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Bobby Womack - Listen To The Poet

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There are many reasons why people wish to become musicians, creativity, money, respect, travel, and perhaps the most common is escape. Be it poverty, a mundane job or education, a sleepy suburban town, a loveless relationship, to name a few. Whilst creating their music and absconding, they meet like-minded people, who enhance their voyage into music. In addition, this is not limited to the originator, but the people that listen to their music, as a song can touch the heart of someone that lives thousands of miles away.  A piece of music that makes you feel so damn good about yourself, that for a while, you forget  your  humdrum life, and maybe makes you want to change your life. That is a spiritual connection, so if the listener can relate to the musician, on a social, economical, religious, fashion, sexual or political basis that is how simply a musical movement is born.

Moreover since the birth of the Rock and Roll, the biggest selling point for music, making the musicians into sex symbols, be it the rough and ready yet youthful looks of the early Rolling Stones, to the  voluptuous and curvy Beyonce. Yet looks fade with age, and one sex symbol is replaced by another, but if the music has the empathy and is well written, the artists can have a long career, like The Stones, and by the looks of things Beyonce will certainly be around for many years to come. Not only are these people musicians, they are also survivors,  and to paraphrase Bobby Womack from the song  Across 110th Street “You've got to be strong, if you want to survive”, and Bobby Womack certainly does know how to be a survivor.

Born 4th March 1944, Cleveland Ohio, to a loving but poor family and like many poor black families of his generation, gospel music was part of their everyday life. It was ingrained in their community and their escape from their hardship and the discrimination they were facing. And like many artists that came from the R & B and Soul genre of the late fifties and early sixties, such as Bobby Womack, Sam Moore of Sam and Dave, James Brown to name a few, they  learnt to sing and their stage craft from the gospel church. In addition with social mobility being highly limited to blacks in the forties and the fifties, it seemed that music was their only escape.

With music being a part of the Womack house, as his father was in a band, Bobby and his brothers formed a band, The Valentinos. A band which was discovered by perhaps the first face of Soul music Sam Cooke, who had broken into the US Pop and R & B charts in 1957 with "You Send Me".

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Sam Cooke had worked hard to reach the top and it seemed that he wanted to use his success to promote and encourage other black artists. Not only was Sam Cooke a talented singer, but an acute entrepreneur and a visionary business man.  Knowing full well that the music business was already infested with sharks, he wanted control and to make sure the artists he looked after had the best deal.

And it was this train of thought that Sam Cooke persuaded a young Bobby Womack to allow The Rolling Stones to record his co-penned song (Shirley Womack being the other writer)  It’s All Over Now. Cooke could see these boys were going to be big, and the song was a success in the US for The Stones, and it gave the band their first UK number one.  Moreover, since its release The Stones and Womack, have remained friends ever since, like minded people.
Not only was Womack gaining a reputation as a good songwriter, he was achieving credibility as a guitarist, and was touring with other R ‘n’ B and Soul music legends, namely Ray Charles and James Brown.  

Cooke and Womack had a thriving and loving friendship, until 11th December 1964 when Cooke was murdered by Bertha Franklin, manager of the Hacienda Motel , where Cooke was staying on the night of his death.  There is still controversy over his murder, as witnesses statements seem to differ and according to Cooke’s family  the wounds on the deceased’s body, are far severer than the official autopsy report. Moreover three months after the death of Cooke, Womack married his widow, Barbara Campbell, a move that alienated him from a lot of people. Womack maintained that he married her to keep her safe and he was the closest thing she had since the death of her husband. Their marriage lasted over five years.  Nevertheless, Womack’s (now solo) promising career plummeted, until he recorded a cover for Bart Howard’s penned song, Fly Me To The Moon in 1968.  Before his comeback, Womack was not facing poverty or obscurity as he was making a nice income from penning songs for the likes of soul legend Wilson Pickett and many more.

That single and an album was enough to  get Womack back on track, and since then he has produced some outstanding and brilliant pieces of music, like Communication, Understanding, Across 110th Street, The Poet and The Poet 2 , all critically acclaimed albums by fans and the media alike.

