Bobby Womack: The last soul man

Bobby Womack is tender. He's tough. He's a man. In fact he's so confident in his masculinity he can rasp and lisp at the same time. But he has endured his fair share of tragedy, of drugs, of betrayal. His is the unbreakable voice of experience - and the last original soul voice is far from finished. Phil Johnson came to worship at the shrine...

Bobby Womack sounds as if he has a small, bad-tempered, dog living in the back of his throat. His is one of the great voices. It influenced the young Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones - whose first Number 1 record Womack wrote - and also Rod Stewart, who made a rather better attempt at copying it. You can hear further echoes, and of Womack's bad-ass, rebellious persona, in the work of Sly Stone - not that there's been much work to hear since the long lost weekend of cocaine madness they shared in the early Seventies. Today, at 60, Womack's words still come out as barked imprecations, the pitted, sand-paper textures of this remarkable instrument contrasting sharply with the smooth musical settings of his expert 14-piece backing band and singers.

Bobby Womack sounds as if he has a small, bad-tempered, dog living in the back of his throat. His is one of the great voices. It influenced the young Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones - whose first Number 1 record Womack wrote - and also Rod Stewart, who made a rather better attempt at copying it. You can hear further echoes, and of Womack's bad-ass, rebellious persona, in the work of Sly Stone - not that there's been much work to hear since the long lost weekend of cocaine madness they shared in the early Seventies. Today, at 60, Womack's words still come out as barked imprecations, the pitted, sand-paper textures of this remarkable instrument contrasting sharply with the smooth musical settings of his expert 14-piece backing band and singers.

The week before last, Womack and his band had been playing Las Vegas; last Saturday it was a "Luxury Soul Weekender" at an Alan Partridge-ish hotel next door to the NEC in Birmingham, one of three British dates to coincide with the new release of an old record. Womack's 35-year-old version of The Mamas and The Papas' hit, "California Dreamin'", has recently been used as the soundtrack to a Saab ad, and his maverick's career, which has had many peaks, troughs and tragedies, is suddenly on the up again. A similar lift came seven years ago when Quentin Tarantino chose the 1973 track "Across 110th Street" for the credit sequence of Jackie Brown.

On stage at the Hilton, Womack is wearing a white vinyl knee-length coat printed with a faux-Bridget Riley Op Art pattern. His trademark dark glasses are wrapped around his handsome, teddy-bear face, and a cool, black long-peaked cap covers his receding hairline - from a distance it's almost the only feature betraying Womack's advancing years. Every song he sings is a certified classic from a peerless back catalogue - an awful lot of them are shoe-horned into a tight 70-minute set. But what is most striking, apart from that voice and the bristling, hook-laden energy of the songs, is how he handles the dynamics of a performance. Womack is a soul classicist.

As the band punches out a horn climax, the singer takes the tempo way down and begins to testify like a gospel preacher. "Did I do right? Did I do right?" he whispers, urgently, passionately. The mixed, black and white, mainly middle-aged audience hangs on every word, just as they sing along to each chorus and cheer every stage-move. This is not in any way an ironic, sad or nostalgic reaction - Bobby Womack is the last of the soul men; perhaps the only remaining singer of his generation still operating at close to the peak of his powers. Certainly, he's the only contender not to own his own church, like Solomon Burke or Al Green. Womack means something very specific to his audience.

"I started with Sam Cooke when I was six or seven years old," Bobby Womack tells me when I interview him in his suite a few hours before the show. He's in his pre-performance "relaxing zone", wearing a black T-shirt and black tracksuit bottoms, lying back on a floral-patterned chintzy sofa and resting his bare feet on a stool. On stage he is a colossus - big, masculine, strong-shouldered, commanding; but feet up in his hotel room he is a man of modest physical stature.

"To still be doing it today, it's hard," he rasps. "I start thinking of Marvin, Otis and all these people. The generation's gone... People shout out for songs and I don't even remember writing them. I was talking to Ronald Isley [of the Isley Brothers] and I was telling him they'll eat till they make themselves sick. Man, he takes requests and stays on stage for four hours. I pick 12 to 15 songs and hit 'em; leave them wanting more and you know they'll call you back. You can only bring them up so high, then they want to come down..."

These days, to believe in Bobby Womack, and to believe in soul itself, is an act of faith. Just as "Latin Percussion" became a standard setting on a drum machine, so "soul" has become a collection of vocal mannerisms, to be learned by rote and reassembled at will by Pop Idol wannabes or the latest Aretha Franklin of the shires.

The idea that soul amounts to more than the sum of its vocal parts might be regarded as a form of romanticism - a sentimental insistence on seeing something beyond the corporeal, the quotidian, the here and now. But there's no getting away from it: when it comes to soul, the mode is always transcendence, metempsychosis, talking in tongues. Soul is an attempt to give feeling a language. And there's no getting away from God either, whether we use His name or not. Ask Bobby Womack, who got his nickname "The Preacher" from the acuity with which he could put sanctified tools - his rasping voice and holy-rolling raps - at the disposal of secular and sexual interests.

