Soul great who worked with musicians from Sam Cooke to Damon Albarn has died after career spanning nearly six decades
Bobby Womack, who has died aged 70, was one of the great soul singers, who, in a professional career that lasted nearly six decades, worked closely with leading musicians ranging from Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, Wilson Pickett and Sly Stone to Damon Albarn and Gorillaz.
Yet for many years, he was better known as a songwriter and session musician. The Rolling Stones, Janis Joplin, George Benson and Chaka Khan were among the many who recorded his songs and his funky guitar flourishes can be heard on records by Ray Charles, Elvis Presley, Dusty Springfield and Aretha Franklin. But he will be primarily remembered for his voice, a rugged and emotive baritone holler that came straight from the gospel church.
Womack was born in Cleveland, Ohio, the third of five brothers. His father, Friendly Womack, spotted Bobby's talent on the guitar at an early age, and Bobby was only 10 when he and the rest of his family started touring the midwest gospel circuit as the Womack Brothers, accompanied by their mother on the organ and their father on the guitar.
They soon came to the attention of Cooke, who signed them to his label SAR in 1961. Cooke changed their name to the Valentinos, relocated them to Los Angeles and encouraged them to take the same journey from gospel to secular R&B that he had taken. Bobby's speciality was to contribute unorthodox rhythm guitar lines – although he was left-handed, he played a right-handed guitar upside down without changing the stringing – but he would occasionally sing lead vocals. He was also the band's main songwriter: a 1964 single he wrote for the Valentinos, It's All Over Now, was covered by the Rolling Stones and taken to the top of the UK chart. Womack was initially furious about this appropriation, although his anger subsided with each subsequent royalty cheque. He later toured with the Stones and appeared on their 1986 album Dirty Work.Bobby Womack performs with Gorillaz.
Womack was also a member of Cooke's band, touring and recording with him from 1961. Cooke's death in December 1964 hit him hard. He grew close to Cooke's widow, Barbara, 10 years his senior. When they married, only three months after Cooke's funeral, it was seen by many as a betrayal. Womack fell out with his brothers, was booed at concerts and was severely beaten up by Barbara's brother. The first solo records he recorded for the labels Him and Checker were all but ignored.
Undeterred, Womack continued to work as a session musician. Between 1965 and 1968 he toured and recorded with Ray Charles, quitting, he claimed, because of Charles's tendency to pilot his own personal jet. He later moved to Memphis to work at Chips Moman's American Studios, where he played the guitar on recordings by Presley (Suspicious Minds), Franklin (Rock Steady), Springfield (Son of a Preacher Man), the Box Tops (The Letter) and Pickett (I'm a Midnight Mover).
Womack also wrote 17 songs during this period, and gave all of them to Pickett; with none of his own material left, Womack cut an album of covers in 1968. Ironically, his unorthodox R&B versions of Fly Me to the Moon and California Dreamin' became Womack's first solo hits in the US. Further collaborations followed: in 1969 he started writing with the jazz guitarist Gabor Szabo (their song Breezin' later became a hit for George Benson); in 1970 he co-wrote a track on Janis Joplin's last album, Pearl (his sportscar also inspired Joplin to write Mercedes Benz); the following year Womack's guitar, bass and backing vocals were crucial to Sly Stone's LP There's a Riot Going On.
By this time, Womack's personal life was deteriorating. He split with Barbara in 1970 when she found him in bed with her 18-year-old daughter Linda. (Linda later married Bobby's younger brother Cecil and formed the duo Womack & Womack).
But, despite a wrecked marriage and a cocaine habit, Womack was to start his most successful spell as a solo singer. He signed to United Artists, where his albums Communication (1971) and Understanding (1972) chalked up R&B hits including That's the Way I Feel About 'Cha and Woman's Gotta Have It. In 1972 he provided the soundtrack for Barry Shear's blaxploitation movie Across 110th Street: the title track would prove to be his most enduring single, later included in films by Quentin Tarantino and Ridley Scott.YouTube mix featuring Bobby Womack songs and clips.
