Bobby Womack Reflects On His Legendary Musical Life

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Bobby Womack's latest album, 'The Bravest Man in the Universe, ' was co-produced by Richard Russell and Damon Albarn.

Bobby Womack, the legendary soul and R&B singer and songwriter who wrote countless hits in the 1960s and ’70s died Friday at 70, his record label XL Recordings confirmed. In his later years, the singer had struggled with addiction and had been diagnosed with colon cancer in 2012, the same year his super album The Bravest Man In The Universe was released to wide acclaim. In a career-spanning conversation with Soundcheck host John Schaefer from late December 2013, Womack spoke about the process behind making the album, shared stories about working with so many of music's greatest artists, and reflected on the ups and downs of his life.

Over his long career, Bobby Womack has proven himself time and again as one of soul music's great icons. Born in Cleveland, the vocalist and guitarist first rose to prominence as the lead singer of his family act, The Valentinos, on Sam Cooke's SAR label, and went on to pen countless timeless hits -- such as "Across 110th Street," "That's The Way I Feel About 'Cha," and No. 1 R&B entries “Woman’s Gotta Have It” (1972) and “Lookin’ for a Love” (1974).

Womack also worked with and wrote for a who's who of legendary figures: Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Jimi Hendrix, Elvis Presley, Dusty Springfield, Patti LaBelle, and Janis Joplin. In his later years, Womack battled drug addiction and personal struggles and tragedies including the murder of one of his brothers, the death of two sons, and the jailing of a third. 

But through it all, Womack continued to persevere, and his unique voice -- rough, gravelly, and beautiful -- infused his gospel and R&B songs with power and lived-in wisdom. 

With his superb 2012 album The Bravest Man In The Universe -- his 11th and first in 18 years -- Womack returned with a collection of songs that allowed listeners a chance to hear him in a fresh new light. Co-produced by Damon Albarn (of Blur and Gorillaz fame) and XL Records owner-producer Richard Russell, the record eschews traditional and retro-leaning R&B trademarks and embraces a far more minimal aesthetic. This is an album that pushes Womack front and center, embedding his emotional lyrics about love, regret, and aging amid rich atmospherics and samples, and icy beats. 

Since the album's release, Womack continued to face health issues. And yet, The Bravest Man In The Universe was hardly an honorary victory lap; it's yet another bold and boundary-pushing statement from a potent songwriter.

This segment originally aired on Jan. 1, 2014. 

Interview Highlights

Bobby Womack, on learning to collaborate with Damon Albarn and Richard Russell to rework his sound:

Damon and Richard were helpful towards me, and plus, I knew who they were after I did a little looking around. And it made me wanna be a part of something that I had gotten away from. I never knew the business was so fast -- that it had changed so much. They were asking me "Why don't you try this? Why don't you try it just like that? That's it!" And I said "It's only three instruments on there!" And they said "Yeah, but your voice is what I want to get out." And that was important, so you live and you learn.

On regrets in his life and musical career:

I think the biggest regrets [were not] going out to do something else and having a goal to reach, like buy my mother and father a nice house. And I lost one brother, and just a couple months ago, lost another brother -- Womack and Womack. You know, so I look at that and say "Nobody can live forever." But there was so much I wanted to say to 'em that I didn't get a chance to say. [Because] while they was [meeting] their destiny, I was somewhere else -- on the stage, going through that.

I learned from that. I said "You can't be on stage all the time. When you come off, you gotta feel like you have somebody, you know that you can confide in." Most of the time, it's family, but sometimes family becomes fans.

On carrying on the legacy of so many of the musicians he collaborated with over the years:

The Marvin Gayes, the Otis Reddings, the Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix -- I worked with all these people, never knowing about fame. All they was doing was trying to pay their rent for the day, and enjoy what they did. Now all those people are gone… and ever since I feel like I represent them when I go on stage to say "This is what soul music is about." Cuz everybody's got it -- don't care what color you are -- you know, you just gotta recognize what your soul, that's like your style. What motivates you and makes you move and makes you wanna get out there and do what you do.

On meeting with Janis Joplin and how she came to record his song "Trust Me":

I wrote that song and I first recorded it on a group called the Pointer Sisters. When Janis called me -- and i knew who Janis was, but I thought it was somebody playing a joke. She was like "Hey this is Janis Joplin. I wanna cut one of your songs." So I said "Yeah, and this is James Brown." And I'm thinking she's still pulling my leg. And she said, "No I'm serious, you come over to the studio and bring a song."

The first song I played was "Trust Me." And she had already said "If I ring the bell, keep on singing. If I don't ring the bell, that's the song." So the first song, that was the song. But I didn't hear it; I was still running out of songs. I was like "What is with this woman? She didn't want none of the songs." But she said "I told you, the first song," and that's the song we recorded, "Trust Me."

I wrote it for myself first. And I always write something for myself and put it in the closet… or in my little bag.