Bobby Womack: From soul survivor to the bravest man in the universe

The nurse attending to Bobby Womack wears an expression for which the phrase “long-suffering” was invented. “Can I give you your meds?” she asks, proffering a handful of tablets. “Potassium, magnesium, something for blood sugar.”

Seated in his hospital bed, naked from the waist up save for a pair of immense bejewelled sunglasses, monitors attached to his chest, his thinning hair dyed yellow and what seems to be a tattoo of himself in full song on his right bicep, the singer makes a grunting noise that could well indicate assent but could equally herald the start of what would clearly be the umpteenth argument of the day. “Potassium, magnesium, something for blood sugar,” she repeats firmly. “Take them. Be a good boy,” she adds, before hurriedly exiting the room.

You get the feeling that dealing with the man some people call the greatest soul singer in the world constitutes the short straw for the staff of Encino Medical Centre in Los Angeles.

Already suffering from a tumour on his colon (it is later removed and found to be non-cancerous), he was admitted with breathing difficulties, apparently much against his will.

Apparently much against the medical staff’s will he has insisted our interview go ahead regardless: for the first time in 12 years, Bobby Womack has a new album, The Bravest Man in the Universe, recorded in London last year. It was co-produced by his former collaborator in Gorillaz, Damon Albarn, and Richard Russell, head of Womack’s new label XL and, following his work on Gil Scott Heron’s ­triumphant final album, I’m New Here, something of a past master at encouraging errant soul legends back to the studio.

The album, which sets Womack’s careworn voice and acoustic guitar against clattering electronics and mixes old gospel songs with guest appearances by Lana del Rey, is a ­triumph. It may even be as magnificent as all the other magnificent albums Womack has released: his peerless soundtrack to Across 110th Street; 1968’s Fly Me to the Moon and 1972’s Understanding, and The Poet and The Poet 2, on which his voice chafed beautifully against the slick 1980s production. Womack proclaims The Bravest Man in the Universe “the best thing I’ve ever done” and he clearly is not going to let a trifling matter like being rushed to hospital get in the way of promoting it.

“The doctor said I’ve got pneumonia,” he growls. “It’s bad enough to take my life. I said: ‘I’m gettin’ out of here.’ I was raising a big fight in there.” Chief among his weapons was his threat simply to leave the hospital and die, which on the one hand seems a little dramatic, but on the other feels entirely in keeping with 68 years already so filled with drama that it beggars belief.

“I know one thing: I can walk out of this hospital any time I want to. If I choose to leave and die, it’s my life. You can’t stop it. Mentally, spiritually, if I don’t feel like I wanna live no more, I don’t wanna live no more. Ain’t ­nothing you can do about that.” He chuckles. “I’m mad at everything. Damn, man, I’m supposed to be doing an interview. They tricked me into being here.”

Homespun wisdom

Being rushed to hospital because you are suffering from potential fatal pneumonia does not seem much like being tricked, but then the interview does not seem much like an interview either. Indeed, it resembles one only in so far as I am an interviewer and in the same room as Womack. I have not said anything to him yet, beyond hello, at which point he embarks on a monologue that continues unabated for an hour. It leaps without warning from topic to topic: during one particularly head-spinning section we go from Muhammad Ali’s unerring ability to find racist undercurrents in innocuous adverts, to Aretha Franklin’s love of soap operas, to Martin Luther King in the space of about two minutes.

It takes in both gruff homespun wisdom (“I don’t wanna be a star because stars fall from the sky and when they hit the ground they turn into a rock, and a rock ain’t no good unless you bust someone in the head with it”) and, at one juncture, the impossibly winning phrase “your mama only got one titty and that’s full of wine”.

“I’m skipping subjects, but that’s what I do. If there’s any questions you wanna ask, just ask me,” he says, with a laugh that seems to carry a parenthetical “best of luck with that”. “But I’ll talk myself and I’ll tell you the real deal.”

But I do not ask any questions. That is partly because, even nearing 70, frail and occasionally struggling for breath, Womack has something about him that precludes interrupting. Undeniably, he still has the aura of, as Russell puts it, “a bad-ass” who somehow survived a childhood in Cleveland amid poverty so grinding that even the projects seemed like a distant land of plenty — “They didn’t have no rats in the projects,” says Womack. “I thought, boy, they get that for free?” — 30 years of drug addiction and enough personal tragedy to fell the most stoic man.

He has outlived almost all his peers, something even he seems faintly startled by. “Ain’t none of those people living now and they were all around the same age as me. I made it. They didn’t do no drugs and they died anyway. There’s got to be a reason.”

But the main reason I sit back and let Womack speak is because everything he says is fascinating, an endless stream of anecdotes with an impossibly starry cast drawn from what may be the most remarkable CV in music: he is, as Albarn notes, “like Zelig”.

He formed his first gospel group with his five brothers before he had reached his teens. A few years later, their father kicked them out when they announced they wanted to play secular music. They were mentored by Sam Cooke, who moved them to LA and whose band Womack joined, touring a segregated United States.

“Sam used to tell me, whenever you got some money, you go get yourself a good ring and a good watch. Why would I need that? And Sam would say: ‘You might have to get outta town quickly, before you get paid, and you can always hock that ring and that watch.’ ”

He played with James Brown and Ray Charles and toured with a young Jimi Hendrix. He wrote The Last Time, which the Rolling Stones turned into a global hit, but it did not overly delight Womack.

“To be honest with you, I said: ‘Let the Rolling Stones get their own fuckin’ record and record that.’ ”

Dropping names

He worked with the Stones decades later on 1986’s Dirty Work: he liked Keith Richards and Ron Wood, but “had a problem with Mick Jagger”. “Some people never grow up if you give ’em too much,” he says, grimacing. “They gonna be assholes, then they just become a bigger asshole.”

He spent time as a session guitarist in Memphis, where he played with Franklin, Wilson Pickett and on Dusty Springfield’s Dusty in Memphis. He also played on Elvis Presley’s ­Suspicious Minds, which did not impress him much either. “People say ‘What did you think of Elvis Presley?’ I say: ‘He wasn’t shit. Everything he got he stole.’ ”

He returned to LA and recorded Trust Me and Mercedes Benz with Janis Joplin on the day she died — he was the last person to see the singer alive, save for the drug dealer who sold her the smack that killed her — and moved into the Bel-Air mansion where the coke-addled sessions for Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On were in full swing: “It was a circus.”

He was working with Marvin Gaye when the latter was murdered. “The last time I saw him, the day before he died, he said ‘Bobby, what’s a nigger got to do to get on the cover of Rolling Stone?’ It was all white acts. I said ‘Die’.” He sighs.

“It’s bullshit, it’s really bullshit. One of the greatest singers in the world. Marvin never knew he was gonna be as big as he is. Now you hear him on commercials every day.”

Occasionally, he sounds mad at every­thing. He hates hip-hop. “What the shit is that?” he spits. “No melody. Generations are coming up — if they have to listen to bullshit, they’ll grow up bullshitty. People don’t respect their mom, say they’re gonna knock her out. White kids trying to be black because they’re confused. I say to them, you wanna be black? You’re gonna have a hard time!”

He is angry at the US for criticising the Obama administration — “He got four years to straighten out 50 years of bullshit. Shit’s been going on a long time, but they gotta put it on the black man” — angry at the music industry for ripping off artists, himself included, and, furthermore, angry he was admitted to the hospital without his sunglasses.

The latter situation at least has been rectified by the arrival of the three young women he introduces as his nieces. They are indeed his nieces, daughters of his brother Cecil and Linda Cook, better known as Womack and Womack, the duo behind the 1980s hits Love Wars and Teardrops. But thanks to what you might charitably call Bobby Womack’s complicated personal life, they are also the grand-daughters of his ex-wife: Bobby married Linda’s mother, Cooke’s widow Barbara, shortly after the murder of her husband, a move that proved so controversial it scuppered his career for years. And they are also the daughters of his ex-lover: with his marriage to Barbara failing, Womack began an affair with his stepdaughter, which ended when his wife discovered them together and expressed her dis­pleasure in no uncertain terms by shooting him.

Incredibly, this was just another incident in a life filled with turmoil. Two of his sons are dead — one, Truth Bobby, suffocated in 1978 aged four months after being left unattended and Vincent, the little boy pictured on the cover of Understanding, killed himself in 1986. Another son, Bobby Jnr, is in jail for second-degree murder. His brother Harry, the subject of his 1972 hit, Harry Hippie, was stabbed to death in Womack’s home by a jealous girlfriend.

In the late 1990s, Womack finally kicked a 30-year cocaine addiction, but found himself despondent. “When I walked away from that I lost a lot of so-called friends. I was ready to check out. I knew more people dead than I knew living. Now I say, God, what a fool I’ve been. Put my music on hold. It was my life. A God-given gift.”

Forces of nature

He credits Albarn — “a sweetheart” — with reigniting his interest in music, first by co-opting him into Gorillaz, then by offering to co-produce The Bravest Man in the Universe. He was, he says, equally startled by Russell’s appearance in the studio. “I thought it was one of Damon’s friends. I didn’t know he was president of the record company. Never in my 50 years have I had the president of a record company come in and play with me. Normally, you got to fight them for every goddam song.

“I didn’t understand a lot of things they were doing, to tell you the truth. I’d say: ‘Damn, what the fuck is that?’ They said: ‘That’s you! Took your voice, speeded it backwards.’ I would never have dreamed of doing stuff like that, but I wanted to relate to the people today. Bad as I have been, I can sing my ass off, better than I could before. Maybe it’s been preserved or something. If I can take control of my life from drugs, divorces, anything, I stand tall.” He frowns.

“I’m speaking for all those singers who gave up. Marvin, Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke, Wilson Pickett: I can keep naming them until you say okay, I got enough. They need more respect than can ever be given to them. And I’m gonna set the record straight.”

Albarn calls Womack “a force of nature”, which sounds like a knowing understatement. “He’s booked himself in to headline Lovebox [festival],” he laughs incredulously, “which I find extraordinary. I mean, if he’s there, I’m there.

“I’ve got great faith that he’s going to pull through all the problems he’s got at the moment. You wouldn’t ordinarily think that but, because it’s Bobby Womack, I don’t really think his time is up in any sense of the word. It’s just an instinctive thing. I can’t really explain it. Do you know what I mean?”

I do. Another nurse arrives in the room. She too wears a long-suffering expression, but this time it is coupled with a purposeful air, which seems to indicate the interview is over.

But Womack waves her away.

He has something else to tell me. “I talked for hours and if I find out you only done an article on me this big” — he indicates a tiny space with his thumb and forefinger — “I swear to God, when I throw a punch, I’ve lost my cool, I can’t take no more of this shit and whoever’s in front of me is in trouble. I’m serious.”

The nurse, having finally lost her own cool, starts strapping an oxygen mask to his face, but Womack is still talking. “You better not bullshit me, boy!” He laughs. “Don’t think I ain’t gonna be back!”

I would not doubt it for a minute and neither should you. — © Guardian News & Media 2012

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Alexis Petridis
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