Looking back: Bobby Womack

8 July 2014 Doug Wallen

Looking back: Bobby Womack

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Bobby Womack was most famous in the 1970s, but his music career enjoyed a renaissance when he collaborated with Gorillaz in 2010 and released a new album in 2012. At the end of June this year, he passed away. Doug Wallen wrote about him in  Ed#409 , 2012.  

There’s something of the drifter in Bobby Womack. The Ohio native is best known as an R’n’B singer, in his prime in the 1970s. But his story neither begins nor ends there. Focusing on just one decade would ignore Womack’s teenage transition from his family gospel outfit to secular soul – playing guitar for soul pioneer Sam Cooke – and coming out on the other side of cocaine and alcohol addiction decades later. It would also ignore his new album, The Bravest Man in the Universe, which has seen him come out of retirement to work with some unlikely collaborators.

Those collaborators are Blur frontman Damon Albarn and producer Richard Russell, who owns the smash English label XL Recordings (home to Radiohead and Adele). Albarn sowed the seeds when he invited Womack to sing alongside rapper Mos Def on the synthesiser-stalked track ‘Stylo’ for his project, Gorillaz. The 2010 single introduced a new generation to Womack’s trademark world-weary rasp, which seems to mingle joy and sorrow in its deep fissures.

It turned out Womack was a natural fit in the Gorillaz universe of cartoon alter egos and revolving guests. This led to a more significant vocal presence on the track ‘Cloud of Unknowing’, which was included with ‘Stylo’ on the Gorillaz 2010 album, Plastic Beach. Again proving his capacity to surprise us, Womack gave a wistful performance more akin to his one-off country album BW Goes C and W (1976) than to straight soul. Then came ‘Bobby in Phoenix’ from Gorillaz’s iPad-recorded road album The Fall (2010), a track hinging not just on Womack’s voice but also on his skeletal guitar work.

The Bravest Man... is a natural extension of ‘Bobby in Phoenix’. There are hazy electronics at work, but the twin anchors are that raw, survivor’s baritone and an equally rumpled thread of acoustic guitar. Not everyone knows about Womack’s history as a guitarist, but after playing for Cooke he later lent his chops to Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin and Sly & the Family Stone. He was also a session musician at American Sound Studios in Memphis, featuring on the Box Tops’ ‘The Letter’ (1967), Dusty Springfield’s ‘Son of a Preacher Man’ (1969) and Elvis Presley’s ‘Suspicious Minds’ (1969).

Womack hadn’t played guitar in 20 years when Albarn made contact. “I had lost my confidence,” he confesses, in a short documentary on the making of The Bravest Man... Once work on the album started, though, everything flowed. Womack co-wrote the songs with a longtime writing partner, Harold Payne, and co-producers Albarn and Russell.

It’s unavoidable that the album will be compared to Gil Scott-Heron’s I’m New Here (2010), another Russell-produced record by an African-American legend haunted by addiction. But while both albums balance minimal electronica with gritty blues and soul, Womack’s is also a guided tour through his unique life experience.

‘Deep River’ and ‘Jubilee’ are based on traditional spirituals, returning Womack to his gospel roots with his family band the Valentinos (later the Womack Brothers). Bridging past and present, ‘Dayglo Reflection’ was inspired by a sampled interview with Cooke, yet has guest vocals from today’s singer of the moment, Lana Del Rey. These smouldering tunes leave room for his voice to explore everything from falsetto (‘If There Wasn’t Something There’) to a broken howl (‘Please Forgive My Heart’).

It’s all a reflection on the life of the man whose title track to the 1972 Blaxploitation film Across 110th Street was later reused in both Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (1997) and Ridley Scott’s American Gangster (2007). The man who sparked controversy in 1965 by marrying Cooke’s widow, Barbara Campbell, mere months after the singer’s death. The man who co-wrote the 1964 Valentinos song ‘It’s All Over Now’, which became the Rolling Stones’ first UK #1 hit. The man who, at 68, has had surgery for suspected colon cancer but was later given the all clear.

A fitting bookend to The Bravest Man... is Soul Sides, a new two-CD collection of Womack’s strongest work between 1968 and 1975. While it doesn’t touch on his acclaimed later albums The Poet (1981) and The Poet II (1984), it unites many tangents of his career. These range from high-profile covers like ‘California Dreamin’’ (1968) and ‘Sweet Caroline’ (1972) to ‘Harry Hippie’ (1973), a tribute to Womack’s late brother, and ‘I’m a Midnight Mover’ (1968), co-written with Wilson Pickett, which Womack used as the title of his 2007 memoir.

On the lead single and title track for The Bravest Man..., Womack sings: The bravest man in the universe is the one who has forgiven first. Quoting ‘Amazing Grace’ and playing funky licks, he evokes the healing redemption of gospel, while exposing everything he has endured. Hearing those youthful, almost prepubescent breaks of wounded feeling in his voice, it’s all too clear: the drifter has come home.

by Doug Wallen

The Bravest Man in the Universe is out now.

This article first appeared in Ed#409 of The Big Issue magazine.

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