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In addition Womack has experimented with many musical genres from Soul, Rock, Funk, R & B, Gospel to Country and Western, as well as moving from labels in doing so. And like all great artists, Womack has a distinctive voice, gravelly, husky and soulful with a signature guitar sound, funky, deep, rhythmic, melodic and powerful.

Womack’s solo work, as well as having an interesting life, has given him legendary credentials, and Damon Albarn (ex Blur and now of The Gorillaz) asked Womack to record and tour with The Gorillaz last year, and in doing so Albarn rightly introduced Womack to a whole new generation.

So when ZANI phoned Bobby Womack at his apartment in Los Angeles, he was only too happy to talk about his music, life and much more.

ZANI - You have been in a studio, working on a new album I presume for 2011, would you care to tell us about it please

Bobby Womack -  I am working on my own album, and I am also working on a new album with Bobby Bland as well.  Bobby is one of the guys I admired when I was a kid, but I wasn’t allowed to listen to, you know good old Rock ‘n’ Roll. My parents were very religious, I would wait for them to leave the house for work, and I would put  a Rock ‘n’ Roll radio station on, and it was Bobby  who inspired me, before I met Sam Cooke. They broke into the market, and that is how black people learnt to sing black music.  It took us a hundred years, but we have got it now.

ZANI – Bobby Bland is a true legend, and like Cooke a pioneer.  2010 saw you reach a whole new generation via your tour and recording with the Gorillaz on their Plastic Beach project.  From what I read there seemed to be a family atmosphere amongst the band and the guest members.

Bobby Womack  -  Working with The Gorillaz is the best thing that ever happened to me.

ZANI – That’s really nice to hear.  Damon pulled off a master stroke with some major musical heavy weights, I mean you playing alongside Mick Jones and Paul Simmons of The Clash, and with De La Soul  and a live video link to Snoop Dogg, that is an iconic line up I must say.

Bobby Womack - And it worked, and what was amazing about the tour, is that there were eighty people travelling with us, and I didn’t see one argument. It was just beautiful and spiritual. I said to myself, this is why I want to go back and perform, you can have an argument with your wife, or get arrested for not paying a parking ticket, but when you go on stage you can leave all that shit behind you.

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ZANI – Good therapy, I take it you and Damon had a good working relationship. How did you fit the project in, as you sound a busy man.

Bobby Womack -   Yes Damon and I get on, but Damon had made a commitment before I joined. He was working with an orchestra and in a way writing a play that he was going to take out on the road. And the only time I could do it and get into it was at the start of Sept 2010.  I said “man it’s like constipation, I can’t wait that long.   Man I’m on fire now”. So Damon said “I am going to tell what you can do, every time you get a song, you send it to me , and I can add it to my list.”  

Which I did, via the super information highway, and I could carry on with my new album, which I am still working on, called The Best is Yet To Come, and has some great friends on it, Stevie Wonder, Rod Stewart, Ronnie Isley, Snoop Dogg and Teena Marie.

ZANI – All of those are great names, and sadly Teena Marie passed away last year, I love her 1980 hit Behind The Groove.

Bobby Womack  - I know I was very sad about that.  I worked with Tina for the same reason I worked with the others, she had style. No one sounds like her, Stevie, Rod or Ronnie, even if the record never gets released, I can say I had the pleasure of writing a song with these people.

ZANI – Interesting that you are working with Snoop Dogg because I would like to briefly discuss Rap, as I understand a well known  Rap act approached you in 2004  and they wanted to cover your song,  Woman’s Got To Have It, but changed the title to Bitch Gotta Have It, is that right ?

Bobby Womack  - That song is very personal to me, because my mother said , “a woman has got to have it” and I got sick of hearing people talk about the bad side of women, everybody has got a bad side. My mother never had a bad side, if anything she was loving us to death, and she was strong for us.  And that was what the song is about, so when this artist came to me, and said here’s 75,000 dollars for the song, and I said “No, shit I would rather fight Muhammad Ali in his prime, than let down my mother.”

