Midnight Mover, by Bobby Womack

Hookers, Joplin and coke: that's rock 'n' roll
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The Independent Culture

As the late Ian Dury authoritatively told it, sex and drugs went with rock 'n' roll, but some may argue that another genre of music is just as natural a complement to those life-enhancing (and endangering) vices. That genre is soul. Among its great champions of excess, its men who haven't so much taken a walk on the wild side as built a sorcerer's castle there, few can measure up to singer and guitarist Bobby Womack.

Here's a man who caught the clap from a $75 hooker (who also serviced his four teenage brothers in half an hour) before he'd even opened a bank account. Here's a man who ferried Janis Joplin around in his luxury ride in the days before before she overdosed, thus inspiring her last song, "Mercedes Benz". Here's a man who stayed "high on weed and coke night after night" with Sly Stone and played like a demon on There's a Riot Goin' On, one of the greatest albums ever made.

In this effortlessly Bacchanalian autobiography, Womack rolls out stories like these as if he were some kind of walking guidebook for fast-lane living in the entertainment industry. These eye-popping memoirs chronicle his odyssey from humble origins in Cleveland, Ohio (his steel-millworker father was also a barber and he traded haircuts for Bobby's first guitar), to his debut with his siblings in the revered R&B ensemble The Valentinos in the '60s, his triumph as a solo artist in the '70s and his mixed fortunes in the '80s and '90s. Practically every page of the text contains a sensational revelation about the eccentricities of a major figure in popular music. Womack witnessed it all first hand.

One minute he is telling you that Ike Turner terrified the Rolling Stones by locking them into his fortress-cum-studio; the next there's a tantalising depiction of an irascible John Lennon gracelessly trying to wrestle a guitar from our hero right in the middle of a jam session with Fleetwod Mac. After calling him a c**t.

Recollections of the monstres sacrés of soul, Ray Charles, Wilson Pickett and James Brown also evoke the wild-card control freaks that stand tall in pop mythology. There is a such a lived-in authenticity in Womack's narrative, right down to details on clothing, settings, profanities and the general idiosyncrasies of all involved that none of these head-spinning stories appear wilfully juiced up to make a more sparklingly dramatic cocktail.

That's somewhat problematic for anybody who values Womack as a musician as well as hell-raiser extraordinaire. On many occasions, the emotional rollercoaster detracts from the essential definition of the subject itself: the greatest soul singer in the world, a man whose place is in the pantheon alongside Marvin Gaye, Donny Hathaway and Stevie Wonder. Lest we forget, Womack's creative peak in the 1970s yielded several of the definitive statements in black music, such as Understanding, Facts of Life and Looking For a Love Again, while his contribution to the historic figures that are Sly, Pickett, Ray, Dusty Springfield, George Benson and his mentor, Sam Cooke make him arguably one of the greatest session players and tunesmiths ever. All too often, Womack glosses over his moments of awesome creativity. His improvisation of evanescent melodies during a session with the great Hungarian jazz guitarist Gabor Szabo, or his creation of unconventional chords that fascinated Jimi Hendrix (like Womack a left-handed guitar maestro), are presented almost as footnotes to the high-octane shenanigans. Shame, because for me, Womack's sublime music is the story.

One of the focal points of his extraordinary life is his association with the legendary singer Sam Cooke, who gave Womack a major boost in the early stage of his career. While his evocation of their musical chemistry is resoundingly powerful, the real meat on the bone is the scandalous aftermath of Cooke's murder. Womack married Cooke's widow and then had an affair with his teenage daughter. Coupled with other frankly surreal events, such as Womack's feigned blindness following his brother's death, it's understandable that artistic analysis takes a backseat.

Midnight Mover is nonetheless essential reading for any music lover, because Womack's role as the linkman between so many iconic artists, from the Stones to Solomon Burke, Elvis to Aretha, makes the point that rock 'n' roll and soul did not evolve on opposite sides of town, despite apparent racial polarisation. Both genres are inextricably linked by vices. Sex and drugs, as Womack attests so graphically, are a common denominator. As is god-given talent.