Music Interviews
2:22 pm
Sun July 1, 2012

Bobby Womack: 'God Must Still Have A Purpose For Me'

Originally published on Sun July 1, 2012 3:05 pm

"We had two shows that night," says Bobby Womack, recounting a recent concert in Houston. "It was a small theater, about 5- or 6,000 people. The second show, I was just out of it; they had to take me to the hospital."

It was a serious scare for the 68-year-old singer-songwriter — who has also lived through drug addiction and the deaths of two sons — and it didn't end that night.

"After I got back to L.A.," Womack tells NPR's Laura Sullivan, "they started naming: 'You had walking pneumonia twice. You have heart failure. You have sugar diabetes. You've got prostate cancer. You've got colon cancer.' "

Months later, Womack is cancer-free and back on tour, supporting the new album The Bravest Man in the Universe. It's a collaboration with Damon Albarn, frontman of Blur and mastermind of Gorillaz, as well as Richard Russell, producer and CEO of the British label XL Recordings. (You can read much more about the making of the album at NPR's music news blog, The Record).

Womack is a soul singer with an open mind: Over a 50-year career, he has made forays into gospel, doo-wop, rock and even country. On Bravest Man, Albarn and Russell use Womack's raw, rugged vocals as source material, threading them through modern hip-hop and electronic production — which, the singer says, threw him at first.

"When they would sample my voice and put it back on, I couldn't figure who is that? He said, 'It's you,'" he says.

Still, Womack says his relationship with Albarn has provided him with some much-needed perspective, especially as he begins to consider the thought of his songs outliving him.

"We went on the road," Womack recalls, "and I remember him telling me one time on stage, 'Bobby, you see those young kids out there? We're the luckiest people in the world because when we're long gone, they'll still be wanting to hear our music.'

"Before me, there was a higher and stronger supreme being that put me in the position to have that talent," he adds. "I've seen [drugs] take away my friends, from Wilson Pickett to James Brown to Michael Jackson, and I can just go on naming. I say, if I'm still here, God must still have a purpose for me."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LAURA SULLIVAN, HOST:

If you're just joining us, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Laura Sullivan, and it's time now for music and one heck of a comeback story.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SULLIVAN: Bobby Womack made a name for himself as writer for The Rolling Stones, Janis Joplin, Isaac Hayes, Wilson Pickett, plenty of others. As a singer, Bobby Womack was a constant fixture on the R&B charts through the 1970s. But drug addiction and serious health problems sidelined him for the better part of two decades. When I spoke with him recently, he'd just finished treatment for colon cancer.

BOBBY WOMACK: I'm glad to be here, and when I say that, I mean that 'cause you don't appreciate nothing until you lose it. You don't miss your water till your well run dry.

SULLIVAN: Over the years, Bobby Womack's fought diabetes, prostate cancer, a serious bout with pneumonia. He even spent 10 days in a coma.

WOMACK: My doctor told me, he said, you know what, I've never seen a person as sick as you.

SULLIVAN: He said that to you?

WOMACK: Yeah. He said everything is wrong. Man, well, hurry up and fix it 'cause I got a tour to do. He said, you got to be out your mind.

SULLIVAN: Bobby Womack hadn't recorded an album of original music in 18 years, that is until now.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WOMACK: (Singing) The bravest man in the universe.

SULLIVAN: This is the title track to "The Bravest Man In The Universe." Womack hasn't just made some retro comeback album, though. This one's produced by two of the most progressive forces in music today. Damon Albarn has written some of the biggest hits of the last two decades with his band Blur and Gorillaz. He first collaborated with Bobby Womack on a Gorillaz track in 2009, and that's when they first considered working together on a comeback album.

Albarn enlisted the help of Richard Russell, both a percussion programmer and the founder of the hugely influential XL Records.

WOMACK: When we talked about doing this album together, we talked about 50/50, just me and you, 50/50. So when I get to London in the studio, there was another guy named Richard doing all the programming with the drums. So I told Damon, I said, Damon, step out here a minute. Who's that guy? So he said, that's the president of the record company.

I said, you're kidding me. I said, all my life, I've never seen the president of the record company come down to the studio to see what I was doing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WOMACK: (Singing) The bravest man in the universe.

SULLIVAN: Richard Russell says they never gave a thought to trying to recreate Womack's old sound.

RICHARD RUSSELL: We'd just get beaten by his past if we did that. You know, if you assemble the musicians and try to make across 110th Street, you know, that type of sound, that's not going to be as good. I wouldn't be able to do that anyway.

SULLIVAN: So he and Damon Albarn married Womack's voice and acoustic instruments with modern production elements.

WOMACK: He thought I was going to be hard to deal with because all these little gadgets (makes noise) I said, what has that got to do with the price of beans?

RUSSELL: What I did end up doing was using snippets of Bobby's vocal adlibs weaved into the rhythm tracks.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WOMACK: (Singing) Preaching is speaking.

RUSSELL: You know, I chopped up all these adlibs that he'd done and laid them out on the keyboard and started playing them back over the beat. It was great.

WOMACK: When they would sample my voice and put it back on, I couldn't figure - who is that? He said, that's you. Now, I didn't understand that, but I didn't argue with him. I just said, okay, you guys go.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WOMACK: (Singing) In the name of the Lord. And there (unintelligible).

SULLIVAN: But it didn't take long for Bobby Womack to adapt to this new style. He told Richard Russell that he learned about the music business from singer Sam Cooke. So Russell set out to learn more about Cooke.

RUSSELL: When I was watching YouTube, I came across an interview, and he was talking about how a singer can improve his (unintelligible) and I thought, this is very pertinent.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

SAM COOKE: As a singer grows older, his conception goes a little deeper.

RUSSELL: So I brought it into play to Bobby, and Bobby loved it. And that song probably became part of the piece of music we were working on that day. And Bobby said to me, when you use the sample the second time in the song, slow it down and the pitch will lower and he'll sound older. And I thought, wow, he's really contributing to the production of this.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

COOKE: As a singer grows older, his conception goes a little deeper because he needs life and he understands whom he's trying to say a little more. The thing is that (unintelligible) tries to find out what (unintelligible) that gives him a better insight on telling the story of the song he's trying to sing.

WOMACK: You learn if you mind stay open. And once you can't learn no more, your mind must be closed. Life goes on and you keep growing, you know?

SULLIVAN: Bobby Womack says the collaboration really reached a high point on the song, "Jubilee."

(SOUNDBITE OF "JUBILEE")

WOMACK: (Singing) Don't do that, don't stop. Just do that...

When I was a kid, during those days, you couldn't use instruments. It was against the pastor's religion, so all the singers would make these instruments with their voices. It was just unbelievable. I couldn't explain it. It was called jubilee, and the thing that Damon allowed me to do that I never have done - he say, whatever you want to do, just do it. And I said, you know what, I want to do this song called "Jubilee." I put all these voices on.

(SOUNDBITE OF "JUBILEE")

WOMACK: (Singing) Raining. Rainfall. Don't you let nobody bring you down, bring you down, bring you down. Don't you let nobody bring you down. Just keep on...

And so when I finished with it, he said, that's a masterpiece. I love it. And I say, you really think people understand? He said, man, that's education. I never heard of jubilee.

SULLIVAN: Bobby Womack hopes his longtime fans will join him on this new path, one he'd almost given up walking down.

WOMACK: We take things for granted, and because we wake up every day, you start talking about what you're going to do next week. I said, who told you you would be here next week?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WOMACK: (Singing) If it wasn't for the man...

I said, right now, I feel so fortunate to still be here and still can have something to say. And I feel that being with XL gave me that opportunity.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WOMACK: (Singing) If it wasn't for the man...

SULLIVAN: Bobby Womack's new album is called "The Bravest Man In The Universe." You can hear tracks from the album and read more of Richard Russell's thoughts at our website, nprmusic.org. Special thanks to Jacob Ganz and Michael Tomsic for their help with this story.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WOMACK: (Singing) Made me work so hard to reach you. Where you coming from? There's some things that I could teach you baby.

SULLIVAN: And for Sunday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Laura Sullivan. Check out our weekly podcasts, it's called WEEKENDS ON ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. You can find it at iTunes or at npr.org/weekendatc. Guy Raz is back next weekend. Until then. Thanks for listening and have a great night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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