ZANI – I would have to agree with you on that one.

Bobby Womack  - That is one man I have always admired, Muhammad Ali, not for his boxing but for his intelligence to show the world what direction they needed to go to. He used boxing to get the attention of the people.

ZANI – Well Ali is something else. I know you have worked with Mae Mae Ali (Muhammad Ali’s daughter) on a track Walkin’ On The Wild Side.  I understand her father was none too happy about this or was that just the media?

Bobby Womack  - That was just the media, Ali said to me, whatever she wants to do and she is happy with it, do it.

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ZANI -  Do you like today’s Hip Hop and Rap ?   

Bobby Womack  - I have a lot of respect for it, and it’s a different generation with something to say. But I don’t like the use of the word bitch, ‘cos if a little girl growing up keeps on hearing the word bitch, she will grow up thinking that way. And all those boosting lyrics, about slapping a bitch, pulling a gun out and being a millionaire, so fucking what.  But if my ways of being respectful are old fashioned, then fuck it, I am going to stay old fashioned.

ZANI – I agree with you. Do you think this style of Rap is symbolic of the commercialisation of black music, more emphasis on the money making aspect than the spiritual connection of music?

Bobby Womack - What happens when the managers and the politicians get in the way, they tell you don’t need them.  But managers  don’t know how to dance, they don’t know what you listen to, all they do is proffer to get you the best deal. But they can fuck things up, believe me I do know.

ZANI – Strong point, they do seem more obsessed with image than the music, well that’s my humble opinion.

Bobby Womack  - When I see individuals in music, I respect them, but when I see people trying to look like and sound like each other, I say man, get your own style, that’s if you have got one. Nobody sounds like Mick Jagger, but Mick himself. People with no individual style, are just numbers; here today and gone tomorrow.  Like The Stones, they have been selling records to different generations, and they still sell out. Longevity lasts, bullshit walks, and bullshit don’t even talk no more.  

ZANI-   Like it. Going back to the sixties, I understand that you and Janis Joplin were close friends, how did that come about ?

Bobby Womack  - One day Janis called me and I didn’t think it was Janis. I thought why would she call me, what does she want. I said how do I know this is Janis, she said why don’t you just come down to the studio and make a song with me. So I went down to the studio on Sunset Boulevard.  I walked in and she was sitting there with a straw hat on with a lot on fruit on it , drinking Southern Comfort, and I looked at her and thought  wow that’s Janis Joplin.

ZANI – I would have thought exactly the same.

Bobby Womack  - She sweetly asked, you got some songs, I said I have got a whole bag of songs. She replied, this is how it’s going to work, when I ring my bell, (she had a little bell) that’s it, that’s the song I want.  So as soon as I started to sing, she rang the bell.

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ZANI – She liked the song

Bobby Womack  - No, she loved the song, it was a song called Trust Me. But every time I would play her a song, she would ring her bell. I was deeply touched, and I thought I am going to off load everything on Janis.

Anyway we cut the Trust Me and afterwards we were outside in the car park. I had just bought a 600 Mercedes, and Janis had bought a new Porsche. Which I think she had painted herself, because it didn’t look professional, a naked woman painted on the hood.

She was looking at my car, and asking how I got the car, and I said from the money I made from writing songs for people like you. She said damn that is a beautiful car, so she sat in it, and I don’t know if she was joking, but she started singing Dear Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Bentley and I said let’s cut that, so we went in studio to cut it.  The producer Paul Rothchild was still in there, and Janis said I want to cut this, and he said Janis why don’t we cut this tomorrow and she replied there might not be no tomorrow, and I want to cut it now, and that was it.

Then many years later, there was a Mercedes commercial using the song, which annoyed me but also it shocked me, because I remember when we recorded it. Mercedes were just using her to sell their cars.

ZANI – I know what you mean, but on a plus side it did bring attention to Janis Joplin.

