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Published: 2014/07/02
by Mike Greenhaus

Bobby Womack: Growing Until It’s Over

Bobby Womack at Bonnaroo – photo by Dean Budnick

Legendary singer/songwriter and guitarist Bobby Womack passed away on June 27. He was 70.

Though Womack struggled with several health issues in his later years, he remained remarkably active into his 70s and even performed at the 13th annual Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival earlier this month. He first gained renown as a member of his family musical group the Valentinos in the ‘50s and received a true soul-music education as Sam Cooke’s backing guitarist at the height of the R&B boom in the ‘60s. He wrote The Rolling Stones’ first UK No. 1 hit “It’s All Over Now” and touched records by the likes of the Box Tops, Sly and the Family Stone and Janis Joplin, who recorded his song “Trust Me” on her second solo album Pearl. As a solo artist, his signature hits include numbers like “Lookin’ For a Love,” “That’s The Way I Feel About Cha,” “Woman’s Gotta Have It,” “Harry Hippie,” “Across 110th Street” and “If You Think You’re Lonely Now,” among many others. Bolstered by with work with the alternative hip-hop super group Gorillaz, Womack reached a new, younger audience of indie, jam and hip-hop enthusiasts in recent years and enjoyed a surprise late-career comeback as a solo artist. Gorillaz principal Damon Albarn produced his first album of original material in almost 20 years, 2012’s The Bravest Man in the Universe, and Womack was working on a follow-up album at the time of his death.

This past December, Womack and his longtime guitarist Nate LaPointe stopped by the Relix and Jambands.com offices to film a song for our video series before their gig at New York’s City Winery. Womack also sat for a quick interview where he discussed his newest album and historic career.

2012’s The Bravest Man in the Universe is not only your first studio album since 2000 but also your first album of original material since 1994. Can you start by giving us a little background on how the recordings for that album took shape?

It was recorded in London with Damon and mixed in New York. I didn’t follow them everywhere they worked on it because I was too busy on the road. And they were going, they just pop up anywhere. Some of the songs, at least four or five of the songs were just—[snaps fingers]—on top, ya’ know? We didn’t say we were going to do this or plan to do this, they just happened. Or they would play something and I would say, “That sounds like something I could do”—this is where we cut it. You know, that kind of thing. But the freedom of making music is so important. I tell him all the time when we’re playing these songs, even when they were played on the record. You have to open them up and you have to feel like you wanna do it. [Pause.] Do it.

This album [happened after I did the] Gorillaz album. And it was a funny thing, the biggest joke is when I was coming out of the studio, everybody knew who I was but nobody knew them because they weren’t as massive and nobody knew what [the band] looked like because they had those masks on. They was wearing those during the day. I like that they’re quiet that way.

Over the years you have played with some of the best guitarists in rock, soul and pop. How did you initially connect with your current guitarist, Nate LaPointe?

I’ve worked with a lot of guitar players and—but he’s one of the greatest players. We met at The Pond [LaPointe was the sub guitarist for Womack’s previous guitar player and joined around 10 years ago]. Well, we’ve had so many—over the years I think about it, all the guitar players. And I’ve had my son, I’ve had my daughters say, “Dad that’s one of the baddest guitar players,” and I said, “You really think so?” I say, “I feel comfortable, very comfortable, with him.” It’s like me playing for myself. And that’s what I was always looking for. I said, “I need someone to play my guitar and sing.” And for him to be able to motivate me takes a lot, ‘cause I’ve been doing it a looooong time.

When it comes to that motivation, I’m sure when it comes to having new material, one of the ways you get motivated is having so many new songs to play.

I think that’s important. I think it’s also important that you can motivate the audience the same way. Because when it comes to telling a story, they’ve lived it—they’ve experienced it in some way. You know? And then when they come out, the greatest thing you can do is make them feel what you feel inside. And you project it to them and they project it to you; it’s like two people making love.

That’s a great way to describe it because it is that intimacy between the audience and the performer, especially in your music, which is very uplifting.

But you never know what’s gonna come along, you know? And when they showed up I was saying “OK,” it felt just natural to me. And I found the more he played—because we worked together quite a bit—the better he got. Not, because he’s got his own sound—he does his own thing—but to be able to come into someone else’s world, I think he really had to appreciate what they’ve laid out there, you know? So I love him, and he loves me. [Laughter.] You might say, you know, we’re gonna do all these songs, the list of songs, just a tight show, ya’ know? It can’t be that tight for it to feel right. You know what I mean? So I think when we do things that neither one of us is expected to do, I can’t lose him [Laughter]

Relix and Jambands.com were founded as an outlet to document the world of improvisational music. As you said, you have to be communicative with your band and when you’re playing so freely, because you wanna give the audience something new and exciting at the same time. At the same time, you don’t wanna lose the band behind you.

You don’t want to make them so tight that you can’t ever grow.

Right.

When they can grow, I go. You know what I mean, because you never wanna stop learning. It is about just about the two of us [motions to Nate] locking up and playing and
cutting everybody else out. But you know, I feel he has a wide range of music to feel. And some of it we still don’t do. But it’s like this interview. We don’t know what’s gonna happen until you start doing it and some magic somewhere will strike off. [Laughter.]

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