“If you ain’t got no style, you’re in trouble”: A revealing conversation with one of the true giants of soul.
BY HAL BIENSTOCK
Forget Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. It’d be a lot more fun to play the musical parlor game Six Degrees of Bobby Womack. During his more than 50 year career, Womack has touched just about every major classic rock and soul musician. He got his start performing with Sam Cooke, wrote The Rolling Stone’s first British 1 hit (“It’s All Over Now”), and went on to play with Sly Stone, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Janis Joplin and Elvis Presley. Branch out from there and it’s hard to imagine any musician he hasn’t influenced in some way.
As if that wasn’t enough, Womack also had a successful solo career, penning hits like “If You Think You’re Lonely Now,” “Woman’s Gotta Have It” and “Across 110th Street,” which got a second life in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown. He was essentially retired when Gorillaz’s Damon Albarn asked him to sing on the band’s 2010 album Plastic Beach. That led to Womack’s stirring 2012 electronic soul comeback The Bravest Man in the Universe, which Albarn co-produced with XL Records head Richard Russell.
We talked with Womack as he continued a tour that has been interrupted periodically by health problems, but finds Womack’s voice as strong as ever.
BLURT: How did you hook up with Damon Albarn?
WOMACK: Damon called me and said “I’ve been trying to contact you. I got a group called Gorillaz.” I never heard of a group called Gorillaz. I told him, “Last time I was on the scene there was group around called The Monkees!”
When Damon called me and said, “Let’s do something in the studio,” I said, “Man, I haven’t recorded in a while. You might not like me. You’re judging me on what I did 20 years ago. A lot of things happened since then.”
He said, “You ain’t changed. It’s still there. You were ahead of your time.” We recorded. After the [Gorillaz] tour, he said, “Let’s go into the studio.” I kept denying him. I said, “I’m not ready for that. Music has changed; it’s so different.” He said “I’ve got great ideas.” He brought the electronic sounds. I ain’t trying to be 15 or 20, but I’ve got to realize it’s a new day. People are doing it a new way. I’m a trendsetter. I don’t follow nobody.
I started singing “The Bravest Man in the Universe.” He said, “What’s that?” I told him that one day Isaac Hayes called me and said, “I want you to write something for the Memphis Horns. They’re cutting an album and we need some material.” Nothing ever happened with it. It went in the closet. I was playing it and Damon said, “Oh man, that’s a great song. That should be the title of the album.” I said, “Are you kidding me? Do you know how old that is?”
He said, “It’s a great song. People will love it. The main thing is your voice. If it’s leading, it will cut through everything else.”
How did you feel about working on such an electronic record?
I could talk about old school. I’m still living. It’s new school. Some things will never change: feeling and being able to communicate with people. First, you gotta have a story, a true story. When you stay out too long, you burn out. You have to regroup.
Are you working on a new album?
We’re talking about it. Right now, I’ve been fishing around, dropping in and out of places. I just did something with Rick Ross. I cut something with Van Morrison. I’ve got an album already recorded that I was working on before I got with Damon. It’s really nice to compare vocals with different people. I worked with Stevie Wonder, Ron Isley, Rod Stewart. I tell them, “I always wanted to sing with you. Not to put it out. Just to hear how you and I project.”
Everyone has a story and a way of approaching a song. If you ain’t got no style, you’re in trouble. Every time you’d hear a Sam Cooke song, you knew it was Sam Cooke. Same for Ray Charles, Wilson Pickett, Janis Joplin, The Rolling Stones. These people have a style, that’s why their music is still around.
Of all the people you’ve worked with, is there one who influenced you the most?
I always say Sam Cooke. But I would have to say my father. My mother asked me that before she passed: “How come you never mention him?” I don’t know. If it wasn’t for dad, I wouldn’t be doing this. He started us young and got us on all the shows. Then Sam Cooke. After that, Wilson Pickett. Pickett was real hot at the time. We both were Pisces. I remember him saying, “Let’s go to Atlantic. They’re going to flip out over you.” Well, they didn’t flip out over me. He said, “Let me record those songs. They’ll see Wilson Pickett, and right under that they’ll see your name.”
I thought he just wanted to record my songs. But he was right. Everything Pickett ever cut was a hit. He had that feel. I miss him dearly. I think about him all the time.
Why did you stop playing music for all those years?
I had been with so many artists and had gotten off into drugs. I had to get my life straight. I’d walk into a restaurant and if there were musicians in there, I’d walk out. The first thing they’d say is “I got something special for you.” I don’t want to be around all that.
When I looked and saw how many artists I grew up with, drugs have killed a lot of talented people. Talented people always have to go one step beyond to check it out and see what it is. Then they’re hooked. When I see how it has destroyed people, I said, “I’m getting away from the business. I want to sing for the feeling of singing, not hyped on something.” That was a big challenge for me to reach that goal. I’m proud of my life, the way I survived, the way I lived it.