Soul survivor: How Bobby Womack overcame heart failure, drug addiction and even apparent Alzheimer's

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He gave the Rolling Stones their first Number One. Fifty years on, he’s Adele’s new label mate. But the really extraordinary thing is what happened in between...

Backstage at Coachella, the international rock'n'roll A-listers are lounging in the cool air of the desert evening. Muse are kicking about, 24 hours ahead of their headline appearance at the Californian festival. Paul Simonon and Mick Jones, formerly of the Clash, are sporting what look like submariners' caps. Damon Albarn buzzes between Portakabin dressing-rooms, checking on the inhabitants.

It is April 2010, and the 75,000-capacity festival is hosting the first full live performance by Gorillaz, the cartoon collective created by Albarn and illustrator Jamie Hewlett. In fact, it's actually the debut of Gorillaz #2, or possibly even #3, the band's third album Plastic Beach conscripting a fresh roll call of guest talent.

Joining the Clash vets on stage tonight are a seven-strong string section, four backing vocalists, six Syrian-American percussionists, the rap trio De La Soul, the Japanese-Swedish vocalist Yukimi Nagano of Little Dragon and Gruff Rhys from Super Furry Animals.

None of which noisy hubbub seems to phase the proceedings' elder statesman. Seated in one of those Portakabins, attended by a dapper butler-cum-valet named Arthur, is Bobby Womack.

"Bobby is a precious thing," Albarn had earlier told me of the soul legend he had recruited to sing on two Plastic Beach numbers. "He's getting on but his voice is still there. Which is really rare; the voice usually diminishes as time goes by."

Why, I asked Womack, who was 66 at the time and wearing sunglasses even though we were indoors and it was night-time, was he here? "People always send music, want you to do something," he replied, scratching thinning hair under an ever-present hat. "But I was really in a state where nothing new was interesting to me. My daughter, she's 23, I was playing a tape, and she walks in the house and she says, 'Dad, what are you doing with that?' 'What am I doing? I'm listening to it! Somebody sent me it, they want me to do something.'

"She said, 'Dad, that's Gorilla [sic]!' I said, 'Gorilla!' I said, 'I ain't never heard of the Gorilla [sic]!' And she said, 'Dad, you got to do this…' She's been my daughter as long as I can remember, and I ain't ever seen her this excited! So I said, 'OK, whatever it is, I'm gonna do this.'"

And so, more than a decade since he last released an album, and some 20 years since he kicked epic addictions to cocaine and alcohol, Bobby Womack was back in the recording studio, and back performing live.

Later that night, on the huge Coachella stage, Womack strolled in and out of the Gorillaz circus, often hesitant on his feet yet always with a spring in his gait. He hadn't experienced crowds as big as this, he would later reflect, since he supported the Rolling Stones in 1975. He sang his Plastic Beach songs "Stylo" and "Cloud of Unknowing" – although for the latter he had to read the words from lyric sheets.

When I asked Albarn later about this seeming loss of memory, he shrugged. "That's the way it is with Bobby. And I think it's important to show that that's the way it is. Not to try to gloss over the fact that he needs to read the lyrics. For me, his voice is so sublime that I feel that, whatever process we need to go through to get it out, is fine."

Before stage time, I'd enquired as to whether Womack might consider doing a whole album with the endlessly energetic Brit musician who had rescued him from quasi-retirement. "Oh, we gonna do a whole lot!" beamed the legend behind the soundtrack to 1972 crime drama Across 110th Street ("I wrote that in three weeks") and the classic albums The Poet and The Poet 2; the singer, songwriter and guitarist who wrote for or played with the Stones, Sly Stone, Janis Joplin, Dusty Springfield, Jimi Hendrix, Elvis Presley, Marvin Gaye and many more besides. "There's a lot to be done. It's like a baby being born for me. There's nothing going into it but positiveness."

Almost exactly three years later, I meet Bobby Womack once more. Again, I enter a room to find him sitting smiling in splendid isolation in an easy chair. Again, the sunglasses and hat. The location this time is a large hotel in Kensington, London. His brother Cecil, of Womack & Womack fame, died the previous month, but the seemingly indefatigable Bobby agreed to carry on with his promotional commitments. So it was with a previous UK interview – he conducted that one from his hospital bed.

