BOBBY WOMACK: 'LAST SOUL MAN' B&S CLASSIC INTERVIEW - 08/08/04
The title of his 1987 MCA album The Last Soul Man' has never seemed more prophetic and apt...
With traditional soul values becoming virtually extinct in the hip hop-dominated, youth-oriented R&B arena of the Mid-Nineties, Bobby Womack - one of the most enduring and legendary figures in black music - has this month delighted soul music fans the world over with the release of his first album for the Nineties, the appro-priately titled 'Resurrection'.
Accompanying me on a car journey that took us from his Holland Park hotel through the West End and over the river to The South Bank`s television studios, a fast-talking and outspoken Mr. Womack, whose rasping, downhome voice is even more gritty in person than on record - enthuses about his new album and speaks honest-ly about the troubled and frequently-sad personal circumstances that gave rise to many of its songs.
"It represents my life over the last 30 years! I really came to grips with myself and tried to be as honest as I could be, without always thinking about what somebody else might think. Because, at this point in my life, I don`t really give a damn!", he begins bluntly: "But then I DO give a damn about the mistakes I made along the way! So today I`ve put all the drugs and booze behind me - I can see straight; I can think straight. And it`s just nice to be normal! You know, today I smoke very little cigarett-es, I drink only occasionally, and I`m walking on the ground!"
"You know, I didn`t want people to think I was just some stoned-out druggie. I mean, man, I was trying to get through life and I COULDN`T! `Cause I had nothing to DRAW from!", he continues: "My family had split up so bad, there was all kinda craziness! Womack & Womack had decided to change their name to Zackariyas and moved to Africa; my son committed suicide; my 20-year-old marriage had broke up... I was like `Man, is there anybody around that I can recognise?`... And so when I finally realised `OK, I`ve done enough damage, what is the best thing I can do now?`... I just decided to start afresh today saying `OK this is the NEW Bobby Womack` ... And, once I started to do that, my music came back! You know, my music had long left, I was shadow-boxing on five or six albums, everybody was writing songs that SOUNDED like Bobby Womack and I was singing `em... But then you get to a point where you just don`t wanna fool people any more. So I said `I just wanna get the best album I can possibly give `em, and show people that I can be straight and that everybody can change`... And, when that happened, I decided to call the album` Resurrection`. Just to prove that the Bobby Womack of old had made the quietest exit ever, and that the new one was here doing all the right things!"
Stories circulating of a poverty-stricken Bobby having recorded `Resurrection` "on spec" in a California studio during the early hours when the building normally shut down are however denied by Womack himself.
"No that`s not true of this album. That happened when I was doing a gospel album before 'Resurrection'… And nobody wanted it `cause they thought that I`d do an Al Green and never go back to singing rock and roll again!", he laughs: “That was when Ronnie Wood of The Rolling Stones called me and said `Bobby, they ain`t gonna take the gospel album `cause they don`t want you preachin` to `em for the rest of your life! But would you be interested in signing to my new label?`. I said `You got a label?`… And he said `I got one if I got YOU! Continuum Records is the company and I can guarantee you`ll be treated better than ever. `Cause you KNOW how much we respect your music`. So that`s how this album came out. That`s why The Rolling Stones are playing on some of the tracks. You know, I wrote `It`s All Over Now`, the first song that introduced them to The States, back in `64. And we`ve been friends ever since. Just like Rod Stewart and I have always had strong ties. That`s why I also got him on there with me singing 'Don`t Break Your Promise'. To me he was the first white soul singer that I respected… Although, out of all the duets on this new album, it was the one with Ronnie Isley that killed me the most."
While the vocal interplay between Isley and Womack on the intensely soulful ballad 'Trying Not To Break Down' is indeed stunning, the most powerful cut lyrically on 'Resurrection' is without doubt 'Cousin Henry'. Bobby`s stirring midtempo duet with Stevie Wonder.
“Well, Stevie has always been political and so have I. And this song is about my cousin who went to war and then came out an alcoholic”, explains Womack: “Me and my brothers used to tease him all the time. But then one day he said to me `Do you know what it is to take a man`s life?. I was just a plain country boy when they took me off in that army truck. Then, when I got over there, people was trying to kill me and so I had to fight back. And now, every night I go to sleep, I see the expression on the man`s face I shot`... So I never teased him no more, and 20 years later I cut 'Cousin Henry'! Then after Stevie heard it he says `Man, that`s something I`ve overlooked - there`s crippled and sick veterans all over the world who`ve saved their country but the countries don`t like to talk about it. They only wanna show the glorified side of war`… So with this song we wanted to raise the consciousness and maybe get something going for all the veterans everywhere. You know, there`s a lotta guys who were promised grants and didn`t get nothing. Instead, you see them sitting on the street like hoboes.”
Meanwhile, another departure for Womack can be heard in the hip hop flavours of the hauntingly atmospheric track 'Walkin' On The Wildside` - which features a guest rap from Mae Mae Ali, daughter of Muhammed Ali: “At first I was worried about putting her on there because Ali and I have been friends a long time and he don`t like rap `cause he says it shows so much violence! So I was like `Shit, let me take you off there`! `Cause, if her dad decided he wants to box me, there ain`t nothin` I can do!... You know, he`d scare the shit outta me!”, laughs Bobby good-naturedly: “But then, when she explained she wanted to rap about how important it is to have a woman in this world, I liked the idea. You know, I just hate this negative rap. And, if they think that can replace soul music, then they must be outta their mind! I mean, soul music was about real life. Those guys carried themselves in a way that people respected them, and they in turn gave people hope and respect. But these wanna-be gangstas have no respect for ANYTHING… And, if the shoe fits, wear it! `Cause I couldn`t give less than a fuck!”
Indeed, Bobby has some opinions generally on the current domination of the US black music scene by hip hop.
“I see it as a political move. Because, if you notice, in The States you ain`t hearing no actual black soul music on the radio any more. You only hear the likes of Michael Bolton and George Michael”, he asserts: “And that`s because often anything the white man cannot have and control he kills off. You know, they been trying to steal black music for so long. So they took rap and dumped it on top, just to sidetrack everyone! That`s called smokescreen, and it`s the reason why you`re now getting Michael Bolton coming out stealing an Isley Brothers tune!.. And the most stupid people of ALL in this are the black disc jockeys themselves! Because they were the ones who succumbed to it by jumping on rap and saying soul was `dated`! They are the ones who threw away something that is an enormous part of the culture and legacy of the black American! But, don`t worry... Bobby Womack is back out here to let `em know that I can REALLY shake `em down!”
The album 'The Best Of Bobby Womack: The Soul Years' is out this week through EMI/Capitol
Words PETE LEWIS