Bobby Womack is keeping up with the times, as his creative renaissance makes clear, and even if it is cold here, he’s on his way, he tells Fiona Shepherd
If there is one thing Bobby Womack has learned in his 50 years in the music business – 50 years of high times, lean periods and rubbing shoulders with many soul, funk and rock legends – it is the value of a pre-tour weather check.
Or so it seems, as almost every interview you read with the great man – and there have been many in the past few years, as he enjoys an impressive career renaissance – begins with talk about the weather. This one is no different.
“Tell me something,” he says down the line from his home in Los Angeles. “We’re going to be coming to you soon, and I know the weather gets cold…”
Having received due confirmation, he’s off and running. “You know what, I’m just glad that there’s still a stage to perform on and to be in the land of the living! Because a lot of generations are no longer here, so it’s just a blessing for me to still be energetic, still got the fire, still wanna do what I do.”
There’s no doubting that. Womack is invigorating company, hopping from anecdote to observation, imparting poetic nuggets of wisdom drawn from his vast and varied experience as a singer, songwriter and guitarist.
It’s hard to credit that, in the past couple of years, this lively man has battled prostate and colon cancer, two bouts of pneumonia, several days in a coma and an Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Talk about a soul survivor.
Balancing out the ill health is his creative rebirth, achieved in collaboration with fellow renaissance man Damon Albarn. Womack has intimated that he was all but washed up before being invited to guest on Gorillaz’ Plastic Beach album in 2010. Albarn asked him to improvise some vocals on the single Stylo and the resulting cathartic cameo stood out even in the company of fellow guest vocalists Lou Reed, Snoop Dogg and Mark E Smith. This led, in turn, to the recording of his first new album in over a decade.
The Bravest Man In The Universe, released in 2012, is a stark soul collection with atypical electronic backing, courtesy of Albarn and XL Records boss Richard Russell, who persuaded Womack to take a leap of faith. He’s glad he did – Bravest Man… has become his biggest selling album in the UK. Understandably, he is full of praise and appreciation for Albarn.
“I admired the fact that he was so talented. He reminded me of me. Plus I was thrilled that he wanted to work with me because once you’ve found out that you’ve went down the wrong street, sometimes you don’t know how to turn around, so he was definitely a life-saver.”
Womack is moved to think of him in the same terms as the late, great Sam Cooke, who discovered and mentored Womack and his brothers from the mid-1950s, overseeing their transition from family gospel group to soul pop combo The Valentinos, and encouraging Womack’s songwriting skills along the way.
“He was Damon in another era,” says Womack. “He heard something in the group and I remember very well when we recorded It’s All Over Now with two guitars and a bass. I said I wanted strings on that session and he just said ‘then you’ll sound like everybody else. Your sound is unique, you should always want to carry that’. I never understood that until many years went by. To make it in this business, you got to have an identity. I always wanted to find out who I was and I’m still finding out today because as you mature, you look at things a lot different.”
Womack was barely out of his teens when The Rolling Stones’ cover of It’s All Over Now earned him his first big royalty cheque but his promising solo career was temporarily derailed by the scandal surrounding his marriage to Cooke’s widow Barbara a mere three months after his mentor’s murder.
However, he didn’t fare too shabbily out of the public eye, doing session work for Aretha Franklin, songwriting for Wilson Pickett and touring with Ray Charles and James Brown before relaunching his solo career with his classic cover of The Mamas & the Papas’ California Dreamin’.
The versatile Womack fitted well with the psychedelic scene of the late 1960s, associating with Jimi Hendrix, Sly & the Family Stone and Janis Joplin. He was one of the last people to see Joplin alive, at the recording session for her last completed track, Mercedes Benz.
“When I walk on stage, I can see Marvin Gaye, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin all sitting there,” he says, “and I have to represent them because they stood for a lot, even though drugs stopped their talent early.”
Womack had his own drug hell to reckon with in the 1970s and 80s, his cocaine use only exacerbated by the murder of his brother Harry, the death of his infant son Truth and suicide of his eldest son Vincent from his marriage to Barbara Campbell-Cooke.
“When you’re feeling good and you’re high, you don’t know the danger because you don’t feel danger,” he says. “You feel freedom and that’s why people keep doing it until it catches up with them. You want to be free all the time so that means you gotta be high all the time.”
Womack has been clean for more than 20 years now and, according to the title of another album he has been working on, The Best Is Yet To Come. Last year, he remarried his second wife Regina and has no immediate plans to slow down.
“If you gonna move on and reach new people, which is something that’s important to all artists, you gotta keep up with the times,” he says. “Why would I want to show folks what old school is like? They got history books for that. Every day you get a chance to see a day you never saw before – make something happen with it.”
• Bobby Womack plays Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on 27 January, as part of Celtic Connections.