I was the third brother of five
Doing whatever I had to do to survive
I'm not saying what I did was alright
Trying to break out of the ghetto was a day-to-day fight
I got one more thing I'd like to talk to y'all about right now
Hey brother, there's a better way out
Snorting that coke, shooting that dope, man you're copping out
Take my advice, it's either live or die
You've got to be strong, if you want to survive
On his 1972 hit Across 110th Street" soul legend Bobby Womack sings, You've got to be strong if you want to survive." Originally penned for the blaxploitation film of the same name, the track was later used in 1997 by Quentin Tarantino for his film Jackie Brown and most recently in 2007's American Gangster. But, more than just a tough soul-funk classic fit for the silver screen, the sentiments reflect the difficult path Womack has traveled.
Born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1944, Womack battled addiction, murder, personal tragedy and a very fickle music business to become one of the soul genre's most influential and endearing artists. He studied under Sam Cooke, toured behind James Brown, was Ray Charles' guitarist, did session work with Aretha Franklin (Aretha Now, Lady Soul), Elvis Presley (#1 hit Suspicious Minds"), Sly Stone (There's A Riot Goin' On) and Janis Joplin (Pearl), wrote several Top 10 hits for Wilson Pickett and even wrote and recorded The Rolling Stones' first U.K. number one hit, It's All Over Now." Yet through all this Womack was virtually unknown by the public for much of his early career as he struggled to find success as a solo artist. Now at age 64, Womack has survived long enough to witness the release of The Best of Bobby Womack: The Soul Years (released May 27 on Capitol/EMI). Looking back over the past 50 years Womack is reflective: I just love what I do" he says. I'm not out looking for a [record] deal, but I'm still here."
Featuring 22 hits from the '60s and '70s, the album illustrates Womack's deep influence on the foundation of R&B and soul music. Womack grew up in a very religious house and began signing gospel as a youngster with his siblings in the Womack Brothers quintet. In 1953 they opened for Sam Cooke's band, The Soul Stirrers, which eventually lead the brothers out of the church and into popular music. It would also lead to them being kicked out of their home.
When we started to make that change [to popular music], my father was very religious and he inspired us and got us started but he never thought we would want to sing anything other than gospel," recalls Womack. So, that really hurt him bad, and it bothered us, too. But, we were hooked on the singing, which he had given us and we just wanted to grow with it, and, at the same time, I felt it was a good way to put us in a better position financially, to get my father and mom in a house and stuff like that."
After their father kicked them out, Cooke wired the brothers enough money to buy a car and head out to his L.A. office. After signing with Cooke's SAR label, the Womack Brothers embraced R&B and changed their name to The Valentinos. The next few years were fertile and eventually found Bobby Womack joining Cooke's band. Sam Cooke would become Womack's mentor, friend and idol.
The big thrill for me was meeting Sam Cooke," says Womack. His spirit was big, and he was the kind of person that you didn't have to hold back with, you could open up. Make a long story short, I ended up playing guitar for him and learning a lot about the stage - how to work a house, how to write, just learning period."
While it's true Womack learned his trade by shadowing Cooke, it was more than just music he was ingesting. Womack looked up to Cooke and came to emulate him in all walks of life.
I had a lot of respect for him because I like the way he carried himself," offers Womack. I would always say, 'Man, I never see you in a bad mood.' And he said, 'Well, I have them days, but when you do, don't take it to the people. People depending on you and into you so much, they think you're real, and they believe you are real.' He used to say, 'You don't never want to kill they spirit by your attitudes. You can't turn it on and off.' That stuck with me a long ways, and I always want to be that way."
Following the sketchy 1964 murder of Sam Cooke things became increasingly difficult for Womack. A few months after the tragic shooting, the then 21-year-old Womack married Cooke's distraught widow, Barbara Campbell, who he would later divorce in 1970. Although he claims he was simply trying to look after his mentor's wife, the marriage made Womack an outcast in the music community and almost crushed his career.
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Finding himself on a black list, no one would touch anything Womack wrote. Struggling to survive, he once again became a backing guitarist working with a slew of stars. Amongst the many high-profile recordings done in this period the most monumental was Womack's dark, psychedelic guitar work on Sly Stones' 1971 classic There's A Riot Goin' On.
That was a thrill within itself. It's amazing because he's [Sly Stone] a Pisces, and I'm a Pisces. And I know one thing about him, he is a very sensitive guy and you have to protect that," offers Womack. But sometimes you can be too real and people walk all over you. He let a lot of things happen that he had no control of. I mean, he did have control but a lot of us get caught up in neighbor situations, you know, and I'm no different, I can't point no finger at him, but he got into the drugs. The free spirit can carry you places and sometimes it don't bring you back. You know? And that temptation, that's a strong thing."
While Sly Stone was slipping deeper into addiction and self-destruction, the tides had turned for Womack and he was coming back around. In addition to his work with Sly he scored his first hit single as a solo artist in 1968 with What Is This?" and would find great success with a number of covers including Fly Me to the Moon," California Dreamin'" and I Left My Heart In San Francisco."
The next few years would find Womack enjoying multiple hits and incredible success on the charts including his 1973 version of Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out." Although he was on top of the world at this point, sadly, it wouldn't be long until Womack was once again down and out."
In 1974 his brother Harry (who inspired Womack's 1972 hit Harry Hippie") was murdered by a jealous girlfriend in Bobby Womack's apartment. The weight was too much to bear and Bobby Womack became heavily dependent on drugs and alcohol. Although he did manage a few more hits in 1975, he had more or less slipped off the scene, and in 1979 his infant son died, which further isolated Womack.
He's long since returned to recording, releasing albums through the '80s and '90s, but it's the live arena that truly inspires Womack today.
I go through all of the ups and downs that everybody else do. If it's losing somebody that's very close to you, or if it's being totally broke, or going into tax situations, all kind of problems," says Womack. But, when I walk out on that stage I become the other Bobby Womack. To see all of those people out there, they are here to do one thing - to forget about what's been taking place in their lives. And I turn them on and they turn me on. That's a major spiritual thing."
When Womack talks about performing live it's as if he's found the Fountain of Youth. That spirit that they feed back to me, if I'm 64 it makes me feel like I'm 31" laughs Womack. It's a spirit that you can't control, and when I come off that stage I'm 64 again. Every time that miracle happens! That's something you can't buy and I long for it."
Bobby Womack grew up on the stage, and while he still enjoys connecting with his old fans, it's the new ones that really turn him on. The most rewarding aspect [now] is to see new generations. Like, we just played Houston and I saw generations that were my daughter's age. She's in her twenties now, and they were saying, 'Man, I love your music!'"
And the reason they love it is the message, it's always been the message with Bobby Womack.
[When you're playing live] you have to drop everything and become very honest and real as you possibly can be," says Womack. It all comes from the music or some kind of a message that reached from one side of the world to the other. People that don't even speak the language, in Japan, understand it through just the feeling. They understand every word, everything I'm saying."
We seem to forget our history - musically and otherwise. Bobby Womack is a soul legend and he's responsible for some of the greatest songs the genre has ever seen, yet many aren't sure exactly who he is. Because of this, The Best of Bobby Womack: The Soul Years, is all the more important.
It's another way of enlightening the new generations, generation after generation, on what's going on, what's been going on and how long it's been going on," says Womack. With the release of the album and current resurgence in soul music, Womack reflects on how he'd like to be remembered. I'm as real as they get," he says, and I always tried to relay a message, whether it's lightweight or heavyweight, something took you."
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