As the R&B world moved from funk to disco, Womack baffled his fans by recording a country album (BW Goes C&W), and was dropped by his label in 1976. That year, he married Regina Banks; two years later, their son, Truth Bobby, died aged four months old. Womack turned again to cocaine, and his subsequent albums suffered.
Salvation came in the form of a 1980 hit single, Inherit the Wind, which he sang and co-wrote with Wilton Felder of the Crusaders, and his solo career picked up once more. The Poet (1981) and The Poet II (1984) saw him move into the modern soul pioneered by Teddy Pendergrass and Luther Vandross. Both albums were critical and commercial successes (The Poet II was the NME's album of the year in 1984) but Womack saw little money from them, and spent much of the decade in protracted legal wrangling with his record label.
There was a scattering of albums through the late 80s and 90s (including an LP of Christmas carols in 1999) and some odd collaborations (with Living in a Box, Todd Rundgren, the Wu-Tang Clan and Lulu). In more recent years, artists such as 50 Cent, Ghostface Killah and Black Star began plundering Womack's early 70s canon for samples. Womack was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009.
In 2010 Damon Albarn invited him to guest on the fourth Gorillaz album, for which Womack sang and co-wrote the single Stylo. Albarn later co-produced Womack's album The Bravest Man in the Universe (2012). "I was ostracised from the music community aged 21 when I married Sam Cooke's widow," said Womack. "After 45 years, I feel like Damon has welcomed me back in."
Womack's son, Vincent, from his marriage to Barbara, took his own life in 1988. He is survived by his second son Bobby Truth and a daughter, Gina, both from his marriage to Regina; and by two sons, Cory and Jordan, from a relationship with Jody Laba, Cory and Jordan.
Bobby Dwayne Womack, singer and songwriter, born 4 March 1944; died Friday 27 June 2014
Bobby Womack is so proud of his magnificent new album, The Bravest Man in the Universe, that nothing will stop him talking about it. Alexis Petridis gets an audience at the soul legend's hospital bedside
The nurse attending 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," she explains. 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 this morning 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; The Poet and The Poet 2, where his voice chafed beautifully against the slick 80s production. Womack proclaims The Bravest Man in the Universe "the best thing I've ever done" and he clearly isn't minded 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 to simply 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 as to beggar belief. "I know one thing, I can walk out of this hospital any time I want to. If I chose 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."
Being rushed to hospital because you're suffering from potential fatal pneumonia doesn't seem much like being tricked, but then the interview doesn't seem much like an interview either. Indeed, it resembles one only in so far as I'm an interviewer and I'm in the same room as Womack. I haven't said anything to him yet, beyond hello, at which point he embarks upon 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," he offers. "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 don't ask any questions. That's partly because, even nearing 70, frail and occasionally struggling for breath, Womack has something about him that precludes interrupting. He still undeniably has the aura of, as Richard Russell puts it, "a badass", 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," reasons 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 virtually all of 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," he frowns. "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 America. "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 It's All Over Now, which the Rolling Stones turned into a global hit, a state of affairs that did not overly delight Womack. "To be honest with you, I said: 'Let the Rolling Stones get their own fuckin' record and record that.'" 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 grimaces. "They gonna be assholes, then they just become a bigger asshole."
He spent time as a session guitarist in Memphis, where he played with Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett and on Dusty Springfield's Dusty In Memphis. He also played on Elvis Presley's Suspicious Minds, which didn't 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, where he 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's angry at America 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 80s hits Love Wars and Teardrops. But thanks to what you might charitably call Bobby Womack's complicated personal life, they're also the grand-daughters of his ex-wife: Bobby married Linda's mother, Sam 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're also the daughters of his ex-lover: with his marriage to Barbara failing, Womack began an affair with his step-daughter, 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, while Vincent, the little boy pictured on the cover of his 1972 album Understanding, killed himself in 1986. Another son, Bobby Jr, 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 90s, 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."
He credits Albarn – "a sweetheart" - with re-igniting 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 related to the people today. Bad as I 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 OK, 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," 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's 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 wouldn't doubt it for a minute. And neither should you.