The soul legend talks about going onstage, "Across 110th Street," and "The Bravest Man in the Universe."
Bobby Womack’s career had started by the time he was 10, and he has been in the public eye since the 1950s when Sam Cooke saw his family gospel group and suggested that they sing secular music. Cooke mentored Womack through his days in The Valentinos, and the group disbanded after Cooke was killed in 1964. Womack has worked as a solo artist since. He experienced a resurgence of interest in 2012 when Blur’s Damon Albarn and XL Records’ Richard Russell produced The Bravest Man in the Universe. The album put Womack in a contemporary context with a very textured, electric musical background that made Womack’s voice the star. The album was a commercial success in England and a critical one here. In the Los Angeles Times, critic Mikael Wood wrote:
Womack, growling raggedly and with a disarming lack of vanity, takes the album somewhere else: In "Love Is Gonna Lift You Up" he sings about the return of hope over a buoyant electro-disco groove, while the beautiful avant-cabaret ballad "Dayglo Reflection" (featuring typically smoky guest vocals by Lana Del Rey) summons a sense of romance that doesn't feel expired or used-up. The result confronts old age without giving in to self-pity.
Womack plays Jazz Fest today at 3:25 p.m. on the Congo Square Stage. In this interview, he starts by remembering the New Orleanians he knew from his days with Sam Cooke.
It’s a strange thing playing New Orleans. June Gardner, the drummer that played with Sam Cooke, was the last member of that [group], outside of me, that’s gone. He just passed away. He would always come when I would come to New Orleans, and I could always spot him in the crowd when I was performing. He was from New Orleans.
I knew him well. When I was following Sam as an artist when I joined the group, we played together quite awhile. He was like my father in a sense. He was always giving me constructive conversations, criticisms about what you do as you become an artist. And I would listen to him ‘cause I knew that the best position you could be at with anybody is in the background - a side man - because you can watch people make mistakes that they don’t even know they’re making. So I learned a lot from June, Cliff White the guitar player, and Sam Cooke definitely.
Did you know Harold Battiste when he was in Los Angeles?
Yeah, I worked with Harold. He’s still around, isn’t he? As I remember, Sam was very excited about bringing Harold Battiste and there was another guy named Red [Tyler]. He was excited about bringing the New Orleans sound to L.A. He was saying, “This is gonna be different.” And New Orleans, ya know. He always talked about that. He had a studio that they would come there and work every day.
Did you ever record or play with Harold Battiste?
Yeah I did, but it’s been so long ago. That’s when I was with The Valentinos, but believe it or not, it’s hard to say who you have and who you haven’t worked with. I ran into Chaka Khan at the airport, and she said, “You never mention me.” I said, “I worked with a lot of people. I would have remembered them if I thought they were gonna be famous.” I was just trying to make a living.
It’s amazing how long this business has lasted for me. I feel blessed. It’s been a good 60 years, and I just had a birthday a few days ago. I turned 70. People say, “I’m not gonna hire anybody that old!” But I’m proud of that. When I think about it, I think Boy, I’ve been lucky. I’ve been on so many planes. I’ve been in so many countries. I did so much.
Were there times when you weren’t sure you were ever going to make it to 70?
No. You know what? To me, I think the greatest gift you can have as a young artist is never think that you made it. Just remember how you make it. Every time you get a chance to do what you do. I say, otherwise you’ll be looking forever. Only a few people make it in this business, and they’ve all got a story. Every time that you’re going to wake up and see a new day, one you never saw before, you’ve made it. Anything can turn out from that.
The only thing I think I got lost in is hanging out too much, partying too much, because it’s a party and I had to remember and remind myself: “I’m the party. If I come here all partied out, they ain’t got no party! And they’re payin’ for me to do this.” So I had to get on the business side, and it’s been better than 20 years that I don’t even drink or smoke. I don’t know if that had anything with keeping me alive, but I’m pretty sure it did. You’ve got to grow up some time.
How’s your health these days?
My health has been good. It’s amazing - I went on a tour with Gorillaz, Damon Albarn, and that’s the first time I ever got sick. I was complaining: “I want to do more time. It’s not enough time for me. Fifteen minutes. Man, I’ve got to do more time than that.”
I was so glad when they convinced me, “Man, all you’ve got to do is walk on stage, do a couple songs and walk off.” I didn’t think it made sense because I’m used to working an hour, hour and a half. But out there I caught pneumonia, then from there, things got shaky. I went into the hospital for awhile. My wife always jumps on me and says, “Don’t talk about that. People will think you’re ill!” But they know. I’m not gonna lie to them. I’m a human being. Human beings catch cold. They get sick like everybody else. Especially one that’s on the highway, livin’ the kind of life I live, moving from hotel to hotel.