For it's also important to remember that soul is an enlightenment project, arising out of the secularisation of gospel music and the struggle for civil rights. Its humanist concerns are eloquently expressed in the famous photograph taken by Ernest C Withers of the Memphis sanitation workers strike of 1968 (the event that brought Dr Martin Luther King to the city, and thus to his death). A line of black workers faces the camera, each of them wearing a large white placard that reads: "I am a Man". That all-too-brief enlightenment was cut short by the factory system of disco, part of the same industrialisation of black music that has since commodified rap and hip-hop. These days, the great church-trained voices that once sang melismatic odes to joy, sex and civil rights are routinely chopped up to reappear as uncredited moans and groans in hip-hop, such as the disembodied crack-whore screams on Death Row rap records. Vocalists who used to call the shots are now the hired help.

If the optimistic social and economic wave that led to the soul enlightenment was reversible, as the era of disco, rap and Reaganomics proved, so was the range of available role models for black male singers. On his landmark series of early Seventies albums for United Artists, Bobby Womack had been soul's own Jean Jacques Rousseau, a nature boy singing of sensitivity, communication and understanding; he called his band Peace, and one of his sons, Truth. And this despite never removing his shades. Hell, he was even photographed holding a small child on an album-cover, prefiguring the classic Eighties new-man-with-baby shot by a full decade. And while Bobby was always keen to let listeners know he was still a bad-ass stud when he wanted to be, he liked to be seen as a gentleman, too. "With me, it's all about feelings," he says to a would-be groupie in a long rap called "Fact of Life", adding: "It's cool to have a man from 9 to 5 - ain't nothing wrong with that. But don't get hung up on me." Crucially, Bobby was so secure of his masculinity that he could rasp and lisp at the same time.

But when Bobby lost that UA record contract in 1976, the yin and yang of male soul vocal style which he had sought to bring together - the classic R&B duality of the smooth crooner and the roughhouse shouter - drifted further apart than ever before. Soul's centre would not hold, and in the crisis of masculinity that followed, even some of the most ardently protesting pimp-stereotype singers turned out to be frilly-pantie-wearing cross-dressers. And after soul, the deluge.

Womack tells me about how a rap group he refuses to name wanted to cover his Seventies hit, "Woman's Gotta Have It". "Only they wanted to call it, 'Bitch Gotta Have It'," he says. "'A bitch ain't gonna have shit till she suck my dick' - that's what they wanted to say. 'That guy can't come on my record talking like that!' I said. 'But these guys love you,' their manager said. 'We'll pay you!' 'It's not the money,' I said. 'I was talking about love - I don't want to know how you turned her over and did it.' Me being from the old school, I would not say 'bitch' on a record. I couldn't face my mother if I did."

When I ask him what's different about R&B acts today compared to soul acts back then, he says: "It's different only because the times were different. But it's not just that the singers don't know how to do it any more; sometimes I feel like the audience don't know either. It's like, 'wave your hands in the air like you just don't care.' I mean, I really don't care. I want them to make me feel a part of it; don't be making me do all of the work."

Of course, Womack isn't just a singer and a songwriter: he's a soul auteur who produces and arranges, as well as a hot-shot guitarist who influenced Jimi Hendrix and a frontman whose long, discursive, spoken introductions represent one of the building blocks of rap. His career - which parallels exactly the history of soul - is also unusual for a soul singer in that he has never been identified as the creature of any one record label. This outsider status has helped to endear him to white rock stars, and Bobby (not to be confused with his brother Cecil, of Womack and Womack fame) has continued to work occasionally with the Rolling Stones, whose 1964 hit, "It's All Over Now", he composed. But perhaps his most notable assist was the collaboration with Sly Stone on the celebrated 1971 album, There's a Riot Goin' On.

"It's a sad thing but I haven't heard from Sly in many years," Womack says when I ask him if he ever hears from his old friend. "I don't know what he's doing now but I do wonder if he's still tripping." A tutting note enters his voice. "You can't go on stage loaded and then stand backstage and get loaded again," he says, shaking his head. "The best way to do [drugs] is not to do it at all. If I saw Sly now... I don't know if he'd want to be seeing me because I ain't tripping no more. I just pray for him and hope that he'll do well. These days people wouldn't be paying to see him - he'd have to pay them."

If the Rolling Stones were relative newcomers in 1964, Bobby Womack had already been a pro for most of his life. "It's All Over Now" began as an American R&B hit by Bobby's family group, the Valentinos. Trained by their father, Friendly Womack, from early childhood, the Womack Brothers - Bobby, Cecil, Curtis, Harry and Friendly Jr - travelled out from their home in Cleveland, Ohio on the gospel circuit. "My father used to rehearse us so much, and he just became the boss," Womack remembers. "Now, I can see I was blessed. He would be so tired from working in that steel mill that we kids knew we only had a couple of hours to hang with him before he fell asleep."

