With one of the greatest voices of all time, 30 million records sold over a sixty year career and a back catalogue so deep one could drown in it, Bobby Womack has risen above more twists, tragedy and pain than a man should have to endure. Despite recent serious health issues, he is still kicking. Hard.
Sixty-nine year old Bobby Womack is one of the genuine Originators and although he has never been as well known as some of his contemporaries, his influence and impact on the music we listen to is embedded in stone. He’s worked with Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, The Rolling Stones, Elvis Presley, Janis Joplin, Aretha Franklin, Sly Stone, Wilson Pickett and toured with James Brown and Jimi Hendrix amongst countless others. And he knew Marvin, Otis and just about every other musician of note from that era. He stood at the crossroads of so many important musical moments from the last fifty years that in many ways he could be seen as the Forrest Gump of music.
His first album of original music in twenty years, ‘The Bravest Man In The Universe’, was winner of the UK’s Q Award for Best Album of 2012. Produced by Damon Albarn (Blur / Gorillaz / aka Hardest Working Man in Music etc. etc.) and Richard Russell (Owner of XL Recordings / Producer etc.) it made critics swoon and sold in far more respectable numbers than anybody could have reasonably expected considering the time lapse since his last release.
To the delight of us slightly more grizzled listeners who’ve been aware of the Womack genius for some time, a new generation is discovering the strength of his songwriting and that gruff baritone which tears the roof off wherever he performs.
I saw Bobby Womack in October 1985, when he played five nights at Hammersmith Odeon in London. Every night was billed as sold out but I went on the fourth night, managed to buy a ticket on the door and discovered to my surprise the venue was only half full. I was completely blown away by his voice and the full sixties soul revue his twelve piece band played for three hours without stopping.
Last weekend I finally got the opportunity to see him again when he played three nights at City Winery in NYC. I saw two of the three shows. And once again, was completely blown away. I was delighted to hear his voice was just as powerful as it’s always been and his band kicked serious ass (with a special honorable mention to guitarist Nate LePointe, who did a fantastic job).
He opened with the classic “Across 110th Street”, followed that up with “Nobody Wants You When You’re Down & Out” and “Harry Hippie”. Other highlights included an awesome cover of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” (which showcased a nod to Marvin Gaye by including some of the vocal parts from “Whats Going On”), his monster hit “If You Think You’re Lonely Now” the phenomenal duet with Alltrina Grayson, “Love Has Finally Come At Last” and the title track from his most recent album “The Bravest Man In The Universe”. He wrapped the show with the old gospel song “Jesus Be A Fence Around Me” and the classic “It’s All Over Now”.
I saw Prince a few years ago and during the encore he mentioned he had “So many hits, so little time” and as I was watching Bobby Womack tear up City Winery with a killer show by a killer band with a killer voice and killer songs I was put in mind of how apt that phrase is for Bobby Womack.
Another point of interest that night was that his daughter GinaRe Womack has been singing backing vocals with him for a while, but on these dates, for the first time she opened the show for him with a great thirty minute set of her own songs. The next Womack generation is making it’s mark.
The live shots in this blog were taken on the first night and the portraits were shot in his hotel suite on Sunday afternoon. As I’ve been inspired by his music for close to thirty years, I really wanted to do a shoot with him whilst he was in town and requested ten minutes of his time at some point over the weekend. I have to express gratitude to Sonya Kolowrat from XL Recordings, Bobby’s manager Regina Womack and her assistant Anaida Chalikian for making the portraits session happen. I got the phone call from Anaida just after lunch on Sunday telling me to be in the lobby of his hotel at 4pm.
Bobby was very sweet and accommodating and loved the pictures when I showed them to him after the shoot on my computer. I was deeply touched and honored when he told me he thought my work is really original and asked if I’d like to come out to LA to shoot his upcoming album cover.
Once we were finished, his very cool butler/valet/assistant Art kindly took the time to walk me out of the hotel to make sure I didn’t get lost. We had an interesting conversation before parting ways outside.
Bobby Womack’s first recorded release was in 1954 when he was ten years old, singing gospel with his brothers under the tutelage of their singing preacher father. The Womack Brothers released several gospel records through the 1950’s and toured the gospel circuit, where they met Sam Cooke who promised to help them when he could. After Cooke left The Soul Stirrers and became a crossover pop artist, he started his own label SAR Records and The Womack Brothers were one of the first artists he signed. He suggested they change their name to The Valentinos and encouraged them to record secular music, which caused their father to throw them out of his house. There’s a story that they called Cooke and he wired them the money to pay for the gas so they could get out to California.
Cooke produced and arranged the group’s first hit single, “Looking for a Love”, which sold over two million copies and helped land the group a spot on James Brown’s Revue. It was boot camp for the young musicians and Bobby still talks fondly of the lessons he was taught by the more seasoned Brown. They opened for his famous October 1962 engagement at the Apollo Theatre in NYC that produced the landmark “Live At The Apollo”.
