In honour and respectful appreciation of the anniversary of his birthdate, we revisit an in-depth 1976 interview by esteemed soul music scribe John Abbey with musical pioneer and innovator, Bobby Womack (March 4, 1944 – June 27, 2014), whose music impacted generations globally as a recording artist, dynamic performer, heralded songwriter and influential musician. Rest peacefully, Bobby.
Bobby Womack: Root-Rappin’
By John Abbey
Root-rappin? Well, it’s like this…UK soul music scribe John Abbey got to talking with Bobby during a visit to London in the spring of 1976 and this in-depth and fascinating conversation drifted to his very early days — his roots!
Though Bobby Womack probably won’t thank me for mentioning it, the amiable superstar is celebrating his 25th anniversary of being in show business this year. The reason he won’t thank me is because I’m sticking to the proverbial book, but I’ll immediately come to his rescue by pointing out that his career began shortly after his seventh birthday back in his home town of Cleveland, Ohio. During Bobby’s recent British dates at the beginning of his first Euro-tour, we caught him in a reminiscing mood and found the subject to be of special interest to the man.
That debut performance was with his three brothers — Friendly Jr., Curtis and Harry — who then were tagged the Womack Brothers. With their god-fearing father — Friendly Sr, — playing guitar, the brothers opened a gospel concert for the then-popular Soul Stirrers at Cleveland’s Friendship Baptist Church. “To this day,” Bobby recalls with a wry smile and glazed look in his eyes, “I’ll never forget that day. Our father took it all so very seriously and our ma made up special suits for us to wear on the day. They were our first suits and we weren’t allowed to wear them until ten minutes before the show actually started. Like a lot of families in that period, we were brought up as strict and God-fearing children but we were taught manners and respect, two things that seem to have died out since in the States. That’s why I like England so much because those pleasantries still exist over here.”
The transition from gospel to R&B proved to be a particularly harrowing one for the Womack brothers but somehow, the way Bobby tells it, it’s tinged with humour and melodrama: “Well, it got us kicked out of the house — literally!”, he begins. “I was fourteen at the time and, like I say, our father was very seriously religious. In fact, he thought that Blues singers had the devil in them and when an accident might befall one of them, pops would say that God had let it happen that way to teach a lesson. And when we were singing gospel, he would literally say his prayers every night that God had sent him sons who were blessed with the gift of being able to sing praise to Him. But we boys had different ideas and every night we would talk until well into the night about how we would leave gospel and get into what pop called Be-Bop. We used to all sleep in one big of bed — except for Cecil who was only about two at the time — and one night we finally decided to tell pop what we wanted to do.”
He continues, “It all happened like this — we knew the Blind Boys lead singer, Roscoe, and he claimed he knew Sam Cooke real well. Now, we had been on local shows with Sam and I said to Roscoe that if he knew Sam so well, why didn’t he get him on the phone and get a deal together for us to make a record. So, Roscoe calls Sam and asks him if he remembers the Womack brothers and when Sam says he does, Roscoe says that Sam should do something about making a record with us. Sam was already at the top so he knows what he is talking about and he tells us all — because we were all listening in on phone extensions! — that there’s no money or future in making gospel records and that we ought to cross over into R&B. Naturally, at first we told Sam that our father would go mad if we were to suggest it so Sam came to Chicago and met us and we cut a couple of gospel tunes for his record company, Sar Records. In the meantime, we were doing little local gigs with all of the big visiting gospel groups — groups like the Swan Silvertones and James Cleveland because the Staple Singers, for example, had only just begun then. So that’s how we first came into serious contact with Sam but he played a tremendous part in the beginning.”
The Womack Brothers enjoyed a fair amount of success as a gospel recording act but the seed had been sewn in the back of the four brothers’ minds — the switch to R&B. “We soon saw how much further we could get by making Blues records so the four of us decided to pluck up courage and confront Pop with the situation. I started out as spokesman and when I told him we didn’t want to sing gospel any more he just broke down and cried. It surprised us all so much that I found myself floundering for other reasons so as not to hurt him. I tried the wealth routine — about how we could buy a house and move out of the neighbourhood. But that didn’t work because pops said he would always work and anyway he liked living in the neighbourhood. And we said how we wouldn’t have to walk five miles to school every day, we could afford to go on the bus. Finally, I went back to the original reason — we were sick of singing gospel and wanted to try to build a career out of entertaining. Pop got annoyed and said he would throw us all out of the house because of the shame it would bring him and how we were going over to the devil. I countered by saying we didn’t have any money so could he please throw us out next week instead!”
Bobby reflects, “It all got pretty heavy so we called Sam in Los Angeles and explained what had happened. He asked to speak to my ma and agreed to send us $3,000 to buy a station wagon and drive to California and he would help us. But, imagining that we were already superstars, we decided to spend the money on a Cadillac because a station wagon would be too small-time for us! We could smell all those dollars in California so nothing seemed to matter to us. I remember when the cheque arrived from Sam, pop just sat and looked at it — completely mesmerised because he’d never seen that much money in his life before. We went off to do some work in New York and the East Coast and came back home and bought the dream Cadillac — for $600 so you have some idea of what sort of a Cadillac it was! The minute we bought it, pop told us it was real pretty but mechanically it was garbage and that it wouldn’t see us across the state line. But he was being kind because we never got out of the city even before it broke down! When we left the house, there was the four of us and ma in the back seat and the whole neighbourhood turned out to see us off. The kids ran down the street with the Cadillac, it was that impressive to them all. Anyway, we managed to get it to a garage just outside of the city and the mechanic started to tell us about our bargain — the tank had a hole in it, it needed completely new tyres and a whole heap of other faults. If pops had known about it at the time, he would have sworn that the devil had gotten us. But, we got it fixed overnight and we all slept in the car as it was jacked up. Man, that was the most uncomfortable night of my life!”
More adventures followed: “Then we got lost and ended up in Mexico. By this time, the car had started leaking gas again and when we finally stopped in this little town, we all staggered out of the car almost asphyxiated from the fumes. Ma was so bad that she had to spend a couple of days in the hospital and again we all slept in the car at night. By then, though, Pa and everybody was wondering where we were. He was calling Sam’s house and every day he was getting more and more riled up until he threatened Sam that he was coming out to California to kick Sam into next week because he had taken his sons over to the devil. Anyway, we eventually got there and drove down Hollywood Boulevard one evening, getting to Sam’s office at around nine o’clock. He had gone home so we called him there and he came round and got us and fed us because by now we had got less than $100 left of the original $3,000. He checked us into this hotel type place deep in the heart of Watts — Lord, that was a real dive, I’ll never forget it! It was so tight there that we were even given a meal ticket and told when to eat and what to eat. But somehow it was all new and exciting.”
A new era: “Just before we had left Cleveland, we had gone across to Chicago to make out first record as the Valentinos. Sam and his manager. J.W. Alexander, were the ones to come up with the name because they kept on telling us that we were slick like Rudolph Valentino. And then they’d add that the Womack Brothers was too gospel-ly and that we needed a new name and image to go with our R&B career. Then they presented us with a list of names and, apart from the Valentinos, they were all really lousy — names like the Be-Bops and the Doo-Wops — so it was no contest. Anyway, the record we cut was “Looking For A Love” (which Bobby re-cut only a couple of years back and earned himself a Gold Disc for by the way) and it did well for us in several areas. Enough for us to get some work, anyway. But it was a rip-off really because all we were doing was taking standard gospel tunes, changing the rhythm and adding new lyrics. “Looking For A Love” was the same really as “I Couldn’t Get Nobody To Pray”, which was an old plantation gospel number that we had recorded earlier as the Womack Brothers tor Sam. But I’ll never forget our opening night in California. The little club was packed and they were impatiently waiting to see the hit recording Valentinos — and we trooped on in the same suits that we’d had made six years earlier but ma had added bits here and taken bits out there. We’d sprayed the black shoes blue to go with the blue suits and when we walked on, the people just fell about laughing. And, of course, we didn’t know why until Sam told us and he took us out next day to buy new uniforms. And that was the first time that we had ever had shop-bought clothes in our life.”