After opening for the famous Gospel quintet the Soul Stirrers in 1953, the brothers became friends with Sam Cooke, the group's young lead singer. When Cooke - for many, the first soul man, just as Bobby may be the last - left the group to "go secular", he encouraged the Womacks to follow him, signing them to his SAR record label. One of their first jobs was being sent out on the road with James Brown. "Man, if he didn't like something you did on stage, he would whack you across the head with a drumstick in the tour bus," Womack laughs, rather mordantly, at the recollection. "It was like getting your report card. Gospel singers would come up and tell you, 'You're shucking'. Jackie Wilson would come back-stage and tell you, James Brown would tell you. You'd have so much respect for them it was like fear. 'You're talking when you should be singing!' they'd say, or 'you're singing when you should be talking!'

"These days, I don't say anything to other performers because I don't want to get cussed out. It's like, 'you had your turn, this is my day.' I just say: 'Great show!' I can't change the world..."

Shortly after Cooke was shot to death by a Hollywood motel owner in 1964, 20-year-old Bobby Womack scandalised the black music community by marrying Cooke's widow. In the years that followed, Womack - whose marriage to Barbara Cooke didn't last - made his living as a backing guitarist for Ray Charles, before becoming a session musician at Chips Moman's American Studios in Memphis. Later, he moved with Moman to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where he played on numerous records by such Atlantic Records stars as Aretha Franklin and Joe Tex. While writing hits for Wilson Pickett, he continued to make his own recordings on a variety of labels before getting his first hit as a solo artist for Minit in 1968 - this is the period from which "California Dreamin'" dates.

But all this is pre-history. The story really begins with the series of records Bobby Womack made for the United Artists label in the Seventies LPs, made with half an eye on the white rock market. Over four or five patchy but intermittently brilliant long-players, Womack staked out his own territory. This encompassed cover versions of sentimental pop songs, "conscious" raps about love and life, killer guitar solos, and a large handful of his own, often truly inspired, songs, all done in the rootsy, often acoustic, Southern-soul style that had become the hallmark of the Muscle Shoals sound. His singles were R&B hits and Bobby became a star - an experience ultimately undermined by tragedy.

In 1972 he was poised to release a song entitled "Harry Hippie", written about his bohemian brother. Then Harry was stabbed to death by his wife, Mary (who was also name-checked in the song), after she found another woman's clothes in Harry's closet. The clothes happened to belong to one of Bobby's girlfriends.

"The record came out and it was hard for me to sing that song because, before, I would play it on stage and Harry would come on dressed in his hippie costume and play the guitar. I have to sing it every time I play and I always get a feeling from it." Womack is sombre. "It's like I always have to do 'A Change is Gonna Come' because of the last time I saw Sam Cooke. It was late and he played me 'Change' and said he'd just written it. And I said it feels strange, it feels like death. Easiest song he'd ever written, he said. He woke up and thought that he'd dreamed writing it. Something always happens to me spiritually when I play it."

The series of Seventies albums would have been enough to earn a place in soul's great tradition. But after a troubled period in which he was dropped by the major labels and suffered yet more tragedy when his son, Truth, died, Womack re-emerged in the early Eighties with two more distinguished albums, The Poet and The Poet 2 on the independent label Beverly Glen. In an era when the hi-tech aesthetic of glossy LA funk-soul seemed to be against him, with hideous slap-bass effects and synthetic drums, Womack rasped and roared his way through songs as gut-wrenchingly emotional as any Sixties Southern soul stomper.

In the years since, "The Preacher" has continued to record at home in LA. He remains a big star on the US soul scene, but he no longer has a record contract. "I've had a pretty good career but I can't get a record company now," he says. "I don't see too much money from any of the records. I was very angry about that but I couldn't carry the anger around - it was killing me. Everybody has to reach their own destiny and I don't waste no time on negative energy. Firstly, I'm still around, and it was the people who made me see myself as a performer; I never saw myself that way. I'm better sitting down in a dark room with a guitar on my lap, vibing about some love affair that went wrong..."

His biggest concern remains his voice. That voice. "I'll tell you a big secret," he says, leaning forward conspiratorially. "I used to be paranoid about everything, but especially about my voice. I'd say 'Damn! I ain't got no voice - where'd it go?' I remember talking to Bobby Bland and him saying he should have lowered his keys like Sam Cooke told him to, because your voice is not something that runs on power out of the wall. It runs out. But honestly, my voice I don't think has changed that much. If it had, maybe I wouldn't be going out there no more. I always said two things: I'm not going to go out there weighing 900lb. Or if I don't have the chops. You gotta know when it's time to hang up. But when I finally go, let me go out on stage, my perfect ending. Don't let me go when I'm sick or asleep. Let me be in motion."

At the Luxury Soul Weekender, we stamp and cheer for 20 minutes but Bobby Womack doesn't come back out. True to his word, the last of the soul men has left us wanting more. Drenched and drained, I feel suffused with love for all humanity. Outside, even the NEC looks a better place. *

The single 'California Dreamin'' and the album 'Lookin' for a Love: the Best of Bobby Womack 1968-74' are released tomorrow on EMI's Stateside label

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