On his new album, Bobby Womack finally recorded the tracks of his tears.
They call me a living legend
But I'm just a soldier who's been left behind
And now my heart can't take it
My feet won't make it
I'm the only survivor left standing here . . .
At 41, Womack knows about being a soul survivor. He's been at the heart of the genre for almost a quarter of a century, from his earliest days in a family gospel quartet, the Womack Brothers, to crossover success in the early '60s with the Valentinos ("Lookin' for a Love," "It's All Over Now"), to a stint as Sam Cooke's guitarist until Cooke's violent death in 1964.
For Womack, the next two decades provided a roller-coaster ride of shattering lows and memorable highs. Today, after successes with "The Poet" (2 million copies sold) and "The Poet II," he is riding high with the new album, "So Many Rivers" (400,000 copies sold in six weeks, No. 5 on the soul charts), and a tour that brings him to the Warner Theatre tomorrow night.
Womack first hit his comeback stride with a series of best-selling albums for United Artists in the early 1970s. Then, in 1974, his younger brother Harry, whom he had lionized in the hit song "Harry Hippie," was murdered by a jealous girlfriend. Soon after, Womack's 5-month-old son suffocated in his crib.
Losing a son and a brother, "That killed me," Womack says. "I was just broken spiritually."
Further drained by the deaths of friends like Otis Redding, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Jackie Wilson, and even what Womack sees as the death of soul music itself ("If I had to be somebody else to be somebody, I'd rather not, so I stopped doing it"), Womack sank into a seemingly bottomless pit of drugs and depression.
"And I could see the handwriting on the wall," he says. "I used to talk to Sam and ask him why he sang so hard on stage and so different, so very clean on record. He said, 'I cut one for the whites and I cut one for the blacks. The blacks know they can get their song on the B side.' I said, 'Aren't you tired of singing one song black, one song white?' He said it was like a joke. Then he decided not to do it anymore -- 'If they don't want to sit together to listen to the same damn thing, they just won't get my singing' . . ."
A few months later, Cooke was dead, shot in a Los Angeles motel by a night clerk who told police the naked, knife-wielding Cooke had attacked a woman guest. Soul music thrived for the rest of the decade, but its decline and fall were assured by the changing record industry, according to Womack.
"It used to be in the old days you'd say, 'Let's go hear some soul music.' You had soul records in your house. Aretha Franklin was the Queen of Soul, pure and simple. Now nobody's singing soul. Even Aretha's not singing soul. Today every producer in the world grabs Aretha's voice and tells her, 'Don't do that, just stay there in that register.' I saw Aretha and I said to her, 'You got no spirit.' There's a shell of what used to be.
"James Brown, he's the only survivor, if you ask me, 'cause he's seen way more than me. But today he can't even get on the black stations and the whites are picking him up, treating him like he's a new artist. He's 57 years old 52, according to some biographies and a shell of what he used to be.
"I think, where's the Sam and Daves, the Don Covays, the Solomon Burkes, where's the Wilson Picketts? They call me -- 'I can't get a deal, nobody wants to sign me.' You see all those artists that were once happening, looking for somebody to record them. Can they be that washed up? They sound the same to me."
"I am black; I do sing soul music. But now, you call a black artist a soul singer, he goes, 'Uh huh, I'm a rock singer,' " Womack says, then adds: "But we're entitled to rock, too, because when you go back with Chuck Berry and Little Richard, Sly, Jimi Hendrix -- we have a right to be there. We started rock-and-roll."
Ironies abound, of course. "At one time, white artists wouldn't sing soul music 'cause they didn't feel that they were qualified. Yet when I hear a lot of white artists today, I can't tell the difference, to be honest with you, and I'm a soul singer. I hear a record and I say, damn, why didn't they sing it like that 15 years ago? But now they got a better shot to come to our side and sell records: We have to work to sell our records to their side and that's why you have all these artists who could be singing soul who are freaking out to do anything to cross over, to make money and reach a wider audience.
"When the electronics came in, the blacks went crazy with it and they started playing with these instruments and trying to be space men. And I think some of them just came from another era."
Besides his own albums, Womack also has written for Ray Charles, Don Covay, Percy Sledge, Jerry Butler and Aretha Franklin. More recently he's had monster hits with "Love Has Finally Come at Last," a duet with Patti La Belle, and "Inherit the Wind"; he's currently No. 3 on the singles charts with "I Wish He Wouldn't Trust Me So Much," a terse, tense song about wanting his best friend's wife.
The Valentinos' "It's All Over Now" was the Rolling Stones' first American hit in 1964. Womack had originally been upset with the British band's recording it until the first of many royalty checks rolled in. He has since become a part of the Stones' family, often opening their concert tours. Just this week he finished recording on the Stones' new album; Womack does a duet with Mick Jagger on "Harlem Shuffle" and plays guitar, and even left the sessions with a new song from Keith Richards -- "I Want to Make Love to You."
Womack's songs are known and loved in the black community, but he is not always known as their author in the white community. "I've been getting No. 1 R&B records all my life but I feel those songs that only get played in one place are wasted. And the white guys say 'I'll cover that song because white audiences never heard it.' When I went on tour with the Rolling Stones, I sang 'Woman's Gotta to Have It,' and the fans said, 'Why'd you do James Taylor's song?' " -- Womack grins nastily -- "Oh, just because I like it.
"They'd say, 'Why you do a J. Geils song "Looking for a Love" , you like them?' They'd say, 'Why don't you record something?' When I did the Stones tour, I opened up with 'It's All Over Now' . . . BOOOOOOOOOOOO" -- he imitates the crowd -- "and I had the first million-seller with it!"
At the next concert, Jagger came out and introduced Womack, giving him the Stones' stamp of approval, and turned the audience reaction around.
Womack married Sam Cooke's widow less than three months after the singer's death. "There was a lot of resentment," Womack recalls. "Stations wouldn't play my records. I was 19, I didn't know what I was doing, to be honest." He says Barbara Cooke and her family needed protection from opportunists, and the marriage was more of a caretaking contract, lasting five years. "Their boy had drowned a year before Sam died, so I gave her another son, Vincent. After that I said 'I got to go on my own.' "
Womack concedes there are other survivors, other champions of the classic soul values, including brother Cecil and his wife Linda, Sam Cooke's daughter. In a convoluted evolution, Bobby Womack has gone from being Linda's stepfather to being her brother-in-law.
But one thing has remained, through trials that would have forced a weaker man to quit entirely. "I'm going to sing soul music," Womack says. "And I will be the soul man until they put me under."