|Don't Fear The Preacher||October 23, 1998|
|No one experienced or
expressed the tensions at the heart of 70's soul more intensely than
Bobby Womack. Deeply grounded in the gospel tradition that gave rise to
Al Green, Aretha Franklin and his mentor Sam Cooke. Womack understood
how soul music spoke to the connections between individuals and
communities, between flawed human beings and the healing powers of the
Lord. But he also watched as a disturbing number of his friends - Cooke,
Marvin Gaye, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone - fell victim to the
pressures of a blues-torn world of casual sex, heavy drugs and a party
that earned him the nicknames of "The Preacher," "The
Poet," "The Survivor," and, simply, "The
Womack sums up the basic point simply: "You couldn't mail your voice in. You could either put a song across or you couldn't. The musicians weren't old fashioned, but some things should never change when it comes down to touching the heart. Soul music was at its peak, and all of it goes straight back to gospel."
Both soul and gospel singers honed their appeals in fiercely competitive settings. "The difference between today and the '70's is that people competed against each other." Womack reflects. "I'd love to see Aretha go up against Whitney. Not only would she drop 30 pounds, but you'd hear something that you haven't heard from Aretha in a while because she'd say, 'I don't want this young lady to kick my ass.' She loves her but at the same time she got to show her who's boss."
Womack clearly relishes the combination of aggression and friendship he experienced while touring with gospel based soul luminaries such as Cooke and James Brown.
"They really entertained and became brothers and sisters that loved each other," he says, "But they're saying when I get on that stage you know I'm kicking your ass. We'd sit around backstage and laugh and drink, talk and have fun, play cards whatever. They said, 'Womack, you're on next.' Everything cut, you ain't my friend no more. I'm taking this house. When they leave here they gonna go out saying Womack. I was taught that way. Every time I go out to sing, I go out to fuck an artist up. You wasn't doing it unless you were doing that. I learned it first from gospel. If you can't make them sisters shout, you ain't gonna be comin' back."
Womack traces the heritage to the great gospel vocalists of the '40s and '50s; Claude Jeter of the Swan Silvertones, Ira Tucker of the Dixie Hummingbirds, and R.H. Harris, Cooke's predecessor as lead vocalist of the Soul Stirrers. You can hear a note of sadness in Womack's voice as he observes, "The gospel singers got a hard road to go. They don't get to fly places, they don't stay in the best hotels, they eat whatever somebody cook for 'em. The saddest part about it is that the new gospel singers do not acknowledge the Blind Boys, they don't acknowledge the Soul Stirrers, the Swanee Quartet, the Silvertones. Those are the guys who made the dirt roads the paved roads."
Even as he pays homage to the ancestors, Womack speaks with candor about the stuggles that lead one music industry veteran to comment, "Every time you read about a bad scene in the '70s, it seems like Bobby Womack was there."
"I ain't been a saint," Womack acknowledges. "I went the drug route and craziness along with some crazy people. But I always believed in keeping one foot off the ground. If I got two feet off the ground, then I don't know where I'm at. Ain't no high in the world that good."
Womack pauses when his thoughts turn to his many friends destroyed by the tensions that, somehow, he survived. Womack is particularly distressed by the creative demise of Sly Stone, who played a crucial role in helping Womack reshape his image.
"Sly was different," he says, his rich baritone voice with the distinctive raw edge dropping near a whisper. "He wanted to fly. I said, 'Flying, Sly, ain't meant.' We were born near the same day, but he was just so much different from me," Womack continues. "I was the good pisces, he was the bad pisces. He would always want to be a gangster, beat somebody up, start a fight. And he always was goin' around looking for security people that was real tough. If you were around his camp, you could feel death and danger. I said, 'Man, there's a lotta good in this guy. I just don't wanna live in fear.' Sly heard the 'mmm-mmm' outta 'uhh-uhh.' He was just a bad little boy, always tryin' to do somethin' that had nothing to do with music."
One of Womack's most powerful songs, "Only Survivor," meditates on the things that kept him from going under while it pays tribute to those who, like Sly, didn't make it. Womack credits Ron Wood of the Rolling Stones with inspiring the song.
"Woodie came to my house and he said, 'Damn, Bobby, seems like every picture you got on your wall is somebody that's dead. You gotta change this atmosphere. You're the only survivor left in this room.'"
There were times when he wasn't all that sure he would survive. His 1976 classic "Daylight" captures the weariness that set in on anyone who got too deeply caught up in the cycle of parties and drugs.
"'Daylight' to me was a song about when I used to say, 'Man, I'm sick of partyin'. I'm too tired,'" Womack recalls. "Every night, every time I go to bed, there's not a time after the show I didn't say, 'There ain't nobody comin' back to the room, ain't no party.' But someone'd say, 'Rod [Stewart] is out there.' I say, 'Rod's out there? Okay, he can bring one person.' 'Wilson Pickett's over there.' 'Okay, Pickett can come and hang out with two people.' Before you know it you got ten or twenty people in the room. And we all singin' gettin' high. I say, 'Baby, I ain't lettin' daylight catch me up again.' Before I know it this guy's knockin' on the door and my manager's sayin,' 'Come on Womack, take care of your business, man.' And everybody can disappear so fast. Daylight done caught my ass up again."
But Womack did survive. He has always had a special place in the hearts of black listeners, many of whom share poet Kalamu ya Salaam's feelings that, when things were at their worst, "there were only two people in the world who really understood my predicament. I was one, and Bobby Womack was the other."
In the pop music world, Womack is as well known for his guitar playing and songwriting as for his singing. His songwriting credits included the Rolling Stone's "It's All Over Now," Janis Joplin's "Trust me," George Benson's "Breezin" (originally recorded by Gabor Szabo) and a string of Wilson Pickett hits including "I'm A Midnight Mover" and "I'm In Love," His spare melodic guitar work has graced records by Cooke, Ray Charles, Dusty Springfield, King Curtis, Aretha Franklin and many others.
While Womack's songs deal with the classic tensions at the heart of the blues, he always felt much more at home with styles based more directly on gospel. His awareness of the sources of his ambivalence about the blues crystallized when he met Eric Clapton while playing at a session for Aretha. "Aretha was doing 'Dr Feelgood' and I was playing on that album [I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You]," he says, "I'd played on every song of Aretha's and they got to 'Dr Feelgood.' I knew I couldn't play the blues. I didn't hate the blues, I just didn't want to be no part of no more blues."
"I never played the blues," he continues. "People often ask, why is it that whites support blues more than blacks support their own music. I say it's because blues is poverty to blacks. It was a novelty to whites. They say, 'Let's go hear some blues tonight, let's go hear B.B. King, let's get in the blues mood.' And they go and hear some blues."
In the Cleveland neighborhood where Womack grew up, the blues signified something much more immediate. "When I was coming up as a kid all I heard was 'I ain't got the money, hide the kids, tell the insurance man I ain't home. Tell the rent man Daddy's down the street.' It was always some lie," Womack says. "I remember sometimes my father would say, 'We gonna fast today and thank God for the food we have received.' Only reason we were fasting is there wasn't nothing to eat. And the only thing I could ever hear was Elmore James. 'Hand me down my walkin' cane.' It went right with my life. I said, boy I'm tellin' ya, he's cryin' the blues and I'm livin' the blues."
From Womack's perspective, then, the harsh realities of ghetto life made the blues into a fundamentally black thing. But, Womack admits, "Eric Clapton turned me around."
"Eric walked in to the 'Dr Feelgood' session," Womack continues, "and he says 'Bobby, would you mind me trying out on this cut?' I'm lookin' at this skinny white boy and I'm thinkin' this is the joke of the year. He was very polite. 'Bobby, do you mind if I use your amp?' I said, 'Man you can have my guitar, my pick, my strings, anything.' So he pulled his guitar out of a pillowcase. It was about 30,000 different colors. And he started playin' the blues on 'Doctor Feelgood' and it actually shocked me to a point that I said, 'Not only are white people prejudiced, blacks too.' My father taught me white people don't know nothin' about no blues. I thought all white people had it good and they didn't have no blues. They didn't even die, they didn't go to no funerals. I was always taught that way, thinking we were just living it."
Womack continues to believe that race plays a major part in the music industry. He remembers Sam Cooke telling him that "'James Brown can be the biggest thing in captivity, black. But if he was white, he'd be bigger than Elvis Presley.'" Later, he reports, Sly Stone echoed Cooke's strategic point: "Sly had the same theory, 'Bobby, always sing with a mixed band,' Sly said. 'You know why? Mexicans, Indians, Chinese, Japanese, whites, they all got the same feeling when it comes to music. You get a musician, I don't care what color he is. He may have his style, but if you bring him in, he can play yours,'"
Ultimately, for Womack, the discussion of race and music goes back to one of the most basic lessons of the gospel tradition: that, as Sly wrote in "Everyday People," "we got to live together." Womack concludes: "Sly said, "What it does, it just shows a picture of what the world has gotta be like.' He said you got art and heavy things happening that Mexicans have brought to the country, you got things that blacks have brought to the country. They can't paint a picture that the white man did everything. In many years, it's gonna destroy the country."
|As in many other areas of Womack's life, Sam
Cooke played a central role in heightening his awareness of the
political impact of his music. "I remember Sam tellin' me, 'You're
a hell of a writer, you gotta great instinct," Womack remembers.
"But he said, 'Bobby, you don't like to read.' I said, 'When I was
in school, everything was about George Washington, there was nothin'
about what we did. The only time I ever saw a picture of a black man in
the history books, he was holdin' a tray.' So I just didn't believe in
history. Sam said, 'Yeah, but it would increase your knowledge so much.'
Sam read heavily all the time. Soon as we got in town he wanted to know
where the black library was. Or a library period. He'd bring all these
books and before the next morning, he'd read 'em all. Then he'd say, 'I
gotta start makin' some statements,' So, yeah, I always thought about my
music in political terms."
From the beginning, Cooke played a crucial role in Womack's musical education. Bobby had begun performing with a family group alongside his four brothers, one of whom - Cecil - has gone on to forge his own niche in soul history as part of Womack and Womack, which he fronts with his wife (and Cooke's daughter) Linda (who has been both Bobby's step-daughter and sister-in-law.) The Womacks' father, Friendly, was a disciplinarian who commanded his family's love and respect. His father played the guitar and supervised his sons' stage act.
"I ran into several of the Jackson Five at an airport recently." Womack said. "And I said, 'My father was just like your father. He'd kick your ass if you didn't remember something. When he told you to step, you had to step like twins.'"
Cooke's 1952 performance at the Temple Baptist Church in the Womacks' native Cleveland provided the Womack's with their break.
"It was a big church where they brought all of the gospel singers," Womack recalls. "My father walked up to S.R. Crain, who started the Soul Stirrers and he said, 'I got a bunch of young boys, me and my sons. Would you mind lettin' us open up the show.' He said, "When they grow up and get to be teenagers, bring 'em back, we might give 'em a shot.'"
At that point, Cooke walked by. "Sam said, 'What is that about?.'" Womack remembers. "We were all dressed alike as stairsteps. Sam say, 'Doggone right, they gonna open up the show.' Then he said that after we sang, he wanted everybody to march around and before the Soul Stirrers ever hit a note, he wanted to hear some money go into this big purse my mother always carried. They took up something like $83 and that was a lot of money at that time. When we were singin' on stage, singin' a fast tune, we were goin' so fast I didn't know how to stop it. It just kept going' over and over again."
When Cooke founded his own record label, SAR, with the explicit goal of bringing "real gospel" music to the pop charts, the Womacks were one of his first signings. Recording as The Womack brothers, they cut a half dozen sides for SAR in 1960 and 1961, including "Somewhere There's A God" (later reworked in good crossover fashion as "Somewhere There's A Girl"), Bobby's composition "Yield Not To Temptation," and the gospel standard "Couldn't Hear Nobody Pray." While none of the gospel records charted, they demonstrated enough promise to convince Cooke to give the brothers - now renamed the Valentinos - a shot in the secular market. After several unsuccessful releases, "Lookin' For A Love" (#72 pop, #8 R&B) gave the group its first hit in 1962.
With "Lookin' For A Love" riding the charts, Cooke turned his attention to the group's development as performers. In retrospect, Womack understands the wisdom of Cooke's decision to send them on the road backing up James Brown. At the time, however, he thought working for Brown was "like being in Hitler's army. He'd always have these drumsticks and when he'd be takling to you, if you looked outta the way, he'd hit ya upside the head with a stick."
"When we made the switch from gospel to secular music, Sam said, 'I want you to go into the Apollo Theater with James Brown.' And I remember him and his partner laughing. And I wondered why they were laughing and he says, 'I can't be as tough on you as James Brown. James don't know you. Man, I love you guys. You'd think I hated you.'"
Womack recounts Cooke's explanation of the difference between the demands of performing gospel and soul. "Sam said, 'This is a whole different market. You can't call on Jesus every five minutes, but you still gotta communicate. You got a bigger audience and their minds are everywhere. When people come to church, they all come to try to be saved or something.'"
However harsh a teacher Brown may have been, Womack fully appreciates the value of what amounted to a graduate education in the theory and practice of soul. "He taught us that when you step, everybody steps together. If you're an inch before the next guy, it looks rehearsed. He said if you got a cold house there's always somebody that ain't cold that's gonna be jumpin' up. Play off of them to get the other people going. You see one woman runnin' around screaming and hollerin', work with her and before you know it you got the whole audience."
