By Peter Lindblad
His marriage to Cooke’s window, Barbara Campbell, three months after Cooke was buried, did not sit well with the R&B community, though Womack has said he wanted to look after Campbell in her time of need.
As a result, the multi-talented Womack — with his economic, earthy guitar chops and gritty, emotive voice, not to mention his songwriting acumen — was, in essence, shunned. He cut strong singles for Chess (“I Found A True Love”) and Him (“Nothing You Can Do”) that went nowhere. The Valentinos, the group originally known as The Womack Brothers that featured Womack and his four siblings and had hits with “Lookin’ For A Love” and “All Over Now,” was also struggling, and by 1966, they had broken up.
In the aftermath, Womack shied away from the spotlight, preferring to work as a session man playing guitar for the likes of Ray Charles. Womack worked at Chip Moman’s American Studios in Memphis, contributing to recordings by Joe Tex and The Box Tops. But Womack hadn’t given up on his solo career, and that’s where we pick up with Womack, in Memphis in the late ’60s, when things were starting to happen again for the 2009 Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame inductee.
You wrote some songs for Wilson Pickett. What do you remember about that period?
Bobby Womack: I moved down to Memphis ’cause I wanted to get back into what I was doing, the music. And I knew Memphis [was] hot all over the world, you know, with Stax. And there was a guy named Chips Moman that was on the other side of town, but he was doing the same thing.
And so I had just made a deal with United Artists Records [editor’s note: Womack recorded the LPs Fly Me To The Moon and My Prescription for the Minit label in 1968 and 1969, respectively], and [I] must have went to three companies and everybody else … And they would say, “Uh, I don’t hear it man.” They said, or somebody would say, “Man, it sounds too much Sam Cooke-ish.” You know, that kind of thing. But when I got to United Artists, and they said, “Oh man, we love your material,” I was thinking [we] were so close that they called somebody; they gonna say we turned ’em down. I said, “They’ll probably turn me down, too.”
So, anyway, they were knocked out over my songs, and they made a deal with me. And I played a lot of the songs on acoustic guitar, but when I got to Memphis, I came a week earlier. Pickett was there recording. And they were just sitting around. I said, “Why you all sitting around?” They tell me, “We ain’t got no songs.” I said, “Oh, man. I got some songs.”
So I started giving them the songs, and they just kept recording them. When Pickett said, “Oh, man, I’m saying I’m done. I’m outta here. Bobby, you next?” I say, “Yeah, I’m next.” When I wanted to go back with some songs, I didn’t have any. And I said, “Oh, man. I gave him all of my stuff, everything.”
Swept up in all the excitement, Womack had held nothing back. And now he had nothing to give United Artists.
Necessity being the proverbial mother of invention, Womack struck upon the idea of remaking a number of American standards and pop hits of the day. Not only did it save the day, but it may have salvaged his career.
Womack: Now, I had made a commitment to United Artists. So, then, I said, “What am I gonna do?” I gotta do something.” I mean, I’m desperate. The idea of “Fly Me To The Moon” came in mind. And the first thing I said is, that’ll be a great song if I put a facelift on it. I said, ’cause, I mean, it’s fashionable.
Everybody does “Fly Me To The Moon” slow, like they intended to get there. So, I said, “I’m going to speed it up.” (Sings it) And I remember the band members sittin’ around. They said, “Oh man, that’s incredible. That’s great.” And they were going over so much, and to me, the magic started again. Then I remember cutting “California Dreamin’.” Mamas and Papas had did it; it was a big record. But I wanted to do it, and put my stamp on it. I did “California…” and putting my stamp on it ‘cause I had no other songs at the time, and the clock was ticking.
So, I did that. I did “Moonlight In Vermont,” “I Left My Heart In San Francisco” … I was doing every standard I could think of (laughs). Now I go back to L.A. And they said they can’t wait to hear the product. So, when I started playing “Fly Me To The Moon,” they were knocked out. They said, “That’s ‘Fly Me To the Moon?’ What made you do it that way?” But they kept saying, “Bobby, where is that original stuff that you cut that you showed us? That’s why we signed you.”
I kept saying, “No, no, no. This is the same stuff” — you know, trying to fool them. But they knew better, and they kept saying it. But I would never admit to it, until I had to admit to it, because about a month later, Pickett came out with all them songs. Wilson Pickett playing Bobby Womack.
And they said, “You gave everything?” And I said, “I was just so spiritually into it,” and Pickett was hot then, too. And I said, “I wasn’t thinking about this is how I’m gonna make some money” … So, I get back and they finally said, “Okay, okay, okay,” ’cause they didn’t know what happened, and they put “Fly Me To The Moon” out. And it took off. And that was, I think, my first record that really hit the charts. And the rest is history. I stayed with them, and I got on the wind, but I ended up other places, recording … still recording.
Pickett, who would come to consider Womack as one of his favorite songwriters, recorded Womack’s “I’m In Love” and “I’m A Midnight Mover,” turning them into R&B Top Ten smashes. And he didn’t stop there. Pickett would record 15 more Womack songs.
More important to Womack’s career was Pickett’s seal of approval. Suddenly, he was back in the good graces of R&B people, although even before that he appeared on recordings by Aretha Franklin (Lady Soul), Joe Tex and King Curtis.
What’s more, “California Dreamin’” and “I Left My Heart In San Francisco” infiltrated the R&B Top 20. Then Womack teamed with engineer Darryl Carter on a series of R&B hits, “It’s Gonna Rain,” “How I Miss You Baby” and “More Than I Can Stand.”
Womack was on a roll, and others, like Janis Joplin, were taking notice.
Womack: The thing I remember with Janis, I had never met her, and she called me. How she got my number, I don’t know, but she called me, and she said, “Bobby, we’ll be recording,” and she says, “This is Janis Joplin.” Naturally, I’m thinking that somebody’s pulling a joke.
And she said, “No, I’m serious. I’m Janis Joplin.” She said, “You know what? Everybody’s recorded your songs, and I never recorded one.” She said, “Could you come to the studio and bring me one of your songs?” And I headed over to the studio. I’m very excited, ’cause I’m just excited to meet Janis. And she said, “Now, the way it works, when I ding the bell, that means I don’t like it.” She says, “I may not like it.” She says, “When I push this button right here, this bell,” she said, “that means I like it.”
So the first thing I put on was “Trust Me.” And I sung a chorus of it, and she pushed the button, “I love it.” And everything else that I would play for her, she never pushed the button again. She was sittin’ up laughing and drinking Southern Comfort. She said, “When is this guy going to quit?” It got so desperate that I didn’t have any more songs. I started singing other people’s songs. And she said, “Bobby, don’t you get it? I loved the first song you had. I loved it. Let’s cut it.” So, she was with, I think, the [Full] Tilt Boogie Band, or something. Great band. So we went in and cut that song.
“Trust Me” appeared on Joplin’s seminal Pearl album, which was released four months after the heroin overdose that killed her. Womack’s input didn’t end there, as he tells the story of how another Joplin classic that appeared on Pearl, namely “Mercedes Benz,” was made.
Womack: The band finally left, and everybody thought that was it. And she was sitting in my car; I had just bought a Mercedes or something, and she was saying, boy, this is beautiful. She had a Porsche, with a naked lady I remember on the hood, and she had all this different paint on it. So, she said, “Boy, this is great.” She said, “Oh, I got an idea.”
She started singing, “Boy, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz.” And I’m not making this up. She just got out of the car, “Hey, the band’s gone.” And they said, “Oh, yeah, Janis. Can we do it tomorrow?” And she said, “No, no, no. [to Womack] You play on it. You play acoustic.” She got on the acoustic. “Set the mics up.” And she sung that song. I just followed her. Many years later, I heard it on a commercial. And I said, “That’s amazing.” You know, amazing things like that was happening. I was blown away with her.
The early 1970s were a productive period for Womack. In 1971, he issued the well-received Communication, his first LP for United Artists. One highlight of the record is the soulful, heartfelt ballad “That’s The Way I Feel About ’Cha,” which shot up to #2 on the R&B charts. Finally, Womack had broken through as a solo artist. The song was inspired by a Skycap Womack met at an airport while trying to make a flight. The man would complain about how his wife was running around on him. One time, while in a hurry to catch a plane, Womack had his fill of listening to the Skycap.
Womack: I said, “If she does bad, why don’t you just leave the bitch?” And he said, “A bitch?” He said, “Bobby, that’s my wife. I love her.” And he said, “That’s the way I feel about her.” … There was silence, because I had talked so loud, and I said, “Oh, man, I hurt this guy’s feelings.” When I got on the plane, I started writing that song, “That’s The Way I Feel About ’Cha.”
So, I said, “John, you know, I wanna apologize [for] what I said to you the last time I was just out here. But I said, “I just got tired of hearing you talk about these problems.” I said, “The best way to do it … I shouldn’t have said what I said but just leave her. But I said, “You know what man? You [inspired] a song for me. You made me create something. And I said, “I want you to come to my house, you and your wife,” — ’cause I figured that’s going to put them back together when they see how crazy they are.
I brought John and his wife — this is the honest truth — to my house and put on my big speakers and played that song, “That’s The Way I Feel About ’Cha.” And I say, “You know what John? If it wasn’t for you, that song would have never existed.” ’Cause I wasn’t thinking about that. I wasn’t having those problems. About two days later, I got a letter from his attorney, saying he wanted 50 percent of the song (laughs).
Though Womack was furious about the unexpected legal entanglements, he relented. “I said, ‘Man, I can’t believe that opening my mouth got me in this trouble,’ says Womack. “And I gave him a piece of the song. And the last thing I knew, he had quit the job as a Skycap and started his own company. And I never heard from him again (laughs).”
Meanwhile, however, Womack’s star was rising. In 1971, he worked on the monumental Sly And The Family Stone LP There’s A Riot Goin’ On.
Womack: The biggest riot that was going on was between me and him (laughs). But you know I look at it, and I say, this guy is very creative, and he’s totally different from Sam Cooke. And I’d say, “He’s a new breed kind of guy” … I say we were creating some great stuff. He was, and I was falling in with what he had laid down — and my own way, or where I thought it should go, you know, and it’s amazing ’cause I look today and I said, “Drugs have destroyed a lot of talent, a lot of true talent.”
… I was a Pisces. He was a Pisces. And we both loved to party. And I mean, that’s very true. And that’s why we related. But [how] I noticed things were changing for him is that I couldn’t bring a song by, or a taste of something that I cut and say, “Sly, listen to this and see what you think,’ because I would never see it again. He had become so insecure of … you know, it’s like me saying nobody but me.
After Communication came the successor Understanding in 1972 and Womack’s first R&B #1, “Woman’s Gotta Have It.” The follow-up was “Harry Hippie,” a song that was written by Jim Ford. Sly Stone introduced the two. Strangely enough, the song, an R&B Top Ten hit, could have been about Womack’s easygoing brother Harry, who was killed in 1974 by a jealous girlfriend.
“I mean, this is like someone had watched my brother and told his story about him,” says Womack. “Harry’s just floating through life, you know … so from that point on, Jim Ford and I connected, and then we wrote a lot of songs together.
1972 was a big year for Womack, as he composed the score for the blaxploitation movie “Across 110th Street.” The smooth, stylish title cut would appear in the 1998 Quentin Tarantino movie “Jackie Brown.”
Womack: I had been fighting with my record company about [how they] always [went] outside to get other artists to do these soundtracks. “Why don’t ya’ll use me? You know. I can do it.” And I bugged them so much that one day they brought a movie up and let me see the movie; it was “Across 110th Street.” I was getting ready to go on tour. And they said, “OK Bobby, you’ve been talking. You got a week to get this back to us.” I said, “All of the music?” But the only thing I could associate the music with was I lived in the ghetto … And so I wrote a lot of songs. Every time I got offstage and [went] back to the hotel, instead of going to sleep, I’d write the songs. And “Across 110th Street” was from the title of the movie. And that was easy to me. It was just “I was the third brother of five/Doing what I had to do to survive/I’m not saying everything I do is all right/Trying to break out of the ghetto was a day-to-day fight.” You know? I’m just writing what I’ve seen. I say, there’s a ghetto in every city. There’s a ghetto all around the world.
More R&B hits would emerge from Womack’s inventive mind, with “Check It Out” (from 1975) and “Daylight” (1976). But Womack’s drug use was increasingly becoming a problem. Eventually, though, he kicked his habit, saying he’d “ … never touch drugs again. And I stopped. That was drinking and everything else that comes with it.”
He even went so far as to stay away from friends who were still using. “I had to watch who I was around, ’cause I was serious about it. I said, ‘That’ll be the biggest record I ever cut in my life.’”
Womack would undergo a dry spell in the mid-’70s, but, after an ill-advised dalliance with country music on 1976’s BW Goes C&W, he made a resounding comeback in 1981 with The Poet, which is being reissued, along with The Poet II, this year as Poet I & II by ABKCO.
Womack: I think I just had some great ideas, a great atmosphere around me, and it must have been very strong because my father passed during the time while I was cutting those albums. And music is electrical, you know. And it’s spiritually uplifting, and to be honest with you, that was probably one of the best parts of me, as far as on a creative level.
Womack has continued recording since then, and in April, he will become a member of the Rock Hall. When he surveys everything he’s done and everything he’s been a part of, he’s amazed by it all.
Womack: I just look at it and say, “Hey man, it’s been a great ride.” It’s like I’ve been on a ferris wheel that you are holding on and all of sudden somebody just stops the ferris wheel and they push you off. You say, “Whoa man, I finally landed.” At least I landed on my feet.