Bobby Womack: The Greatest Soulman

A tribute by Echoes Editor Chris Wells

Poised on a sofa in his home in the Hollywood Hills, rubbing the sleep from his eyes after a late night songwriting with Jim Ford, a relaxed Bobby Womack takes his acoustic guitar from his son Bobby Jr’s hands… and sings to me. It’s late August 1982. I’m, well, a nobody in this situation: a student from England, yes, a long-term soul fan – in fact, a huge Womack enthusiast – but a pretend journalist [with permission] using Echoes’ good name to blag an interview whilst holidaying in California. I never expected him to invite me into his home. And now he’s giving me a personal performance.
Bobby Womack literally changed my life. Because of him, because of his wonderfully visceral music and then two unforgettable interviews we did at the beginning of the eighties – a year later, he’d invite me into the studio to watch him lay vocals on The Poet 2 – I junked my legal background [and newly acquired law degree] to become a music journalist.
Bobby Womack is now dead: he passed away peacefully in his own bed on Friday, June 27. He’d been struggling with his health for more than 20 years, having admitted to me his alcohol and drugs issues as well as diabetes in a mid-nineties encounter that became memorable for a certain road-rage adventure. [You can read about that elsewhere in this ‘Features’ section of our website.] More recently, as you may have heard, he’d been dealing with colon cancer, undergoing and successfully recovering from surgery, and had been diagnosed with the early signs of Alzheimer’s disease. At 70 years old his body had become as frail as one might expect after an adult life of substance abuse.
I’m not sure there’s much point in turning this piece into a conventional obituary. After all, if you’re reading this magazine then you’ll probably be aware of many of the significant waymarkers, musical and otherwise, in Womack’s amazing life. The potted version, the one you’ll run into variants of elsewhere, goes like this. He came from poverty in semi-rural Ohio, one of five brothers. Their family group was spotted by gospel-turned-soul star Sam Cooke, who invited them to join him in Los Angeles and make some pop music. They had a hit with Bobby’s song It’s All Over Now, The Rolling Stones covered it and turned it into one of their anthems [ensuring our man a regular royalty cheque for the rest of his life], and thereafter Bobby became Cooke’s regular guitarist until the latter’s death by shooting in 1964. Bobby then quickly married Sam’s wife, Barbara, eight years his senior, earning him a large amount of approbation from the black community, who saw him as a freeloader and opportunist sniffing after Sam’s millions: in fact, he was doing the opposite and protecting Cooke’s family from myriad vultures.
In order to make his own money Bobby went out on the road with Ray Charles and then began to place his songs on artists like Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin. He also built a rep as one of the hottest session guitarists around, mostly down at Chips Moman’s American studios in Memphis. Thanks in part to Pickett’s introductions, the solo career began at the end of the sixties, took off during and burned brightly for most of the seventies, and saw Bobby record the majority of the music that he is revered for: if you own the albums Communication [1971], Understanding [1972], Facts Of Life [1973], Lookin’ For A Love Again [1974], I Don’t Know What The World Is Coming To [1975], Safety Zone [1975], Home Is Where The Heart Is [1976], Pieces [1978] and Roads Of Life [1979] together with the title track from his soundtrack to the blaxploitation movie Across 110th Street, then you have the juiciest portion of his best stuff.
The two albums in 1975 are patchier due to the effect of his brother Harry’s death by stabbing in March 1974; Roads Of Life was seriously compromised by the death of his infant son, Truth, in 1978, the first child of Bobby’s second marriage, to Regina Banks. [He’d been divorced from Barbara in 1976 after being caught in bed with teenage step-daughter Linda.] After a quiet period of recovery, Womack came back strong in 1980, adding his lead vocals to Crusader Wilton Felder’s debut solo single Inherit The Wind, a hit that provided a springboard to the relaunch of his own career. Signing to Otis Smith’s Beverly Glen indie, he cut The Poet [1981] and The Poet 2 [1984], two of the best and most successful complete albums in his entire catalogue. Moving up to the major MCA, he released three more albums in the middle eighties – So Many Rivers [1985], Womagic [1986] and The Last Soulman [1987] – before closing out the decade with Save The Children [1989], a poor one-off for Epic.
The only other significant recordings since then have been 1994’s Resurrection, a not-all-that-good, guest-star-laced set for Ronnie Wood’s Continuum label that barely sold a copy and, of course, The Bravest Man In The Universe, his 2012 album with Damon Albarn – the one few soul fans liked, but which, more importantly, did bring him back from a somewhat cold and lonely existence up there in his apartment in Sherman Oaks.