Did I read right, that you’re dealing with Alzheimer’s?
No. I was telling somebody in London that I forget the people that I should know. I said, “I feel like I’ve got Old Timer’s.” I mentioned the word “Alzheimer’s” and they went all over.
I was singing this song, and I got to the second verse, and I couldn’t remember what the verse was so I made up some lyrics. That was frustrating to me. I said, “I can’t understand that,” and a guy said, “Yeah, but you’ve written many songs. You’ve written and played with many acts. Somewhere, everybody’s got Old Timer’s.”
I couldn’t do 15 countries and go on stage and travel as much as I have in the last year [if I had it]. I was playing somewhere with a well-known country act, and he cancelled because he’s suffering from Old Timer’s, and it must have been pretty bad because he said sometimes he can’t remember his songs or he’d forget where he’s at. I don’t have no problem like that.
You know what? After you write so much, people request album cuts. That’d be one of their favorite songs and I said, “If you help me out, I’ll sing it. But I ain’t never did that song.” And you’ve got a band, and they don’t know it. They never remember it. They only remember “Harry Hippie,” “Woman’s Gotta Have it,” “Stop on By,” songs like that.
I was talking to Rod Stewart just recently. He was saying, “Why do you keep the same band?” He said, “Man I change bands every six months.” I said I couldn’t do that. I like the idea of whatever I hear, the band knows where I’m going.” But then again, that’s a crutch because sometimes you can be too relaxed. You know where it’s going to go and it’s always the same old story, the same old place.
Do you still get nervous going on stage?
I get nervous every time I go on stage. I hate it. I say, “When am I going to come out relaxed?” But I never take the audience for granted, especially when I’ve got to come behind a lot of people and all of their styles are different.
It’s got to be gratifying to have a record like your last album that became big.
Yeah it is, and sometimes it’s frightening to me because I walk onstage and believe it or not, I flash back. It’s like walking into a class and being graded by James Brown, Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, so they’re saying, “Show me what you got.” If you’re sick with a cold, you make no excuses. You go out there like nothing’s wrong. When you go out there with that kind of energy, it becomes right. It feels right. Sometimes I say, “Man I can’t. I don’t feel like going onstage. My voice is gone.” But as soon as the crowd responds, I know why I’m there. I leave the flu in the wings, and go onstage, and I ain’t got the flu until I quit singing. When I quit singin’ it comes back, and say “Okay, we’re gonna bother you back to your dressing room.”
Do you have to protect your voice?
I never have. I just get on stage and sing. When I’m off, you don’t even hear me hum. People say, “What do you take for your voice?” And I say, “I rest.” I don’t go to voice coaches and all of that stuff. I take care of it and my voice is better today than it was 20 years ago. Sometimes I used to think, “I want to hit that note, but what if I miss it?” I don’t even think like that anymore. I’m in the spirit of what’s going on around me.
Did it take you awhile to get to that place?
Yeah, but after so many years, if you don’t get it by then….
The only thing that never leaves me is “Do you get nervous when you go on stage?” I used to talk to Marvin Gaye about that. He said, “Bobby, everybody gets nervous. If they ain’t, they lyin’.” He said, “Once I get past the first two songs, I’m cool. But I have to go through that to succeed.”
How long does it take you to get comfortable on stage?
I’d say it’d take me about 15 minutes. I’m nervous when I first come out, but I never want to show that nervousness. But you can always feel it. I feel the audience feel what I feel, and as the show goes on, I always say to myself, “Okay, I’m on it now.”
When you play live now, do you do songs from your last album?
Sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t because it was huge in Europe but it never took off here. I say I’m going to sing a song that the people never heard of, their reaction shows. They’re waiting to hear what they came to hear. You don’t ever want to take the audience for granted and say, “Oh, they’re happy!” Because I know sometimes I can walk out and talk to people, and they say, “How come you didn’t sing this song?” And I say, “It’s a lot of songs I didn’t sing.” I say, “They only give me an hour onstage because somebody else is running the show.”
I often think of people like Wilson Pickett, Johnny Taylor - cats that I came along with, and I say, “Damn, man, I feel like there’s nobody left but me and Stevie Wonder and a few others.” But soul music will be here forever because it reaches the heart, and that’s what soul is. Music can be a lot of different directions, and people have different styles of presenting it. But if it’s coming from the heart, it’s going to the hearts that feel you.