The Valentinos second single, “It’s All Over Now” was written by Bobby and sister-in-law, Shirley Womack. Radio DJ Murray The K played a pre-release pressing of the song to The Rolling Stones, who loved it and recorded their version nine days later at Chess Studios in Chicago. Womack did not want the Stones to record it as he correctly believed it would hurt The Valentinos version. Cooke advised him to let them record it. The Rolling Stones got their first ever number one hit single with the song and Womack complained bitterly about the blow to his career until he got his first royalty check for $30,000 (equivalent to $250,000 today) six months later. At which point he famously said Mick Jagger could have any song he wanted.
Bobby also became Sam Cooke’s guitar player and was one of the first people to hear his classic “A Change Is Gonna Come”. In December 1964 when Cooke was shot by the manager of the Hacienda Motel in Los Angeles under suspicious circumstances, the career of Bobby and his brothers stalled.
Controversy erupted three months later when Sam’s twenty nine year old widow, Barbara, married the twenty one year old Bobby, an act that generated such ill will in the R&B community that it pretty much killed his career. And got him such a severe pistol-whipping from one of Sam’s brothers that his jaw was broken. He managed to release records for Him Records and Chess subsidiary Checker, but none of his songs would get played on the radio as he became known as the ‘kid who married Sam Cooke’s widow’.
He didn’t think it fair his brothers suffer by proximity to him, so he officially left The Valentinos, who were still struggling in the wake of Cooke’s death. The youngest Womack brother, Cecil, married the singer Mary Wells and they arranged for the brothers to get signed to Jubilee Records, where they made a large contribution to Mary’s album “Servin’ Up Some Soul”.
By 1966 Bobby had settled for making a living as a session musician (principally at American Sound Studio in Memphis) with artists such as Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Joe Tex and The Boxtops, but was still hungry for solo success. His songwriting reputation continued to grow after Wilson Pickett insisted on recording some of his songs, including “I’m A Midnight Mover” and “I’m In Love”, which became hits for the established Pickett. They became fast friends and Pickett ended up recording seventeen of his songs.
On the back of his songwriting success for Pickett, Minit Records offered him a contract and he released his first solo album ‘Fly Me To The Moon’ in 1968. Ironically enough, for such a remarkable songwriter, his first hit single was a cover of the Mama’s and Papa’s “California Dreamin’”.
As well as pursuing his solo career he continued to work as a songwriter and session musician, contributing vocals and guitar to Sly & The Family Stone’s iconic album “There’s A Riot Goin’ On” as well as writing “Trust Me”, which is possibly the best song on Janis Joplin’s last album, ‘Pearl’. He talked in this excellent interview in The Independent about being the last person to see Janis alive and stepping into the elevator as he heard the dealer run up the stairs who gave her the smack on which she overdosed. They’d spent the day in the studio where they recorded ‘Trust Me’ and the classic “Mercedes Benz”, which was inspired by the new 600 Mercedes that Womack had recently purchased and parked next to her new Porsche in the studio parking lot. After sitting in it for a moment she started singing “Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz”, then went straight back into the studio and recorded it.
His out-of-print 2006 autobiography, ‘Midnight Mover’ (which now sells for over $500+ on Amazon) revealed that in 1970 Barbara divorced Bobby after she caught him in bed with Linda, her eighteen year-old daughter and his step-daughter. Barbara held a gun to his head and ordered him out of the house before following him into the garage where she shot at him. The bullet grazed his head.
The early to mid seventies was a golden period which saw Bobby’s reputation as a major artist in his own right cemented by hits such as “That’s The Way I Feel About Cha”, “I Can Understand It”, “Woman’s Gotta Have It”, “You’re Welcome, Stop On By” and “Harry Hippie” as well as the blaxploitation classic “Across 110th Street”.
His personal life continued to be mired with controversy and tragedy. In 1974 his brother Harry was murdered by a jealous girlfriend whilst staying in Bobby’s apartment. The horror and grief of this loss fuelled his descent into serious cocaine abuse, which he subsequently partially blamed in his autobiography for the tragic 1976 death of his infant son, Truth.
His stepdaughter Linda had become estranged from her mother and after Cecil Womack and Mary Wells divorced in 1977, Cecil married Linda and Mary married Curtis Womack. Cecil and Linda went on to have some success as both songwriters and performers under the name Womack and Womack.
Along with many other great soul singers, things became tougher for Bobby during the Disco boom of the late seventies and his career started to slow down. It was kickstarted back into high gear in 1981 by the massively successful ‘The Poet’ album, which featured the huge ballad “If You Think You’re Lonely Now”. As has been the case so many times before in the music industry, Bobby saw very little of the money that was made on his behalf by the record company, Beverley Glen Records.
