life, writes Iain Shedden
BOBBY Womack knows a lot about love and loss. In the 1960s, when the young American singer, guitarist and songwriter was beginning to make his name, he saw some of the great artists he had worked with — Sam Cooke, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin — die.
The Los Angeles-based soul legend’s family life has been touched by tragedy too, including by the death of two sons and, most recently, by the death in February of his younger brother Cecil, who made his name as Womack and Womack with wife Linda, Cooke’s daughter and Bobby Womack’s step-daughter. Bobby lost time as a performer too, when his addictions to drugs took control of his life for much of the 80s and 90s.
At 69, the man who wrote the Rolling Stones’ early No 1 It’s All Over Now — and who has a string of hits under his own name including Lookin For a Love and If You Think You’re Lonely Now — is grateful he’s still alive, following successfully treated colon cancer last year. But he’s also relishing a career renaissance that has won him a new generation of fans and which brings him to Australia for the first time as a headline act for shows in Melbourne and Sydney later this month.
‘‘ Being in the music business feeds my ego and makes me go beyond the call of duty,’’ he says with a laugh. ‘‘ The good part about it is it’s another way of breathing, of staying alive. Even though I’m 69, as soon as I hear ‘ ladies and gentlemen, Bobby Womack’, my energy level rises. I can’t control it.’’
Womack’s last visit to Australia was in 2010 when, at the request of fan and collaborator Damon Albarn, he became part of the touring party for the Blur frontman’s hugely successful virtual outfit Gorillaz, whose album Plastic Beach he had also sung on. That was followed last year by The Bravest Man in the Universe, Womack’s first album in 12 years, produced by Albarn and Richard Russell. Appropriately enough, it was universally acclaimed. Both men will join their singer in The Bravest Band, one of the headline acts at the Glastonbury Festival in England next month.
‘‘ Damon has been very inspirational to me,’’ Womack says. ‘‘ He is so full of energy. He makes me laugh like that.’’
The singer had no knowledge of Albarn’s music before their collaboration. ‘‘ I didn’t know what it would be like to work with him,’’ he says. ‘‘ I was just sad at being out of business for 15 or 20 years.’’
Like many American soul artists, Womack’s career began in church. He sang with his four brothers and their parents in a gospel ensemble, the Womack Brothers, around their home city of Cleveland, Ohio, in the 50s.
That grounding in singing and songwriting has remained with him throughout his career. ‘‘ That’s the greatest skill that I learned from,’’ he says, ‘‘ because gospel is about feeling. When they talk about soul music they talk about feeling too.’’
After a young Cooke discovered the brothers he took them under his wing, changed their name to the Valentinos and signed them to his label. The Valentinos had a few minor hits in the early 60s, although the group disbanded shortly after Cooke’s death in a shooting in 1964.
Womack, who had moved to LA with his brothers to further their career, caused a scandal by marrying Cooke’s widow, Barbara Campbell, three months after his mentor’s passing. He was shunned by some sections of the local music community as a result.
That’s when Womack moved to Memphis and, while still writing songs and performing, became a session player, adding his guitar chops and vocals to recordings by Sly and the Family Stone, Aretha Franklin and Joe Tex, to name just a few. In the 70s his solo career took off on the back of albums such as Understanding (1972), Facts of Life (1973) and I Don’t Know What the World is Coming To (1975).
He looks back on that Memphis studio period most fondly. There were a lot of great musicians in the city at that time, he says, and it was a period, unlike today he believes, when artists knew the importance of being different from anyone else if they wanted to get ahead.
‘‘ That’s what kept me going,’’ he says. ‘‘ Everybody in those days had their own style. If you listened to Sam Cooke you could tell the difference right away from, say, Ray Charles; the difference from Ray Charles to Stevie Wonder. If you ain’t got your turf, you couldn’t make it.
‘‘ Today, I’m not saying everyone sounds alike, but everyone’s copying each other.’’
He cites Mick Jagger as another example of
EVERYBODY IN THOSE DAYS HAD THEIR OWN STYLE
a singer who knows the importance of being different. ‘‘ You might say he’s not the greatest singer in the world,’’ Womack says, ‘‘ but he’s the real-est singer in the world. Fifty years with the same energy. That’s great and that’s artistry to me.’’
Womack started dabbling in cocaine in the late 60s, but it was in the 70s when his career was starting to slide that he became addicted. He maintained that habit while still releasing albums on a yearly basis until he entered rehab in the late 80s. His recordings have been sporadic since then.
If he could go back, drugs would be the one thing he’d avoid, he says. ‘‘ If I could change just one thing, just to see what would happen, it would be to never to waste time with drugs,’’ he says. ‘‘ It’s a shame what it has done to some of the most creative people in the world. They tried to figure that out like it was a song, but you can write a song and then it’s done.’’
He says now that he’s over cocaine, ‘‘ it’s great to able to grow and do things naturally. Experience has brought a lot of that out of me. All of these super artists . . . none of them here today, that’s scary.’’
Womack is looking forward to a continuing healthy career on the back of The Bravest Man in the Universe. He’s planning a new album, some of which he had already written and recorded when Albarn and Russell took him into the studio. The new one will feature duets with artists such as Stevie Wonder and Ronnie Isley from the Isley Brothers.
And despite his many setbacks he is still in good voice.
‘‘ I just thank God he left me with my voice,’’ he says. ‘‘ My voice and my spirit are the biggest things I carry. When I was younger I was faster, but now I’m more experienced. My voice is the only thing that hasn’t failed. Everything else has dropped off, but my voice is clear and strong.’’
And in a clear and strong voice he responds to the question of what ambitions he has left. ‘‘ Coming to Australia,’’ he says. ‘‘ I’m proving myself. I ain’t taking nothing for granted, but I’m anxious to keep going, to keep performing.’’
Bobby Womack performs at Melbourne’s Hamer Hall on May 21 and at Sydney Opera House as part of Vivid Live on May 24 and 25.