Music: They're playing my song again
Phil Johnson on Bobby Womack, the soul genius enjoying a revival through Tarantino's `Jackie Brown'
Friday 20 March 1998
Now 54, Womack's career has had more turnabouts than is common even in soul. A gospel singer, preacher and guitar player for Sam Cooke while still in his teens, Womack went on to marry Cooke's widow soon - indecently soon some say - after his employer was murdered.
Later, he was a collaborator and friend to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards (the Rolling Stones had covered "It's All Over Now" by Womack and his brothers' group The Valentinos back in 1964) and he kept Sly Stone company through the long white nights that led to Stone's classic album There's a Riot Goin' On.
He produced and wrote for Wilson Pickett, recorded at Muscle Shoals studio, helping to invent southern soul in the process, and pre-empted Isaac Hayes as a composer and performer of the extended libidinal rap. He also once recorded a duet with Lulu, but nobody's perfect.
All of this is nothing, however, compared with the series of amazing albums Womack recorded for United Artists and Liberty just after Across 110th Street in the mid-1970s. Communication, Facts of Life, Looking for a Love and their like were high points of an age when soul was aimed rather optimistically at white consumers from the rock market.
Judging by the number of cheap deletions that were available in this country, the move was not a great success, but me and my friends later bought them second-hand, delighting in the delicious mix of sensual soul, cheesy ballads and righteous raps.
Womack would cover songs by Bacharach and David, James Taylor and even Neil Diamond, yet he would always find time for a slow lover's rap; against the gentle strumming of an acoustic guitar, he would tell you about how he was stuck in his motel room thinking about love, and all these women would try to come on to him, because he was a star. It was tough, was Womack's gist, but it was fair.
When he came to play at Hammersmith Odeon in the late Seventies, I hitched down from the University in Norwich to see him. Expectations were high. It had been rumoured that some of Bobby's special friends would appear on the night as guests. We were thinking Mick and Keith, but it turned out to be only Ian McClaglen, the keyboard player from The Faces.
When Womack came out to front his expert band, he was awesome. He went through all of his many semi-hits in an extended medley of 20 minutes or so, and for a first number it was incredible Then he said "Thanks and Goodnight', and left the stage. The crowd were bemused but shouted for more and, at length, Womack returned, to spend the next half-hour playing a dreadful guitar boogie. The experience has served as a valuable introduction to R&B stage manners ever since.
Later still, Womack seemed to go through an unusually long series of lost weekends - about 10 year's worth - but he re-emerged with two incredible albums for independent label Beverley Glen in the early Eighties. The Poet and The Poet II, were exactly the vindication Womack fans were looking for - especially as his brother, Cecil, was making waves with Sam Cooke's daughter, Linda, (Womack's stepdaughter?) in Womack and Womack.
After a couple of so-so albums for MCA later in the Eighties, things seemed to go quiet again, but a friend of mine did spot Womack flicking through the pages of a top-shelf magazine in a service station on the A1 in North Yorkshire a few years ago. "You're Bobby Womack," he said, an enquiry to which Womack graciously concurred, while keeping most of his attention for the magazine's centre-spread. Later still, another friend, Chris Wells, the editor of Echoes magazine, interviewed Womack in LA.
As they drove through the Hollywood hills in Bobby's swish sportster, a truck in front was hogging the road in an ungentlemanly fashion. When Womack indicated his impatience, the redneck driver shouted racial insults, a contretemps began, and the driver threw a bottle at Womack's car. A chase ensued;
Womack threw his own bottle and then stopped to retrieve a brick from an old house of his that happened to be on the route. Through a combination of the hefted brick and a bit of neat manoeuvring on the outside, Womack left the redneck in a cloud of dust.
As he passed by, the humiliated driver screamed more insults and gestured at the damage to his truck. "It's a good job I didn't have my piece on me," Womack told the terrified Wells. "I'd have iced the blighter" - except he didn't say blighter. Then he drove off into the sunset with a smile on his face.
If Tarantino is looking for a subject for a new film, Womack's life would be a hell of a role for Samuel L Jackson.
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