On record or in person, Bobby Womack tells it like it is, and frankly, he is looking good these days. A few signs of age are evident -- the receding hairline, the near-constant application of Vaseline to soothe the dry skin on his large hands -- but Womack still appears remarkably well-preserved, especially when one considers his several decades of one-nighters, personal tragedies (including the premature deaths of one brother, three sons, and his mentor, Sam Cooke) and on-again-off-again substance abuse.
Among the last soul giants still walking the earth, Bobby Womack is truly the only one left who can do it all. A prolific songwriter with a strongly philosophical bent, Womack has scored dozens of pop and R&B hits, including "Woman's Gotta Have It," "That's the Way I Feel About Cha" and "Harry Hippie"; Wilson Pickett, the Rolling Stones (who brought him along as a "spiritual adviser" during their recent U.S. tour) and Jodeci's K-Ci Hailey are just some of the many artists who've struck gold with Womack compositions. A distinctive and fluid guitarist, he's played sessions with everyone from Aretha Franklin and Sly & the Family Stone to George Benson and Gabor Szabo, and his score for the 1972 film Across 110th Street is widely acknowledged as a classic within the "blaxploitation" genre. And then there's his voice: a still-supple combination of Wilson Pickett's gritty bark and Sam Cooke's mellifluous croon, equally capable of caressing the loveliest melody or punching you in the gut without warning.
But despite his prodigious musical talents, it sometimes seems like talking is what Bobby Womack does best. Though I'm ostensibly here to ask him about Back to My Roots (The Right Stuff), his first album in five years, getting him to stick to a specific subject for more than a few minutes proves almost impossible. Over the course of three hours, I'm treated to several surreal dissertations on everything from his forthcoming blues and Christmas records to what's wrong with American radio, what's right with rap music, the merits of sobriety, his first case of gonorrhea, and the respective marital woes of Rod Stewart and Mick Jagger. In conversation, as in his music, Bobby Womack is a tough man to pin down.
"I like all kinds of music," he says. "I can't just hear one thing all the time, you know? I never understand it when a guy from the record company says, 'Give me another one like the last one.' They're like, 'You don't understand, Bobby, you've gotta stay commercial.' I say, 'Nah -- I gotta stay real.'"
This time around, staying real means releasing a collection of gospel numbers, ranging from standards like "Motherless Child" and "Amazing Grace" to more modern songs of faith, like Edwin Hawkins' "Oh Happy Day" and Paul Simon's "Bridge Over Troubled Water." But while contemporary gospel artists like Kirk Franklin are selling more records than ever, Back to My Roots is less about cashing in than about honoring old promises.
"I'd been promising my mother and father a gospel record for a long time," he says. "My father died in 1981, and I still hadn't put it out, but I finally cut it. It's a special labor of love, because that's where I came from."
Born into a religious family in Cleveland, Ohio, young Bobby honed his chops as a member of a popular gospel quintet that included his brothers Cecil, Curtis, Harris and Friendly Jr. Opening local shows for the biggest gospel acts of the day, the Womack Brothers quickly made some very influential friends, including the Soul Stirrers and the Five Blind Boys of Alabama. When Sam Cooke, the youngest Soul Stirrer, decided to leave the group to "go pop," the gospel community was outraged.
"Sam was scared," Bobby remembers. "At gospel shows, the audience would pass around a frying pan, and they didn't drop no 'quiet money' in there." He laughs. "It was always change. How could you buy your mom a house when you was worried about how you gonna get to the next city? But if he put out a pop record and it didn't hit, he couldn't come back over to the gospel side. Of course, he put out 'You Send Me,' and the motherfuckin' record took off. But everybody in church was sayin', 'Watch and see what happens. Somethin' bad is gonna happen to him, because now he's serving the devil.'"
It was a dilemma that the Womack Brothers would soon experience for themselves. When Cooke asked them to make pop records for his SAR label, Bobby explained that their father wouldn't allow it.
"So he said, 'All right, I'll cut y'all a gospel. If it don't sell, you've gotta do a pop.' Now, he knew it wouldn't sell, but we didn't know that, of course. We was just glad to be makin' a record!"
Less pleased was Friendly Womack Sr., who kicked his sons out of the house upon learning of their intentions. "That was the first time I ever saw my daddy cry," Bobby says now, with audible sadness. Apprised of the situation, Cooke wired the boys money to come to Los Angeles.
"He said, 'Get on Route 66 and stay on it all the way.' I talked my oldest brother into buying a Cadillac, because that's what I saw all the pimps in the neighborhood driving. Of course, we get on the freeway and it starts to rain, the windshield wipers won't turn on, and the car's running out of gas every 15 seconds because the tank's got a hole in it . . . We wound up in the hospital for a week, because we were overcome by gas fumes. And then the headlights came off!
"Two weeks later, we show up in L.A., pushin' the car down Hollywood Boulevard, all of us with our doo-rags on. We called Sam, and he said, 'Man, where the hell are y'all?'
"'We on Sunset. The car ain't got no more gas.'"
RECORDING AS THE VALENTINOS, THE WOMACK BROTHERS did manage to achieve a modicum of pop success with early-'60s singles such as "It's All Over Now" and "Lookin' for a Love," but it would take until 1971 for Bobby to crack the pop Top 40 with "That's the Way I Feel About Cha."
"My autobiography is gonna be called Crossin' Over," he laughs. "The Stones were askin' me, 'What do you think you've spent most of your life doin'?' And I said, 'Tryin' to cross over.'" Though soulful in the extreme, Back to My Roots doesn't exactly seem like a good bet for crossover success, but Bobby remains unfazed.
"What have I got to lose? If I'm gonna be bigger, I'm gonna be bigger, but right now I'm doing the things that I want to do. It's not about the money.
"Ever since 'It's All Over Now,' I've been hearing people say, 'This doesn't fit our format.' I say, 'What is your format?' Sam used to say, 'It's white. If you cut it, you couldn't do nothing with it. But if Elvis Presley cut it, it's a No. 1 record.' As a black man, you always have to be five times better than the white man, just to be with him.
"But it works both ways. I was married to two black women, but out of all of my brothers, I was the only one who had kids who couldn't play instruments or write songs. I'd see their kids playin' and singin', and I'd go, 'I've got the wrong kids!'
"Then I met this white girl from Sweden. Our kid is 4 years old, with one blue eye and one brown. The other night, he comes out onstage with me, dancin' like James Brown, slidin' right up to the microphone. I picked him up and said, 'Where you been all my life?' Boy, I thought I knew it all, but it ain't got nothin' to do with color. It has everything to do with knowing who you are, and what you feel inside."