How did you record that last album?
I went to London, and worked with Damon. It was different. He said, “The less music, the better. I think your voice and your deliverance carry everything else.” So I say, “Yeah, but yu know, just a few instruments - after awhile you get tired of hearing it.” I’m a producer too. I’m into producing, and I hear things in my head.
It was quicker than I’ve ever cut any album. He would say, “I got an idea. This song reminds me of something you would do in the day.” He would give me a sketch of it, I’d put it on tape, and then I’d go back to the hotel. The next day, I had the words. Sometimes right on the spot. I wrote it three or four different ways, but it’s fresh to me, and it was a fresh way to meet a new audience. I don’t care how long you been out there; still a lot of people don’t know you. And the new generations do a lot of things different. I’m not trying to keep up with them.
I feel like in a sense, I invented what’s going on. I gave them the path to follow. I like that people are saying, “He’s from the old school.” It’s all right to be from the old school, but the new school is still going on.
And the PR was - I never did that much PR. I said, “Man, just listen to the album.” For some reason, maybe the generation loved what they had heard, but it was strange to know that a lot of those kids had never heard of me. But then they would go back and buy older stuff, and I’ve been doing it a long time.
Was it hard for you to sing with primarily keyboards and synthesizers backing you?
I was saying, “Man, I just feel that the whole album, is just keyboards and everything is electronic, and Damon would say, “But your voice is not.” He kept saying, “Trust me”. And he had had a lot of success reaching people. That blew me away. He said, “We’re reaching an audience that will know about you long after we’re not even on the face of the earth.”
I would start out with the guitar, with me singing. Then they would do the electronics around the guitar. It took a long time to convince me. “Bobby, you’re singing. They can hear you. They can hear the lyrics. You don’t need all of that music. Some people do, but you don’t need it.” He was saying “This audience is learning you for first time. Look at their reactions.”
The business is a twist. I’m still trying to find out what makes it tick. I know if you reach the person’s heart, that explains it all. I’ll give an example. There was a song called “HarryHippie.” It was the B side, and nobody paid it any attention because the A side was “Sweet Caroline.” Neil Diamond. Disc jockeys kept turning it over, saying, “Now this is a song!” And the song “Harry Hippie” just took off. If I’d have known that I wouldn’t have wasted any time; I would have went right to it. Sometimes you have to deal with record companies, and that was the hardest thing. I think it kept people from being creative by trying to do what the record company wanted. And sometimes you have to, so to speak, kiss ass, just to make a point.
What are the songs that you recorded that you think best represent you?
I think “Across 110th Street.” It represents where I’ve been. Where I come from. Where I’m at today. And it’s still going on. There’s a ghetto in every city in every country. When I perform, I perform from true feelings. It’s like when I sung in church, I felt that kind of religion. I didn’t think I could feel that in an audience that went out to party, but when you’re talking fact, people listen. “True lyrics will never go out of style.” If you go back 30 years ago when that song was first recorded, people went for it then and they understand what you were saying a lot more.
What was the situation when you made “Across 110th Street”?
I was always complaining with this company called United Artists at the time, “If I’m so hot, how come y’all never let me do the music soundtrack?” Beause they would always go out and get Quincy Jones or somebody from another label. “I respect Quincy Jones, but man, how am I ever going to do it if you don’t let me?” I was going on tour, and they showed me “Across 110th Street,” the movie without no music. Once. Just one time. I said, “Oh man, I know what this is about. I lived this all my life!” Two weeks later, I came back with “Across 110th Street” and about 10 other songs. They were saying, “If we had really let him do it, wonder what he could have done? He was doing the tour, he was writing at midnight. He stayed up all night putting this together.” I said, “Well, it’s home for me. I can tell a story, especially somewhere I was brought up in.” I said, “I thought everybody lived in the ghetto.” I really did. There wer people who had a better life, but it made me stronger. It made me understand. It made me accept certain things that that was the situation at the time. So it just came out.
Sometimes I can’t tell which song came from which album. Somebody else would tell me, “It was 1965. It came out with this song.” I created it and I don’t know. I don’t know what that is, but I never look at the date when I’m writing a song. The dates, the month, what was going on in my life. But I can say with lyrics, “I know where I was at. I was in a bad relationship. That’s what made me come up with that.” I have always written something that I’ve experienced, because when you’ve experienced it, people believe you.
Thanks to Kathy Bradshaw for editorial assistance on this story.