Bobby Womack is a thread that runs through soul music
Perhaps more than any other artist of his era, he connects the major players in a six-degrees-of-separation game that keeps going until it seems that Womack must have known and played with everyone.
by Travis Atria
Bobby Womack was Sam Cooke’s protégé, and alongside his brothers (known alternately as the Womack Brothers and the Valentinos), he toured with the Soul Stirrers, Jackie Wilson, and James Brown. He wrote hits for Wilson Pickett, including “I’m in Love,” which was about marrying Cooke’s widow. He played guitar for Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Sly Stone, and Janis Joplin, and he worked with the Muscle Shoals rhythm section on his solo recordings.
In forty-odd years of music, the man behind “Across 110th Street,” “Breezin’,” and “Woman’s Gotta Have It” has seen his share of trouble—divorce, addiction, diabetes, and the violent deaths of his mentor, Cooke, and his brother, Harry. But he got clean fifteen years ago to make sure he’d still be alive to tell the story.
Tell me about your father. He was a singer and a major influence on you as a child, right?
He had the greatest influence. My father was very religious, and he was totally against us singing any secular music. Sam Cooke had just left the gospel field and made a huge impression on us. I said, “Damn, look at him. I could go out and get my mother a better way of livin’, take my father off that job,” you know? But he didn’t care about none of that. He said, “Listen—if the devil’s comin’ in here, I want him to know who the bad ones are. So y’all gotta move out, because he might make a mistake and hit me.” We were literally thrown out of the house. We didn’t know what to do, so the first thing we did was call Sam. He said, “I’m going to send you $3,000”—you know, that was like three million—and he said, “I want you to go buy yourself a new car to come this far, Cleveland to Los Angeles.” So when he sent the money, I said, “Man, I got to have a Cadillac.” I wanted a Cadillac to ride up to the school, because this teacher, Mr. Washington, was constantly making jokes at me in class, saying, “He’ll never be nothing.” And the kids would be cryin’ laughin’. So that was my big dream. I went and bought this Cadillac. It was shinin’ like a new dollar bill. First place I head up to is the school and blew the horn. All the kids came runnin’ to the window—“It’s Bobby Womack!” He looked out the window and said, “If you don’t have that car off this lot in the next fifteen minutes, I’m calling the police.” But by the time I tried to start the car, it wouldn’t start. I said, “Oh, Lord, please, if you ever did anything for me, let me get this car around the corner.” I started the car up, and it kicked. I just headed out of there fast as I could go.
We leave [around 1960], goin’ to California, and everything was wrong with the car. It started raining; the windshield wipers [fell] off. The gas tank had a hole in it, and we kept putting gas in it. Then we got real sick from the fumes, ended up in the hospital. We finally got through all of that and got to California, broke down on Hollywood Boulevard. I called Sam, and I said, “We broke down on Hollywood.” He said, “Don’t go nowhere.” I said, “I just said we broke down on Hollywood. It ain’t nowhere to go.” [laughs] So he drove down. I think he was driving a Ferrari, and he said, “Let me take y’all to the hotel.” He took us over on Central Avenue. All of the superstars had stayed there, from Count Basie on.
When did you get your first guitar? Was it around that time?
My first guitar was my dad’s, and he told me not to play it. He said, “This is a very expensive instrument, and this guy gave it to me, because he probably stole it. All I got to do is cut his hair for the next three weeks, and the guitar is ours. But don’t even touch it.” So I touched it just to touch it, and everybody started laughing. He said, “What was that about?” They wouldn’t tell him, because my father would whoop you into the middle of next week if he thought you were being smart. He would go to work at the steel mill every morning, like, three or four o’clock in the morning, and he would walk back home every day; he would get there, like, four or five in the evening. That’s when I would take the guitar out of the case, and my mother kept saying, “You know, if something happens to that guitar, he’s going to kill you.” I could play it pretty well.
You taught yourself?
Yeah, I taught myself how to play it. I would listen to what they called then “boogie-woogie music.” The thing was, if you could play whatever song came on the radio, you could practice it the next time around. One day, I was playin’ and broke a string. Aw man, my heart jumped through my mouth. I knew I was in trouble. [My father] came home and said, “Fetch me my guitar,” so we could rehearse. So we got him the guitar, and we were laughing quietly, because he was playing the guitar for at least ten minutes before he looked down and said, “What happened to the string?” All my brothers started pointing at me. What I did was took a shoestring and tried to tie it onto the wire. He said, “I told you, don’t touch that guitar, and you done broke a string. I tell you what—if you can’t play it, you know what’s going to happen. But if you can play it, I might forget that I told you that.” So I took the guitar. Man, I played Elmore James, I played Sam Cooke, everybody. My father was shocked. He said, “I’m going to take you to Sears and buy y’all another instrument.” We were all jumping up and down, and I said, “If I got killed, y’all would’ve just went on without me. Now y’all happy.” To make a long story short… [pauses] All these stories are long. It’s amazing, because I’ve never gotten into those kinds of questions. Because nobody’s ever asked me as long as I’ve been around what my dad was like.
There’s another story I wanted to ask about—when you were around sixteen years old touring with Sam Cooke, his guitarist didn’t show up one night, so Cooke asked you to fill in on guitar. Is that right?
Yeah, his bass guitar player [Olsie Robinson] had a big ego. He played with Little Richard. He was one of the original Upsetters. They got into an argument, and the guy said, “I’ll quit. Matter of fact, I’m quittin’ now.” I’m standing there watching, and I said, “Sam, I can play that.”
Were you nervous?
I was looking at that like, “Man, that’s a step in the right direction.” Instead of opening up for him, I come back and play bass for him. How bad am I? The next thing that happens, Sam says, “We got a bass player comin’ in. You want to play guitar?” I said, “That’s my instrument.” Cliff White, who was Sam’s original guitar player, played rhythm, so I was free as I could be. Cliff was hard on me, but he said, “Boy, you got the fastest hands I ever seen.” See, the difference was, Cliff read music; I played music. I played what I felt. Sam was trying to get us to be on our own and not depend on him. He said, “I’m getting ready to go into the club thing.” That was big at the time. He said, “Go with your brothers. I got a tour for you.” He gave me the limo and his truck that he carried the band in. I was responsible for it. I’ll never forget it. We were driving in to Houston, and you could only stay in motels. You couldn’t stay in hotels at that time. As we were driving up, everybody had their doors open, because they didn’t have no air-conditioning. The TV was on, and it said, “Sam Cooke was killed last night.” [Cooke was fatally shot on December 11, 1964.] I said, “What? I just talked to him.” So we headed back [to L.A.], and the truck, the limousine, neither one of them would start. You know, I’m spiritual like that. I said, “Man, Sam is talkin’ to us.” It was the most upsetting thing. I lost my brother in a vicious attack—his name was Harry. That’s where the song “Harry Hippie” [from 1972] came from. Sam’s death hurt me just as bad as Harry’s. It took me so long to function again that when I did function, I did exactly what he told me not to do—left the group. I left the group, because I married Sam’s wife. I was thinking, I’ll keep all these bouncers off of her. Everybody’s going to be trying to catch her, so if I marry her, I’ll block it.
Some viewed the marriage as scandalous because it happened only a few months after Sam’s death. What was that relationship like?
She trusted me. She said, “He’s too young to be a crook. He’s very naïve about everything. He would do what Sam would do if he was here.” I remember Johnnie Taylor called one time and said, “I need to get $15,000.” She said, “Ask Bobby.” That killed him. She asked me, and I told her, “Don’t do it.” I said, “He’s a good guy, but once he feels that he could borrow from you, he knows that you wouldn’t even miss it.” We had that out, and she listened to me. After that, I had to go on my own. She had given me a five-year plan. She said, “After five years, I’ll know what the business is about, I’ll know how to run it, [and] you can go on with your brothers.” So when I went to go on with my brothers, there were disc jockeys all over the country saying, “Man, we would never play a Valentinos record because of Bobby.” So that’s what made me quit the group.
At that point, you made your first two solo albums on Minit, and then you worked with jazz guitarist Gabor Szabo on 1971’s High Contrast. What was it like making that album, and especially the song “Breezin’ ”?
