By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
Photo by Debra DiPaolo"Y'ALL OUGHTA PUT ME ON YOUR COVER," GROWLS Bobby Womack as we sit down to talk at his Sherman Oaks bachelor pad. "I've seen some ugly-ass motherfuckers on the cover of the L.A. Weekly. I'm 55, man, and I'm still lookin' good."
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 Streetis 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!"