Bobby recalls, “From then on, it became a madhouse existence. At first, we were getting lots of work but then it dropped off and we were still demanding big money — which we were simply not getting and so we weren’t working. We needed a new record and that’s how I started writing songs. I felt that unless we came up with our own material we’d never get anywhere. I guess that was all brought to a head one night when Sam caught us in our old faithful Cadillac and you see, we’d fitted up this phone on the front dashboard to impress the fans. You know, the world-famous Valentinos and their Cadillac with the telephone in the front. Very impressive — but what they didn’t know was that it was a regular home phone and it wasn’t connected to anything! But Sam tore us off a strip in front of a handful of our fans and told us how we could be arrested for fooling around with the telephone company’s property. The final blow came one night when we came out from doing a show and found the Cadillac missing. So we combed the neighbourhood and asked everyone if they’d seen it. Finally, in desperation, we called Alex (J.W. Alexander) and told him — only to be told by him that the loan company had come and repossessed it. But, fortunately, “It’s All Over Now” came straight after that — and you know the rest.”
The name of Sam Cooke still spells magic to most soul fans and though his death is more than ten years ago, there is an aura about him that will never die: “He was just one of those type of guys who would never give in, Bobby began when I asked him what lay behind the invisible charisma. I’d say that he is 75% responsible for me being the way I am today. He always loved a challenge and if something was placed in his path that looked impossible, he wouldn’t rest until it was sorted out. He always wanted to know the who’s, the what’s and the wherefores about everything he did. From a musical standpoint, I’d say that I owe 50% of my style to what I learned direct from Sam. For example, most of my phrasing came direct from Sam. He had this kind of aura that you just couldn’t get away from — and really didn’t want to get away from. I never really think of Sam as being dead because I feel he lives on inside me to some degree. The nearest comparison I can make to Sam is Muhammed Ali. If he had lived on, though, he would have been a superstar today — and that’s for sure! He was really the first Black entertainer that took care of his own business affairs and that upset a lot of people at the time.”
After Sam’s death, though, Bobby ran into problems of his own. He married Sam’s widow, Barbara, and went through a lean time because people accused him of marrying her for what he could gain in the business sense: “My name was mud, man!” he reflects with a smile, nonchalantly looking out of the window of his chauffeur driven Rolls Royce as we cruise along London’s fashionable Kings Road. “People were saying that I’d have to work doubly hard because I wasn’t going to get it easy just by marrying Sam’s wife.”
During that gap, Bobby did record but it was for what he terms a rip-off organisation, fronted by popular L.A. disc-jockey, the Magnificent Montague. That was in 1965 and it marked Bobby’s recording debut as a solo singer. The label was Keymen and the two singles were “What Is This” and “Trust Me”, both of which he has since re-cut on U.A. Between the time when Sam died and when Bobby arrived as a superstar in his own right on U.A.’s Minit label, Bobby concentrated on playing his guitar and on writing.
Bobby was also the brains behind the one-off Atlantic Records’ experiment that was tagged the Soul Clan. Featuring Joe Tex, Wilson Pickett, Ben E. King, Don Covay, Arthur Conley and Solomon Burke, it should have ended up as the super soul group of all time. But because of internal jealousies, the project lasted just long enough to get one single together before it was dropped. “It was an experience,” Bobby recalls, since he not only played guitar on the session but had the onerous task of getting the six acts together to record. “In the end, we had to record them one at a time and tell each one a different lie to get them in the studio. At the time, all six were hot and they all wanted to feel that they were the top name in the group! The combination could have been and should have been a fantastic success and at the time I was disappointed that it wasn’t a bigger success — but the company rightly saw the problems that would have developed had they pursued it any further.”
So, Bobby went back on the road and toured with the likes of Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles before he set about building his own career again…and the rest, as we say, is history.
© 1976, John Abbey, © 2012, SoulMusic.com, reprinted, courtesy John Abbey