Released in 1984, ‘The Poet II’ was named album of the year by NME (New Musical Express) and featured Patti LaBelle on the killer duet “Love Has Finally Come At Last”. He followed this tour de force with the ‘So Many Rivers’ album in 1985, which produced the hit “I Wish He Didn’t Trust Me So Much”.
The following year his twenty one year old son Vincent committed suicide, causing Bobby’s addiction issues to spin deeper out of control and his career to once again stall.
His last collaboration in the eighties of any note was in 1989 when prog rock legend Todd Rundgren asked Bobby to sing on his power pop anthem “For Want Of A Nail“.
Bobby Womack cleaned up and got sober in the nineties and had a boost when Quentin Tarantino used ‘Across 110th Street’ for the opening and closing scenes in “Jackie Brown”, his homage to the seventies blaxploitation movies. In 1994 Womack recorded ‘Resurrection’ for Ron Wood’s Slide Label, which featured an array of guest stars including Wood, Keith Richards, Rod Stewart and Stevie Wonder. Rod Stewart was once quoted as believing there were four great singers in the sixties: James Brown, Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye and Bobby Womack. I have to say I agree with him.
In 1999 he fulfilled a long standing promise to his father (who passed away in 1981) by recording his first ever gospel album ‘Back To My Roots’ and followed that up with the ‘Christmas Album’ in 2000. Things went quiet for Bobby after that until Ronnie Wood took obvious delight in being the one to induct him into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame in 2009. During his induction speech, Wood told a great story about hiding under a sink with Bobby backstage in the dressing room at a Wilson Pickett gig in NYC as the Hells Angels beat on Pickett with baseball bats.
In 2010 Womack was at home listening to a piece of music somebody had sent over requesting his collaboration, when his daughter GinaRe came into the room and asked what he was planning to do with it. He replied that he was simply listening and not really sure if he would do something or not. GinaRe told him that he was listening to the band Gorillaz and “had to do something with them as they are cool.”
Gorillaz are indeed cool. The virtual band formed by Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett in 1997 as a concept which finally released their first single in 2001 has been hugely successful in all kinds of ways. They’ve sold well over fifteen million records, but more importantly they’ve broken all kinds of ground in all sorts of directions with all manner of fun AND made the soundtrack for dancing on it. Bobby had never heard of Gorillaz, but agreed to sing on the song after GinaRe’s insistence.
It was the spark he’d needed to start the engines running again. The motor coughed and spluttered more than a little on the way, but Bobby Womack is more than back, he is on fire.
And in typical fashion for the life story that’s gone before, the path back has not been without its difficulties. The first time he went in the studio to start recording with Gorillaz, he collapsed after an hour of “amazing singing” and had to be revived with a banana. At which point they discovered he had diabetes.
He ended up being featured on two of the ‘Plastic Beach‘ tracks, including the hit single “Stylo” and toured the world with Gorillaz for the latter part of 2010. Damon Albarn recorded the next Gorillaz album, ‘The Fall’ on an iPad during the tour and one of the highlights is the beautiful “Bobby In Phoenix”, which features Womack strumming a plaintive guitar and singing about Phoenix, AZ.
Following the tour Womack fell seriously ill. He had pneumonia and heart failure, which pushed him into a coma for seventeen days. The doctors were just getting ready to pull the plug when he regained consciousness. Whilst he was in hospital the doctors discovered a tumor that they believed was an indicator that he had colon cancer. They operated on him in May and removed the tumor, at which point they discovered it was not cancerous, but benign.
Albarn and Womack had grown close during the tour and upon its conclusion Damon suggested to Bobby they go into the studio to do some recording. He called in XL Recordings resident genius Richard Russell to help him man the helm and the two of them helped Bobby Womack set sail in yet another new direction with the excellent album ‘The Bravest Man In The Universe’. And this man will just not give up. Hospitalized yet again in 2012 for pneumonia, he was determined to promote his new music and gave what was possibly the best interview of 2012 to The Guardian from his hospital bed.
He has been lost and found more times than can be imagined but has always been saved by the music. He is now working on a new album titled ‘The Best Is Yet To Come’ which will feature collaborations with Stevie Wonder, Rod Stewart and Snoop Dogg. I, for one, am looking forward to hearing it. And hope to be involved by taking pictures for it.
Bobby Womack is blessed to still be alive after everything he has been through and we are blessed to still be able to see him perform. He will continue touring and playing as long as he can and I’d suggest that if he is playing a show anywhere nearby that you go see him as the experience he offers is different to the one you will find anywhere else. There is nobody left who can give this kind of show as he really is The Last Soul Man Standing.
This is Bobby Womack playing at the 2013 Glastonbury Festival – the first 30 minutes features Damon Albarn and songs from ‘The Bravest Man In The Universe‘ and the remaining hour is a classic Bobby Womack Soul Revue Show. Watch it and be inspired: