Bobby Womack performs after being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame the 2009 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony Saturday, April 4, 2009 in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
Soul ’round L.A.
Bobby Womack: The Last Surviving Soul Singer
By Joy Childs
Sentinel Contributing Writer
He’s known alternately as “the poet” and “the preacher.” But these days, he’s also known as the last surviving soul singer, part of the royal lineage of Sam Cooke, Ray Charles and Wilson Pickett. He’s written for everybody-including “It’s All Over Now” (the Rolling Stones’ first UK no. 1 hit) and New Birth’s “I Can Understand It”-and who he hasn’t written for, he’s performed with.
A recent telephone interview was filled with many wonderful Womack stories-about his time at The Dunbar Hotel on Central Avenue, his Apollo debut with James Brown, and even one about why it’s “A Woman’s (and not A ‘Lady’s’) Gotta Have It.” He even touched on the joy of being in love, saying “I love to love women.”
We started out by talking about Janis Joplin.
LAS: I wanna tell you something I don’t think you know! In preparing for today, I came across an interview you did with Britain’s Zani Magazine this past March where you talked about meeting Janis Joplin in the ’60s and you said you’d just bought a Mercedes 600 and she’d just bought a new Porsche and you thought she’d painted it herself because there was a naked woman painted on the hood! Have you seen that Porsche since?
BW: No, haven’t seen it since she was driving it.
LAS: Well, that av Have
Porsche was on exhibit at The Grammy Museum earlier this year. It was exactly as you described it in that interview!
BW: It was a blessing to me that she was such a sweet person.
LAS: You say “sweet”? But that wasn’t her persona, right?
BW: No, her persona was that she was an ol’ rough person. She said she left home when she was 13, and she told me that kids used to always tell her how ugly she was. And she said she quit school and went to New Orleans and she said ‘I used to sing around in bars and clubs all through the night. And she said ‘That’s how I kept myself being able to eat …’ She said, ‘Then when I started to become famous,’ she said, All of a sudden I became nice-looking!’
BW: … And I told her, ‘You know you [had better] stay famous or you’ll be ugly again!’
LAS: You’ve performed with such a wide diversity of folks and such a wide array of musical genres. Was there anything in your upbringing [in Cleveland] that enabled you to be so open to recording with and writing for such a diverse group of people at times when the music industry wasn’t really open to us?
BW: Well, the first thing that happened was Wilson Pickett was telling me, ‘Bobby, I want you to come to Memphis. It’s gonna blow your mind.’ And I love the way he sung ’cause he sung [“In the] Midnight Hour.” So I went to visit him and the whole band was white. That’s what freaked me out. And then afterwards, they said ‘Let’s go out to lunch. And we went right down the street to a soul restaurant and ordered chitterlings, ham hocks-stuff like that-I didn’t even know they ate food like that! They said, ‘How you think we stayed alive?’ That’s the only food that there is. They were sitting up eating and they were laughing at me ’cause I was laughing at them. I had a whole different picture. I said there’s a difference between the white man and the musician white man. They [the musician white man] feel and they flow with the music. It’s a special gift.
LAS: Is there anyone out there now that you feel is singing in the tradition of Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, because I don’t see them?
BW: I have great respect for Stevie Wonder because he’s seen it all. And one thing about it: He doesn’t try to change his music, you know. And he changed the world with his music. And he said, ‘The most important thing is a story that makes sense.’ And he said, ‘Music is the universal language-and he’s right … And I watch him and I say, ‘Stevie can’t see but he sees better than me …
And I admire that because it’s guys like Stevie that are keeping old school alive. And old school-to me when I go to other countries-like I’m getting ready to do a tour of about 15 countries- when I go to other countries, little kids walk up to you and say, ‘Mr. Womack, boy, I love “Harry Hippie”‘! And I say, Harry Hippie? You wasn’t even born when that song was out. Harry Hippie is older than you. You know, but they say, ‘But now we got the Web, I can get on the Web, I can find out what you’ve done, you know, stuff like that. And they hold music over there as [their] bible.
Here that music is a thing of the past. It’s sad because every time something come out, they jump on that version, and then jump to the next one, and the next one sound like the next one … It’s like they’re all eating at McDonald’s! … I was thinking about people like Ray Charles, Sam Cooke … and all these people had a sound. You can hear them talkin’ and know who they was … ‘That’s Ray, that’s Sam, that’s Marvin, that’s David Ruffin,’ you know what I mean? [Today,] like you don’t know who in the hell is that? And they following someone and they should be following themselves. The last thing I sampled was my mother’s cooking!”
He went on to talk about a would-be sampler, someone who said, “And they said, ‘We just want that line [BW sings] “If You Think You’re Lonely Now” … And we gon’ add something else on the top of it.’ First, I was sayin’ no … but then when I saw that royalty check … !
LAS: Just the other week I interviewed Bootsy Collins. What do you think of him and his bass playing? I know you two weren’t in James Brown’s group at the same time but has his playing influenced yours at all?
BW: Oh yeah. He’s a beautiful guy, very funky-and he’s consistent. And I think if you listen [to] Bootsy Collins’ music and used it behind the news, the news wouldn’t sound so bad!
LAS: Who haven’t you worked with that you’d like to-and I’m talking about anybody-black, white, jazz, R&B?
BW: I always wanted to work with James Taylor. He plays the guitar and he’s a very humble kinda guy.
LAS: Knowing Sam Cooke as well as you did, give me an imaginary conversation between you and Sam Cooke when he finds out that his song, “A Change Is Gonna Come” became the theme song for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidency?
BW: You know when they inducted me in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame [in 2009], they kept asking me, ‘Who’s gonna do your speech?’ And I said, ‘The only person who could do my speech is my dad-and he’s deceased.’ And I told them ‘I’m gonna do my own speech’ … So when I walked out there, the first thing I said was, ‘Sam Cooke did “A Change Is Gonna Come” 50 years ago … Now change has come. It’s a new day … Sam, I wanna thank you …’ And I got a standing ovation!
LAS: Was it important for you to be inducted into the Hall of Fame?
BW: No, I felt that every time I paid my rent, I was in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame! … And I went [to the ceremonies] when the Temptations was inducted and then I went again when Rod Stewart was inducted, then I went again when The Stones were inducted. And I said, ‘Some people, like Johnny Taylor, should have been inducted’ … and the only reason I was inducted is because I was the oldest singer in Cleveland where I lived at. They had promised me years ago … I was there when they were laying the groundwork … ’cause they wanted to build it in Cleveland, and they told me Aretha was gonna be there. And she said, ‘You got Bobby Womack [in Cleveland]-you act like he don’t even live here.’ So she wrote a letter to them and told them they’d be remiss if they didn’t let me in. And they said, ‘Guess what? You’ve been inducted into the Hall of Fame.’
Womack was inducted in 2009 along with Jeff Beck, Little Anthony and the Imperials, Run-D.M.C and Metallica.
If you like your singers to be soulful/genius/Hall of Famers, you might want to check out the last surviving soul singer, Bobby Womack, who will be at the Shrine Auditorium this Friday with his new band. The opening acts are Miki Howard and Greg Rose.