Bobby Womack: a talent undimmed to the end

Even Womack himself didn't always fully appreciate the scope of his remarkable abilities as singer, writer and instrumentalist

Stars pay tribute to Bobby Womack
Bobby Womack – a life in pictures
Six of his greatest performances

I met Bobby Womack in an LA hospital two years ago. It seems a ridiculous thing to say about a man who was clearly gravely ill – he conducted the interview from his bed, much against the wishes of his doctors, who understandably thought that meeting the press wasn’t such a great idea, given that he’d only been admitted that morning with a case of pneumonia of apparently life-threatening severity – but something about him suggested a weird kind of invincibility. Partly it was to do with the facts of his extraordinary life. He’d already experienced so many things that should theoretically have killed him – among them the 30 years he’d spent addicted to cocaine and the incident in which his then-wife, understandably unhappy at the discovery that Womack was conducting an affair with his step-daughter, shot him – and survived them all. But mostly it was his manner: no sooner had I introduced myself than he embarked on a monologue, somewhere between a very long anecdote and a tirade, that only stopped an hour later, when a nurse walked in and forcefully strapped an oxygen mask to his face. I couldn’t get a word in edgeways. He was angry and funny and outrageous and extremely intense. He seemed, in every sense of the word, unstoppable.

The albums on which his reputation as a solo artist rested – a string of late 60s and early 70s albums he cut for Minit and United Artists, of which 1972’s Understanding is arguably the pick, and The Poet and The Poet II, which briefly reactivated his commercial fortunes in the early 80s – barely scratched the surface of what he’d achieved. He’d been there at the birth of soul music: Sam Cooke had mentored the Womack brothers’ transition from gospel singers to the Valentinos, secular artists. He was an extraordinary guitar player, which tended to get a little overlooked, because his voice was so incredible. Listen to his version of California Dreamin’ from 1969’s Fly Me to the Moon, and you can hear his apparently effortless ability to shift his singing from tenderness to ferocious raw power; the Poet albums are so potent because of the sharp contrast between the slickness of their production and the rasping fierceness of Womack’s voice. He only became a session player at American Studios in Memphis because his solo career had stalled – people didn’t take kindly to his marrying Sam Cooke’s widow three months after the singer’s death – but, while there, he contributed to one incredible record after another: Aretha Franklin’s Lady Soul, Dusty Springfield’s Dusty in Memphis, Elvis Presley’s Suspicious Minds. He gave early notice of his brilliance as a songwriter when he came up with It’s All Over Now for the Valentinos: he became so prolific that he could afford to give a songs as good as Trust Me or I’m In Love away to other artists (Janis Joplin and Wilson Pickett respectively).

He told me that he thought The Bravest Man in the Universe, the album he released two years ago, in collaboration with Richard Russell and Damon Albarn, was the best thing he’d ever made: certainly, it showed that his talent remained utterly undimmed to the end. Moreover, it brought him to prominence once more, which seemed fitting. There was a sense that his brilliance had occasionally been a little under-rated – his career was marked by long fallow periods and he said, a little ruefully, that in his years of addiction, he’d underappreciated it himself – but at the end, he once more got the acclaim that he deserved.

Contributor

Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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