Bobby Wo­mack’s early gospel singing has kept him grounded through a some­times trou­bled life, writes Iain Shed­den

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Music -

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



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.

Bobby Wo­mack

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