Bobby Womack - Maybe. I remember Janis being upset one day and I asked her why she was upset, she said Jimi Hendrix has just died. I said I know about that, and she said I wanted to die, so if I die now, there will no publicity. Those were her exact words

ZANI – Oh my God, that’s spooky, so maybe Mercedes did give her publicity.  Talking of Hendrix, did you intro him to the wah wah pedal ?

Bobby Womack  -  No, Jimi did that himself.  Jimi on the guitar was magic, he would play a note, he would leave the stage and the note would still be ringing. I used to say that motherfucker is crazy, and he used to say that I was crazy ‘cos I played left-handed upside down. I did point out to him that he played left handed as well, and Hendrix said to me the way you play Bobby, you play like a person walking backwards.  

Jimi was a real humble guy who had to stand his corner. He used to say “Man, I have played with The Isley Brothers, they didn’t like the way I dressed, they said I was too flashy or whatever, I didn’t fit it.” But as you know, he made a name for himself. 

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ZANI –  An inspiring guitarist.  One of the many poignant moments in your life, is when your friend and may I say it, mentor, Sam Cooke played A Change is Gonna Come to You,  which on first hearing you felt it was eerie. And in 2009 while being interviewed after being inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, you felt the change had come due to Barrack Obama becoming the first black President.  It also saddened you that Sam Cooke wasn’t there to see the change

Bobby Womack – Sam called me one day, I didn’t play on the record because Sam said he couldn’t find me.  But Sam said to me that this song came to him like in a dream, so he put the song on, it scared me to death, but it was also beautiful. When the song finished, Sam turned round to me and said, the change is going to come, but I won’t live to see it, we will have a black President. I said man, we can’t even stay in Hotels, we have to stay in Motels. Sam was original, and if you are original, you cannot fuck with that.

ZANI -  I also understand that Sam Cooke turned you onto reading, because when you were touring with him, he would visit the black library , get out a book and read it in a day, but you were dismissive about literature especially history , as you felt they were written by the whites, and had no interest to you.

Bobby Womack  - Sam  said to me what makes you a good writer is that you see things, hard times and fighting, you can write a song about it, but what you should do, is you should read more. Sam would  always be reading, after the show, back at the motel. And I thought if that makes you a good writer, I have got to read more.

ZANI -  Whilst you and Sam Cooke were touring, and recording, of course, Elvis was at his peak, were you a fan of Elvis, as he was bringing black music to the forefront or did you feel he had stolen black music?

Bobby Womack  - He stole it, because it  was obvious.  Elvis used to go to the clubs, and see a guy called Robert Blackwell , but Blackwell was a joke in the clubs, he used to be a short fat guy who wore thick bottle glasses. He would be shaking his hips, and the girls would try and touch him but in a joking way .

Colonel Parker said to Elvis, think of you doing that, you are a good-looking guy, the girls won’t be laughing at you, they will be crying. So Elvis became Blackwell, and he wrote some early hits for Elvis. Blackwell said Elvis bought him a Cadillac every year, and I thought ain’t that a bitch.

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ZANI  - You entered into the world of music at the age of seven, when your father’s band The Voices Of Love would rehearse at your house.  Instead of being inspired by him, you and your brothers would mimic his band, and that’s when you and your brothers, and your father, discovered you could sing.

Bobby Womack  -  Well my father knew he couldn’t put us through college, he could barely put us through school. He kept saying to me, you keep singing, you move up and live where the white man lives. I said I don’t want to move to where the white man lives, I want to stay here.

ZANI - Also I heard you didn’t pay for your first guitar, your father worked in a steel mill, and to make extra money he would cut hair. A customer couldn’t pay for his hair cut, so he gave your father his guitar.

Bobby Womack  - True, my dad cut his hair for the first two months free in exchange for a  guitar. My father got his guitar and said don’t you ever touch this guitar.   