Admittedly, that’s a long ‘potted’ version. Thing is, Bobby Womack’s life was so filled with drama and adventure there is enough for a very long book. In fact, I’d recommend you read his [ghost-written] autobiography Midnight Mover, which does give the man’s side of things on some very important matters and tells some wacky tales – about visiting prostitutes in New York whilst on tour with The James Brown Revue; hanging out with Janis Joplin on the day she died; what a tight-fisted bastard that multi-millionaire Mick Jagger is; how completely, stark, staring bonkers is Sly Stone; and how come Bobby fathered two more children, Cory and Jordan, with Jody Labarr, a woman young enough to be his daughter, during the 1990s.
There’s so much more in-between, of course. Over a dozen or more interviews that I’ve done with him, Bobby himself filled in many of those gaps. He explained how he became a Freemason after being involved in an incident as a child when the family car broke down deep into redneck country and his father’s Mason’s hand-signs at the road-side brought salvation from a passer-by who looked every inch the type to have a white sheet and pointy hood in the closet. He talked about having to press his revolver to the head of a promoter unwisely insisting he went back onstage after his voice had given out on tour – and subsequently made the matter go away altogether with another Mason’s handshake to the club’s manager.
Then there was the time, right after brother Harry’s death, when he faked blindness so as to avoid having to sing Harry Hippie every night on an upcoming tour – and was later busted when spotted ogling a woman while recuperating in Hawaii.
And of course there’s the occasion when he impersonated Beverly Glen boss Otis Smith on the phone in order to retrieve the Poet 1 masters from a nearby warehouse – he needed a bargaining tool when Smith had been refusing to pay him proper royalties. The dispute led to court, a physical altercation on the courtroom steps and the subsequent ending of their relationship.
I’d also recommend listening to Robbie Vincent’s excellent Radio 1 interview with Bobby from the mid-eighties [it’s on Youtube], during which he explains [amongst other things] the circumstances behind his hook-up with Wilton Felder and The Crusaders: basically our man was flat broke and looking for a way back when a friend overheard members of The Crusaders in an L.A. restaurant talking about who they might call to lay vocals on Inherit The Wind – cue Bobby’s sudden, fortuitous arrival in said eatery. That was not long after brother Cecil had offered Bobby the chance to record his song Love T.K.O., an opportunity he’d had to turn down because he didn’t have a record deal. Teddy Pendergrass loved that.
So what do you think of when the name Bobby Womack comes to mind? For me he represents more than 40 years of collecting and loving his brand of soul music: I recall clearly stumbling across the just released Facts Of Life on a stall in York market and wondering whether to invest most of my pocket money on the work of a guy whose albums had been attracting kind words from John Abbey in Blues & Soul magazine. With Womack, right away you could tell he was an artist who put his life as well as his talent into the music. The lyrics nearly all sounded like he’d lived them. And that glorious voice! It could converse with you, treat you like a personal friend, then it would slay you with a growl or an ad-libbed aside that, well… it made everything just feel perfect. He could make you believe. He was a master vocalist; nobody could deliver his songs better. A new Womack album always spelled excitement: up until ’88 even his patchiest releases contained a handful of guaranteed killers.
Since our first meeting in ’82, when Womack became someone I was lucky enough to know and occasionally spend time with, it’s been a pleasure and a privilege to hover on the outside circles of his life. The in-studio experience, watching him lay the leads on Surprise Surprise and edits on a couple of other tracks on Poet 2, was spell-binding. Surrounded by James Gadson, bassist David Shields, brother Cecil and his wife Linda and former Rolling Stones acolyte Andrew Loog Oldham, he was right in his element, showing off, having fun and being casually brilliant.
After that he trusted me enough to take a few liberties – the car chase thing, obviously, but once, for example, we conducted an interview sitting right next to brother Friendly who’d been autographing posters on his behalf the whole time. [That’s right: all of you who thought you had a signed poster of Bobby smoking a cigarette and looking cool, it’s actually Friendly’s handiwork; Bobby only did two by his own hand, for photographer David Corio and me.] During our last face-to-face meeting, in Kensington just before The Bravest Man In The Universe was released, I could tell he was embarrassed when I bumped into him in the hotel foyer and found him unsteady and somewhat unfocused due to his diabetes. I wondered at the time if I’d ever see him again and although I did, it was on a stage at the Jazz Café, on a night when he gave his guitarist an especially hard time for being out of tune. Still a perfectionist in his seventh decade.
He was always far kinder to me. He gave me all the best interviews I’ve ever had, many of my favourite all-time records, a lot of fun, a real fright and some genuine insight into what it takes to come from the arse-end of nowhere as a black man in mid-20th century America and make it on your own terms, both as a human being and an artist. Bobby Womack was my hero and I’ll miss him very much.