The reason the Cleveland-born, Los Angeles-based icon with the 50-year career is in the UK: to record an appearance on The Jonathan Ross Show. The broader reason: the ongoing life of the fantastic album he released last year, co-produced by Albarn and Richard Russell, owner of XL, the British record label that is home to Adele. It's titled The Bravest Man in the Universe – a touch of vainglory, a hint of self-deprecation, yet also, given his life of unbelievable trauma, something of an understatement. The album brilliantly layers the lived-in Womack voice over jittery beats, sweet electronic melodies and synthetic squelches. Just as he said it would three years ago, that "positiveness" Womack was surfing came good.

Still, it almost never happened. After touring the world with Gorillaz for much of 2010, Womack fell catastrophically ill. He had pneumonia, heart failure, "I'm diabetic, plus my kidneys… I was in a coma for 17 days. My doctor was going to pull the plug. He says, 'This guy's organs are shot. They're not supporting anything.' I didn't know this! Then on the 17th day they came in and my eyes were open. And they'd brought in my wife," he says, meaning his ex-wife. "And I'd been divorced from her now at least 20 years. And they said that I said: 'I never met that woman before in my life! Get out of here! She ain't my wife!'"

Shortly thereafter, Bobby Womack told an American writer that he was suffering from Alzheimer's disease.

 

Bobby Womack, son of a preacher man, started out singing with his brothers as a gospel five-piece. An impressed Sam Cooke took them under his wing. When Womack was 16, the so-called King of Soul signed them to his label. They moved from gospel to pop, incurring the wrath of their father – he kicked out the brothers, and they relocated to LA, under the care of Cooke.

The Womack Brothers changed their name to the Valentinos, and early on in their relationship, Cooke proved his managerial mettle. He advised the young Bobby of the financial benefits of allowing another act to release a song he'd co-written with his sister-in-law, even though Womack – a product of an America that was still very much racially segregated – considered this no more than "white guys coming in from another country singing our record".

The record was "It's All Over Now", the white guys were the Rolling Stones, the year was 1964. It gave the British band their first Number One, and it was the start of a great friendship. Over the course of our interview, Womack mentions Mick Jagger: "You can't compare him with Sam. But in a way you can – cos he has the same feelings and a much bigger audience." He mentions Keith Richards: "He said his mother turned him on to gospel music. I said, 'Boy, you were lucky.' Because back then it wasn't about the music, it was about white and black. And it was terrible." And he mentions Brian Jones: "I never met Brian, but he was crazy. Who wants to be famous that bad?"

But to many of his peers, Womack didn't do right by his mentor. After Cooke was shot dead in 1964, Womack, then aged 20, married his widow Barbara. He describes the period as, "the toughest time of my life. But my whole idea was, I never knew her, I only knew her as Mrs Cooke, but I thought, boy if something happened to me like that, I wish somebody would step in my position and take care of my family like that. But for my business and my heart it was the worst thing that I ever – ever – came in contact with. I lived with it most of my life."

Womack was ostracised by the soul community. The session work dried up. "Everything dried up. Whether you was a good guitar player, it didn't matter. They had to punish you. I was going into radio stations and they'd say, 'We can never play this record…' So I left my brothers, cos they had nothing to do with it."

He talks of karma, and connecting "everything bad" to that misguided attempt to do right by his friend. The bad stuff encompasses many things. His eldest surviving son, now 35 and nearing the end of a 16-year prison sentence after (in Womack's words) a man he hit died. Having an affair with Cooke's daughter, Linda – that is, his stepdaughter – which caused her mother/his wife to shoot then divorce him. Then, an estrangement between him and his brother Cecil, who married Linda. The failed marriage to Regina, mother of his two eldest children. The separation from the two young sons who live in Chicago – or, in his perhaps indelicate account of that relationship: "After Regina and I got divorced I almost got involved with another woman. I mean, real close. We had two kids together…"

And Womack's regrets would also include being with Janis Joplin on the night in 1970 she died from a heroin overdose. "I was sitting there with cocaine, telling her, 'Why you waiting on this cat calling? Have some of this.' She said, 'No, I'd rather be down than up.' And the guy called. And she said, 'You're gonna have to leave.' And as I was getting in the elevator, I could hear him running up the steps. And I often wonder, who was that? I don't know if it was a deliberate killing or what. But whoever the guy was, he'd have been in jail today."

The pain, then, piled up, in mind-boggling fashion. But Womack seems to pin much of it on marrying Barbara. "That's why I started wearing shaded glasses on stage. Cos I couldn't look at the people. I was embarrassed, and I was ashamed by the way that people reacted," he says, his dry, papery voice fading slightly.

