“I’m coming to see everybody down there at just the right time. I was green before, but I’m well-seasoned now.” Bobby Womack is the last person who can believably refer to himself as inexperienced, in any way. But then again, the man who is known as the Greatest Soul Singer In The World isn’t really in the business of being believable.
Last year he was preparing to tour The Bravest Man In The Universe – his first album in 12 years – when he was hospitalised. His immediate diagnosis of pneumonia swiftly worsened. “I got real sick real fast,” Womack says. “I slipped into a coma for more than two weeks – I was out for 17 days. All the doctors were talking about pulling the plug. They were telling the family to be prepared.”
Somehow he regained consciousness. “I had bills to pay, and other things to take care of,” he says matter-of-factly. Did the need to resolve outstanding utility payments really summon him back to the land of the living? “Well, I think God knew I needed a chance to play Australia. You know I’ve never played down there?”
That last bit is a bit of a porky pie. Womack was here in 2011 as part of Damon Albarn’s massive Gorillaz global tour. He contributed vocals on multiple tracks on 2010’s Plastic Beach, most notablythe soaring vocal hook on lead single ‘Stylo’ where he duels throughout with rapper Mos Def. His involvement in the album was all the more significant given it occurred by chance. Initially Albarn had intended to feature Bee Gees’ Barry Gibb on ‘Stylo’, but the disco star was sidelined with an earache. Cue Womack schooling the world in how to kick an epic vocal groove, old school style(o).
Being involved with Gorillaz has been hugely fulfilling for Womack. At the same time, it has reminded him of his limitations. “I’ve been singing a long time, and I’ve never got sick before. That tour with Gorillaz was the longest tour I’ve ever been a part of, and it showed me that the body is not getting any younger. I can still sing – truth be told I think I’m singing better than ever – but sometimes I got to take it all a little slower.”
This will be Womack’s first time playing his own music and shows in Australia. Then again, he’s got good reasons for taking so long to venture south. The Cleveland-born artist has been busy since debuting in 1954 at the age of 10 as a member of The Womack Brothers. During the 1970s he had a successful solo career, the skills for which were implemented during the years he played bass and guitar for gospel artist Sam Cooke as part of The Valentinos. The group’s June 1964 hit ‘It’s All Over Now’ was covered one month later by The Rolling Stones, and the Womack co-written number went on to become the British band’s first UK hit.
Cooke and The Stones are just a couple of the big names that Womack has worked with throughout the last half century. “People think I’m bragging when I start talking, but they’re all my constituents,” Womack says. “I knew all of them, and most of them were my friends. Sam Cooke, Janis (Joplin) and Marvin Gaye were very dear to me. When I get up there it’s about them, you know? It’s about the old school, because these people deserve to have monuments erected in their honour. People talk about the sound of pop music now – well, look at a guy like Michael Jackson and how much he changed things. Now years before Michael Jackson there was another Michael Jackson – his name was Little Richard. Nothing exists without the past.”
Womack and Cooke had a particularly close relationship at a time when the particulars of touring life for black musicians differed greatly to others. “When I was 16 years old I was playing guitar for Sam,” Womack says. “We’d play all over the country, and wherever we went the white folks would be staying in hotels, and we’d have to stay in motels. One day I asked Sam why we couldn’t stay in a hotel with the rest of them. And he turns to me and says, ‘Don’t worry about staying in no hotel. It’s just a bunch of hoes running around.’
“Another time Sam called me up to his house,” he continues, changing tack slightly. “He’d just finished writing ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’, and he wanted to know what I thought about it. I told him straight that the song was something else. That it was a different kind of hit. Then I asked him if he thought that one day a change was gonna come. And he said to me that soon enough the world would change forever. He said one day there’d be a black president. That seemed pretty strange to me, back then. Sam said he wouldn’t see it in his life, but he thought I would.
“We have to thank music a lot for where we at today. I guarantee you there would be no Barack Obama without all the musicians that went before him. And that’s because music is the universal language. Music can anger people and it can soothe them, but most of all it’s what brings people together and helps them get past all that other bullshit. You know?”
Womack’s absence from recording and performing since the turn of the century was a great loss. He recorded Christmas Album in 2000, and spent a good chunk of the next decade battling ill health. In 2009, the same year he worked with Albarn on Plastic Beach, he was inducted into Cleveland’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame by Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood.
After a period of relative exile from the industry, it was a joyful return to the city of his birth at the Public Hall. The singer dedicated the occasion to Cooke, telling the audience of 6000 people that he wished he could share it with the man who had plucked him and his brothers out of Ohio and set them on the road to fame.
“When they told me they were going to induct me, they asked who I wanted to do my speech. I told them I’ll do my own damn speech. Ain’t nobody left to do my speech; they all gone now,” he says.
The 69 year-old was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in January this year. It doesn’t seem to have affected his conversational skills – at one point he asks mischievously, “You do know I’m making a special effort to come and see you all in your winter?” Nor has it affected his live performances – in February he performed at the Hall of Fame again and intermittently mused on the origins of soul music with the audience, while delivering a set laden with classics like ‘Across 110th St’ with an electric backing band and massive gospel choir.
He is particularly proud of last year’s Albarn and Richard Russell (Gil Scott-Heron) produced The Bravest Man In The Universe. “I think it’s a great album. I had to make this album for all the ones out there who struggle. There’re too many Wilson Picketts out there who never really get what they deserve. I hope people will listen to it, and they will have hope.”
BY BENJAMIN COOPER
Bobby Womack plays Sydney Opera House Friday May 24 and Saturday May 25.