That was a funny story. I lost all my money—wasn’t a whole lot, but then it was. Tommy LiPuma had a record company called Blue Thumb. They gave me an advance and said, “Write these songs for Gabor. He’s coming over from South America.” I never did do that. One day, they called me and said, “Come in to the studio. We’re tired of hearing all these excuses.” So I started writing different songs—just making them up as they came in my mind. The first thing that comes to a writer is a melody. Finally, I think after three songs, I started playin’ “Breezin’.” I didn’t even have a title for it. They said, “What was that?” I said, “That was ‘Breezin’.’ ” They said, “ ‘Breezin’ ’ where?” I said, “I don’t know, man.”
So you made that up off the top of your head in the studio?
Ain’t none of them songs I ever played before. But it taught me you can never sell a song short, because you don’t know who’s going to hear it. Matter of fact, I was hanging out with Sly [Stone]. And that’ll tell you why I didn’t get no songs done, [laughs] because Sly just want to party. But anyway, I go in and play “Breezin’,” and then I start singing the melody, [sings melody] and I said, “That’s going to be your part, Gabor.” So they taped it, and he learned it. He was a Pisces. And I thought to myself, “Man, I made these songs up just because they jammed me in the studio. If they asked me to play them back, I’d play them different.”
One part of your career during this period that often gets overlooked is the songwriting you did for Wilson Pickett. What was that like?
Pickett was also a Pisces. I knew Pickett from the gospel days when he was singing with a group called the Violinaires. He was bad then. Pickett could sing. He sang with a whole lot of feeling, hard and raw. He kept telling me, “Bobby, I’m hot right now. You gon’ get there eventually, but you know how you can get there faster? Let me have these songs.” He was right.
After that, it seems like your career started to take off with your next two solo albums, 1971’s Communication and 1972’s Understanding. Those two seem like sister albums, like they go together.
Those were the best years of my life, as far as creating. Understanding was supposed to be the first, but in those days, record companies picked what they wanted to release. I said, “You’re messing it all up. You got to understand before you can communicate. That’s why Understanding got to come first.” They said, “We don’t like that. We’re putting Communication out.” I found then, you cannot fight with a company.
Then in 1972 came one of your most famous works, Across 110th Street, which was made for the movie of the same name. How did that project come about?
With United Artists, they went out and found arrangers. I asked them, “I’m selling all these records; how come you won’t let me do a score?” I wanted it so bad that I threatened I was going to leave the company. They came back, and I saw the picture one time, and I was going on tour the very next day. So I know they was thinking, “Ain’t no way he gon’ do it. He don’t have time.” But they didn’t know that four, five o’clock in the morning, I was writing.
I’ve heard you describe the lyrics as being very true to life—that you were just writing what you saw.
I said, “This is about the ghetto. Man, anybody could write that song.” So when I wrote, “I was the third brother of five, doin’ what I had to do to survive,” that was true. “Across 110th Street”—I had been there. I said, “Even small cities got a ghetto. That’s where the Black people live.” That song came out like that, so easy. I never really thought about if it was going to be a hit. I learned from that—again, you can’t never underestimate the audience. Sam used to always tell me that. He would tell me, “Bobby, you would be unbelievable if you would read more.” My feeling was, “Ain’t nobody going to ask me who invented the cotton gin. Them people don’t want to hear that shit. They want to hear what’s happening right today.” He said, “Yeah, but Bobby, the only way you come up with the standards is to read.” Always, as soon as he’d get into town, he’d send his brother to the library and get him all these books. I would say, “How you gon’ read all them books that quick?” We’d be going to the next gig, but he’d still have the books with him.
Getting back to the Gabor Szabo thing—[five] years later, George Benson called and said, “We gotta do ‘Breezin’,’ and we cut it already, but what’s missin’ is the rhythm guitar. I want you to come down and play it.” So when I got there, it was at Capitol Records, I came out and started playing the rhythm guitar. They said, “Now, that’s the song.”
Apart from playing with Benson, you also played guitar for Aretha Franklin and many others, right?
Oh yeah, a lot of people. I played guitar for Ray Charles for about three years.
What was that like?