"So I understand my life. There are so many things that happened. Everybody gonna lose something." He pauses. Womack's sentences can, at the best of times, be inconclusive, and it's occasionally hard to discern what he's saying. "The death of my son, something that I never talk about, he was stillborn…" he drifts. "The death of my – he committed suicide, my oldest son, he was 19…" he says of Vincent, his son with Barbara.

"And then me and Barbara had…" he begins, going back to Cooke's widow. "Part of it was, as bad as she missed the son she lost with Sam, that was her biggest dream, waking up at night – or waking up early in the morning. And so I asked the doctor, what do you think would bring her back? She's really very bad. And he was joking, saying, 'If you gave her another child…' And I said, 'You think you can?' And he said, 'Well, you could cos you're so much younger.'"

So you had a child with Sam's widow that was stillborn? "Yeah. Then I had a child that was stillborn with my marriage with Regina."

So, two still births? "Yeah, yeah, yeah," he raps, sadly (other reports say he and Regina's son, named Truth, actually died in infancy). "So many things happened that I said [it was due to] leaving gospel and going to rock'n'roll. But did I deserve that punishment?

 

Divine retribution or not, it's not all bad news, not least because The Bravest Man in the Universe is a triumphant comeback. And despite the life of darkness, and no matter the cloud of melancholy that can, quite understandably, hang over him, the almost 70-year-old Bobby Womack is a life-affirming character. Rascally, warm, defiant.

I ask him about the Alzheimer's. His face creases into something like a grin. To cut a rambling story short, Womack says that he was becoming worried at occasionally forgetting lyrics. And after his coma, when he couldn't recognise his ex-wife and had lost 40 pounds, his concern about his memory loss deepened. So he mentioned Alzheimer's to a writer, "because I didn't understand it".

So, you don't have Alzheimer's? "No."

Great news, clearly. But his ex-wife "cussed me out. Regina said, 'Why would you tell people you had Alzheimer's? Now you'll never get bookings!'" he laughs. "I'm saying, 'Bookings? I don't care about no goddamned bookings! I'm alive!'" When I press him to clarify that his ex-wife is, then, his manager, Womack looks at me with something like a twinkle. "It's a thrill for me to sit up and talk to you. Cos you let me talk," he smiles, which is correct; although in truth, I've not had much choice. "Most people would say, 'What was it like when you got your first cheque from the Rolling Stones?'" So, he says, he's going to tell me something about his ex-wife.

"I've always had a love for her," he begins, "and respect. And three weeks ago I didn't know what was going to happen because people were always calling, saying, 'What is it like still being here?'" he grumbles. I think he's referring to the death of his brother. "And it was a strange feeling. So I thought, what I've seen happen to so many of my constituents [sic] – when they die, everybody gets the money but the person who really should get it. And I'm not gonna let that happen. So I told Gina, let's get re-married."

"So you've married your ex-wife?"

"Yeah. In Los Angeles, three weeks ago. You're the first person I've told. So I told her, if something happens to me tomorrow, the few nickels I've got left, you can take 'em and take care of my kids. Cos my kids will always be my kids. And I feel good about that. Cos I've seen so much destruction, from Sam Cooke to Jimi Hendrix to Ray Charles – them guys will wake up and come back and say, 'They're fighting each other…'"

The Last Soul Man Standing won't let that happen to him. For all his frailties, he has too much vim and vigour. He's touring the world from this month, starting in Japan. He seems to suggest that Damon Albarn has invited him to perform with Blur. And, he says, there's another album due, comprising unused songs from the Bravest Man… sessions (although his label think he's actually referring to a new, "deluxe" version of the original album, which was released last month).

But now it's time for another anecdote, this one courtesy of another Stones pal, Ronnie Wood. "When Rod Stewart came to the States with the Faces, he was so afraid that he sung in the wings, where you couldn't see him. Cos all he knew was Sam Cooke songs – and Sam Cooke is the king over there. So, Ronnie said, 'They never knew our lead singer was Rod Stewart!' But you look at Rod, he's sure got a lot of confidence now – he can be Sam Cooke or anybody he wants to be… And I was sitting there listening to this, same way you're listening now," smiles Bobby Womack. "And I thought: shit, everybody's got a story. Everybody's got a story," he repeats, whispering now.

'The Bravest Man in the Universe' is out now on XL

 

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