- 04 Mar 19
Today would have been Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Bobby Womack's 75th birthday. To mark the occasion, we're revisiting his 2013 interview with Hot Press's Eamon Sweeney. Less than a year after the interview, Womack had passed away, aged 70.
Bobby Womack has been in the wars. Tough as nails, the soul legend has weathered diabetes, colon cancer, and the death of two of his children. A born survivor to his core, Womack still somehow has always come out the other side.
In recent years, Womack has admitted doctors believe he is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Someone prompts him with names as we chat on the phone, but for the most part, he’s lucid and in sparkling form.
“My health is getting better and better and better and better,” Womack beams, a cackling one-man advert for the power of positive thinking. “It’s getting so good that I’m ready to show up on Arthur’s Day. I’ll be there with bells on and my whole group. It’s an 'up' feeling to walk onstage. That’s helped my health enormously.”
In 1965, Womack was ostracised from the music community when he married Sam Cooke’s widow a mere three months after her husband died. “I feel like after 45 years Damon [Albarn] has welcomed me back in,” Womack says.
“I chose my career over everything along the way, not knowing which way the wind will come blowing,” he continues. “I ran into Damon Osborne (sic – he means Albarn). I continued to go on the road with him and he encouraged me to do an album. Miracles do happen. I went into the studio and started recording. At the time I didn’t know what was going to happen. It was electronic. The only thing that wasn’t electronic were the lyrics.”
Was Womack aware of Gorillaz or Blur before working with Albarn? “No, I wasn’t,” he says. “I’ve always had this philosophy of not listening to the radio if you’ve got your own song in your head. My daughter listens to everything – jazz, pop, rock, country and western, you name it.
“She was the one who, when she walked into my living room, and I was listening to Damon, said, “Dad, what you doing listening to Gorillaz?” I asked her if she had heard of them. She said, “They are one of the hottest groups around, Dad. If you want to get back into music that’s how you get back.” So I took off to New York and the rest is history. We also recorded in London. It was a wonderful experience. Mixing electronica with live musicians was fantastic.”
Singing with Gorillaz was just the start of his career renaissance. Albarn would go on to produce his comeback album, The Bravest Man in the Universe.
“Damon has got one hell of an ear.” Womack enthuses. “He listens and he tries things that – and I’ve got to be honest – I would never try myself. I’m ancient, but curious enough to go with something to see if it works. He liked everything I did. It was great. It was the first time I’ve ever done an album that way. It took six to eight weeks including mixing. It’s been so long that it was fantastic to come back this way. Still when you listen to my voice you know you’re going to get the real deal. I knew before I met Damon I was going to make another album.”
On July 9, 2013, Womack marked what was officially the warmest night of our long sweltering summer with one of the hottest gigs of the year in The Olympia.
“It was amazing,” Womack enthuses. “I felt an immense love for music. I felt I was representing the Sam Cooke and the Marvin Gayes, Otis Reddings, Janis Joplins and James Browns. I was speaking for them. All those artists are gone. I’m blessed to still be here.”
One of the most surprising things about The Olympia show was that, rather reserving it for the encore, Womack audaciously opened with his best-known moment, 'Across 110th Street'.
“That was an easy song for me to write because I was born in the ghetto,” Womack says. “They came to me while I was doing that album and told me I had two weeks to finish the music for the movie. Me being me, I was on tour and came offstage and stayed up all night writing. It came ‘round to 110th Street. It’s one of those great songs because even today people have to cross 110th Street around the world. It meant a lot. If you believe in something you got to stick with it otherwise it won’t get done. It’s your story first.”
Womack's is rightly hailed as one of the most distinctive voices in soul. Damon Albarn, among others, believes it has actually improved with age.
“You could go through the library of soul music and I would say everybody has soul,” Womack says. “When people say soul music people think it’s black. Soul music is being real to yourself. It’s a nice feeling when I’ve had such a great career. I feel I’ve done my best and that they won’t forget me. All of a sudden, there is a whole new interest in me. People talk about it more than anything else I’ve ever done. I’m very proud of it, very proud of Richard Russell and Damon – and of all the people I’ve had a chance to work with."
“But let me mention Arthur’s Day again otherwise I’ll get a ‘F’ on my report card,” Womack cackles. “I’ll say it again, I’ll be there with bells on.”
Don’t forget your whistles.
Listen to Womack's 'Across 110th Street' below: