Over his long career, singer, songwriter and guitarist Bobby Womack has proven himself time and again as one of soul music's great icons, writing countless timeless songs -- both for himself and for a who's who of legendary figures. Womack has worked with everyone from Wilson Pickett to Ray Charles to Jimi Hendrix and Elvis Presley to Dusty Springfield, Patti LaBelle, and Janis Joplin. But it's his unique voice -- equally rough, gravelly, and beautiful -- that infuses his gospel and R&B songs with their power and 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 allow 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, samples, keyboards, and icy beats.
Since the album's release, Womack has faced health issues. And yet The Bravest Man In The Universe is hardly some honorary victory lap, nor is it a requiem; this is another bold and boundary-pushing next step from a potent songwriter.
In a conversation with Soundcheck host John Schaefer, Bobby Womack talks about the process behind making the new album, reflects on working with so many of music's greatest, and looks back at some of the ups and downs of his career.
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.