But one day I was playing his guitar so hard, I broke a string.  I tried to replace the E string with my shoe string, and he was playing for a week before he noticed it. Then he asked who done this and all my brothers pointed to me, and my father said if you learn to play that guitar well, I won’t whip ya. What did he say that for ‘cos I ended up becoming like Hendrix. Started played slide guitar on my knee with a kitchen knife, then Spanish and everything. My father was so shocked, he asked if anybody else could play?  And all my brothers said yes

Because we used to play along to the radio, and if you missed a note you had to pass the guitar, and I was the best as I stayed on the guitar the longest. That’s how I developed my slide style, ‘cos I would just slide into a song. When I played with Ray Charles, he couldn’t believe I couldn’t read music, as I just slide into the song and feel my way round the guitar.

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ZANI  -  You certainly do have a unique style.  Many years later in 1999, you recorded a gospel album Back To My Roots which is a homage to your father and a long standing promise to him.

Bobby Womack  - Because before that, I would credit Sam Cooke as the man that opened us, but my father was driving us well before Sam came around. My father played such a big part in that, when he came home from work, he would make us  sing three songs to him on the porch before he fell asleep.  

ZANI – That’s a beautiful gesture to your father, and you certainly made him a proud man. As has been well documented you gave The Rolling Stones their first US number one, It’s All Over Now.  When Sam Cooke told you they wanted to record the song you weren’t too enthusiastic, as you replied “Man, when these Pat Boones gonna stop ?”

Bobby Womack  - It wasn’t so much that, I just wanted my songs to be sung by me and heard all round the world. We were cutting our first record in Chicago, and The Rolling Stones were hanging around, and they heard the song, asked about the writers, and said that is a great track. Then they recorded it, released it, it happened so fast, I was pissed, because I thought they had stolen our song.

But Sam said to me, man you will get credit for this, and it will put you where you want to be, and I said how’s that, when they are singing it. But I didn’t know anything about the music business then, and Sam told me they are going to one of the biggest bands in the US. You could see the bumper stickers on the cars in the black and white neighbourhoods, saying The Rolling Stones are Coming.

So anyway, I didn’t believe that until I saw the first cheque for $400,000.  I had never seen so much money  in my life, and Sam said to me you going get a cheque like that about three to four times a year, and I replied do you know where  The Rolling Stones live ?

ZANI - Another great who taught you the ropes was James Brown, a notorious hirer and firer.

Bobby Womack - James Brown was a very dedicated guy, and he would do it for passion. He worked hard, and made his band into soldiers, so when they came out of the band, they would be bad motherfuckers. Every time we performed James would watch us, it made me nervous. After each show, he would criticize everything we did. One day I wasn’t paying attention to him at a rehearsal, he knew I wasn’t paying attention to him, and I was thinking James Brown don’t know shit. I was looking the other way, and to get my attention he hit me with a drumstick and said I am talking to you boy, it scared me to death. Got my attention, and I became a much better performer on stage.  Twenty years later, James Brown told me that he loved and respected us, and said he hoped he done the right thing, and I said you did do the right thing, because I learnt a lot from him, and became a better musician.

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ZANI – Tough love I suppose, and he wanted the best.  You have worked in many different musical genres, and even released a Country and Western album. The only other black artist I believe to do so was Charley Pride, and you wanted to call the album “Step Aside Charley Pride, Give Another Nigger A Try”, which I understand didn’t go down too well with the record company.  What is it about Country and Western that you like ?

Bobby Womack  - (Laughing a lot)  It’s a great title, and what I like about Country and Western is the honesty and the music, no devil worshipping.  Just a guy in a field singing,  and man it don’t get no better than that, it reaches people and when I didn’t like Country and Western I wanted to hear R ‘n’ B and Soul . When we were  driving around on tour in the early sixties, the only music you could get on radio stations, was Country and Western.

I got tired trying to find a Soul radio station, so I started listening to Country and Western, and I fell in love with Floyd Cramer. I loved the way he played. I listened to the lyrics and the music, and realised they could relate to the audience. That impressed me deeply and I never got away from that, so when I got to carry some weight in the music business I knew I was going to cut a Country and Western album.