Ray Charles had just come out of the hospital cleaning up, and he was tough on musicians, because he said it was musicians who turned him out. He called me and said, “We’re auditioning for a guitar player. Would you like to come down and try?” I went there, and there were about ten guitar players.
What year was that?
It was probably—let’s see—’65 or ’66. He had this book [of songs], like a telephone book. He’d say, “Go to number one, go to fourteen, go to eighteen.” They would turn the pages so fast. I didn’t turn the pages, because I couldn’t read [music]. So he said, “They tell me you’re not turning your pages. How are you playing the song if you don’t know it?” I said, “Man, I don’t read music; I feel music.” The place was quiet. So Ray says, “Okay, well, feel this.” He started playin’ anything on the piano, saying, “I want you to play it with me.” So whatever he played, I followed him. And he laughed, and he kept saying something about how I would slide into the chords. He said, “You a slide motherfucker. All right, you got the gig.” I remember I thought Sam was a tight businessman. This guy was tight. You had to call him “Mr. Charles,” and when they said, “Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Ray Charles,” everybody better have a smile on his face in that band, or they were fired.
You toured with James Brown too, right?
Yeah. That was the best lesson I could ever learn. Sam said, “If I take y’all to the Apollo with me, I’m going to be too nice to y’all. I ain’t got the heart to tell you, but I know who will. Y’all going to the Apollo with James Brown.” He said, “Y’all come out of the Army marching like soldiers when James get through with you.” [Cooke and Brown] really never were tight, but he must have told James, “I want you to give them hell when you see something they ain’t doing,” because James would come out every show and be standin’ there in the wings taking notes. I couldn’t stand that, because you couldn’t sing like you was going to sing. As soon as we’d get offstage, he’d say, “Now, what was that shit about? He was off key. His shoes wasn’t shined.” Stuff like that. He was very serious. I tried to ignore him one time, and he grabbed the drummer’s drumstick and hit me across the head with it. I mean, he hit me hard and said, “Pay attention.” Man, that got me in gear.
What was touring like in the early days with Sam Cooke or James Brown? Were they partying then—girls, drugs, the whole thing?
I was too young. Girls didn’t want to be with me. The drug thing wasn’t out there then. I know James Brown didn’t mess around at all, and Sam said, “I’m not a drinker; I’m a sipper.” Jackie Wilson, you never got around him too close to really know what he did. We were all in the same boat. They might be stars, but they had to stay in the same motel I stayed in. I used to ask him, “Sam, you live in a mansion. Why do you come out on the road to go through all this shit?” He said, “I’m an icebreaker. I got to take shit so people don’t have to take it five or ten years from now.” He used to tell me, “Bobby, staying in motels ain’t that bad if you think about it. The White man is the dummy. Don’t you understand—we get mo’ tail in the motel?” I said, “I never looked at it like that.” He said, “You don’t, because you probably never get none.” He would just crack up laughing, because he’d say, “Bobby will believe anything I tell him if I make it sound true.”
Earlier, you talked about hanging out with Sly Stone, and I know you played guitar on 1971’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On. What was the recording process like with him?
He was the baddest cat that I know on the creative side. It was a different generation. The Jackie Wilsons and the James Browns had created the opening for him to be able to do that. Much as I love him—and he’s a Pisces too—I saw him play really fucked up. And he was sounding like it, because he was wasted. But they were great songs.
Did he give you direction or tell you what to play?
No, he’d just say, “Bobby, play whatever come in yo’ mind.” I was learning from him, but it bothered me the more he invested in the drug thing. He’d say, “I can’t remember, is it Wednesday or Thursday?” I’d say, “It’s Wednesday now.” You know, I said, “That’s going to kill him.” But, unbelievable, he’s still alive. He ain’t changed. He don’t care what the people think. I quit [drugs] fifteen years ago, just like I started. If I hadn’t stopped, my brain would have been fried now. I’ll never touch drugs again, only because I had seen what it had done to close friends of mine on a creative level. I’ve seen a lot of people die, but that didn’t scare me. Everybody got to go out of here some kind of way. But to take that God-given talent and make it thirty percent and the [drugs] seventy percent, you get mad…even though I was cool enough to go onstage and sing through the first two songs and sweat it all out. .
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