Brown's performances set the standard in a soul scene defined by dynamic performers who consistenly challenged one another to reach higher levels. "In those days, every artist took it up a notch," Womack says. "It wasn't that Wilson Pickett came one week and I came the next week. It'd be Bobby Womack, Wilson Pickett, James Brown, and Jackie Wilson all on one show. Nobody wanted to look bad, everybody wanted to outdo everybody else. People forgot all about how much they were getting paid. They were just worried about 'Jackie took the house. He tore it up.' When the last showdown came between Jackie and James Brown it was like Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier."
Two years after the success of "Lookin' For A Love," the Valentinos appeared to be on the verge of crossover success when Bobby's compostion "It's All Over Now" began receiving airplay on pop stations.
"What happened next," says Womack, "was that the Stones was over here at Chess Records looking for songs. Our record had just come out and it was very big. The Stones heard it and said, 'Man, we got to cut that song.' Sam came to me and said 'Bobby, I got some good news and bad. The Rolling Stones want to cover your song.' And I said, 'Man, when these Pat Boones gonna stop?'"
While Cooke understood Womack's response, he saw things from a different angle. Womack continues: "Sam said, 'Bobby, they'll do more for your career than you'll ever believe. This group is gonna be huge and the longer they live, the bigger they're gonna get. It's a new thing happening, man, and I can see it already.' So I just said, 'I don't want them to sing the song. Tell 'em to get their own song.' Sam says, 'Bobby, they sell tons of records. This is gonna be the first record that breaks for them in the States. You know what that means? You introduced 'em.'"
Womack wasn't convinced. "I'm sayin', 'Oh man, I don't care about all that.' So Sam said 'Well, Bobby, I'm not gonna beg ya no more. I own the publishing. I'm gonna give them the song whether you want to or not.' They came out with 'It's All Over Now' so quick and I was laughin' because some of the words they thought we said, we didn't say. Mick said something totally different. I said, 'This is how a black person talk, the English sound different.' We were laughing, but I was still furious. They took our song and everybody thinks it's their song, never mind Sam talking about it's gonna make me a legend and all that. But I remember the first check I received, it was about $400,000. I been chasing 'em ever since tryin' to get 'em to do one of my songs."
Increasingly in the mid-60s, Bobby focused his personal and creative attention on his mentor. "I was so close to Sam, brothers don't even know." he says, the sense of loss unmistakable in his voice more than three decades after Cooke's senseless death in a shooting at a Los Angeles motel. Beginning in 1964, Bobby was a regular member of Cooke's road band, occasionally playing on studio recordings of songs like the soulful "That's Where It's At."
One of Womack's last memories of Cooke concerns the gospel soul classic "A Change Is Gonna Come." "Sam called me about eleven or twelve o'clock and said he was driving to my house cause he wanted me to hear something." Womack says. "He said, 'I want you to tell me what you think of this.' When he played the song for me, it scared the shit out of me, man. I thought I'd dreamed it or heard it on somebody else's record. I said, 'The song sounds like death.' He said, 'Death?' and I said. 'Yeah, sounds like something terrible's happened or something terrible's going to happen.' And he said, 'That's exactly what I felt.' I said, "It's a beautiful song, it's just kind of scary.' And he said, 'Yeah, that's why it ain't comin' out.' And then two or three weeks later, he got killed."
Cooke’s death shattered his young protegee emotionally and, as things worked out, professionally. The professional problem concerned Bobby’s marriage to Cooke’s widow Barbara, which took place less than three months after Sam’s death. Many viewed the “romance” as an attempt to take over Sam’s creative legacy and financial estate. Womack dismisses the charges with contempt: “Sam’s death just killed me. The first thing I wanted to do was protect his family because I know how cold this business is. Some people, I can’t mention names, were ridin’ in the limo to the funeral. All of the close people I thought were his friends are there sayin’ Sam told me he was gonna give me this, he was gonna buy me a club, he gonna build me a gas station. ‘I said, ‘None of these niggers liked Sam.’ And I loved him. They were tellin’ me, ‘Why don’t you shut up all that noise ‘cause I was cryin.’”
“When it came down to me marrying his wife, I never knew his wife.” Womack continues. “She was just so hurt and outdone that he had went out that way. She was ready to tackle the first thing that was the closest thing to him, that he liked. And that was me. And I was ready to be there because I knew she needed guidance. I knew if I put myself in there, a lot of people were gonna hate me. But if I don’t marry this woman, this womans’s gonna do something crazy, and she may not be able to get out of it.”