The record company were against it, they said ‘man, let it go, you ain’t no Country and Western singer’ I just said, I am Bobby Womack, you can’t tell me what to sing, I am cutting this album anyway and if you don’t like it I am leaving the company. So they let it me cut, but they went crazy over the title, saying we let you cut the album and now you are getting political. No I just thought it would be a good title, Charley Pride opened the door. So in the end, we agreed to release the album as BW does Country and Western.

ZANI - You have been with a number of record labels, some good and some bad. I understand that with one of your highly successful albums, The Poet, you had a bad relationship with Otis Smith, founder of Beverly Green Label. As to the best of my knowledge, he tried to rip you off.

Bobby Womack  - The Poet was my best year, but I was ripped off. Beverly Green Label lost everything, and they had to shut down because they weren’t paying anybody. And I think the government took whatever belongings Otis Smith had because he had paid no taxes. But I still wish Otis Smith well, because I didn’t think The Poet would get that far.  

ZANI -  That’s a nice attitude to have. You have earnt a number of great nicknames over the years, The Preacher, The Poet, The Survivor and The Womack, I suppose you are all of these things, but which name do you feel suits you the best in 2011.

Bobby Womack  - The Poet.

ZANI -  OK The Poet.  Your music has been used in a lot of films but to me the best is Across 110th Street, not only is it a great film but the music is brilliant. I understand you recorded the whole soundtrack in two weeks, and again you were getting problems from the record company over it.

Bobby Womack  - At the time no artist was interested in doing the film score, and they stuck to that. I went to the production company, I said don’t go outside, let me do the score and we can sell records.  They said have you ever done a score before, I said never done one before, and I won’t do if you don’t let me do this.  So they gave me two weeks to come up with songs, knowing that was virtually impossible.

And they only showed the movie once, which is all about the ghetto and how to survive, and the record company were shocked that I finished the songs on time.  Which was done in-between a tour, but sometimes you do your best when you are under pressure.

ZANI  - Across 110th Street is a great gangster thriller film of the seventies, up there with The Godfather, The French Connection.  Why do you think it was been overlooked ?

Bobby Womack - I don’t know, but I do know that politics of things to do with things if you get my drift. But one thing I do know there is a ghetto in every city in every country. And the song Across 110th Street is all about the ghetto and still going strong, and when you  are about the truth, you will never go out of style.

ZANI –  Quentin Tarantino used the song again for his hit film Jackie Brown.  I read that if Tarantino made a film of your life starring Samuel L Jackson as Bobby Womack that would make a great movie, and I have to agree. Your life, a great director and a class actor

Bobby Womack  -   I could see that, but I  have never met Tarantino  but I respect what he is doing, and he has respected my talent by using one of my songs. And the star of the Jackie Brown, Pam Grier (I used to go with Pam before she got to become a star).

ZANI -   Lucky man, what interests do you have outside of music?

Bobby Womack  -  I love  to cook.  When I got divorced from Regina , my second wife, and I moved into my apartment,  which I am in now, I found cooking helped me to get my thoughts together. But Regina is still my Manager.

ZANI -  Final question, what place in the world  say represents the soul of Bobby Womack , the best and why ?

Bobby Womack  - Europe, Soul music is their bible, and will never die. As long as the soul survivors are still around, and I am one of them.

He certainly is a soul survivor, and lives to tell the tale with fondness, pride, earnest, wisdom, grit and intelligence of his escape from poverty, into the crazy world of Rock and Roll.  In which he met many kindred spirits along the way, they shaped music, and continue to influence people.  Of course, some of his friends, like Sam Cooke, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, are no longer with us, but their music plays on, as does The Rolling Stones,  Stevie Wonder and of course Bobby Womack.  

From speaking to Womack, you cannot help but be seized with amazement and inspiration when he speaks, his gravelly voice draws into his experiences and points of views, and at times quite mesmerising as you visualise his pioneering days and adventures. But Bobby Womack ain’t no preacher, he is The Poet, and don’t you forget that.

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© Words - Matteo Sedazzari/ ZANI Media

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