If it can ever be said that there is an appropriate time to hear of someone’s passing, then there was actually something quite apt about the circumstances in which I heard about Bobby Womack’s death last week (27 June). Informed by a friend with better phone reception than me while at Glastonbury, the sad news followed an evening during which the site was rocked by several hours of loud thunder that overcame all other sound at the festival. Fittingly, that all- encompassing, booming presence is how I’d come to think of Womack since his return a few years ago, and in retrospect it seemed the elements had combined to say goodbye to one of their own.
After a lengthy absence from the musical consciousness, it was the singer’s appearance on Gorillaz’s comeback single Stylo at the start of 2010 that served as a reminder of the strength and size of his voice. Powerful and dominant, there’s also much subtlety and soul in those few bars towards the end of the cartoon characters’ song that proved to me Bobby Womack was not so much a singer, as a force of nature with a microphone.
At the subsequent London Roundhouse show that April, shortly after the launch of the Plastic Beach album which housed the track, Womack proved his volume was no studio trick. Awing the room with the sheer force of his performance, he also demonstrated superb control. He didn’t batter the audience over the head with power alone, rather he enchanted them with a mix of strength and smouldering emotion. And post-show, while some old stagers might have tried to assert their legendary credentials among a group that included members of The Clash, world famous rappers and Britpop heroes, Womack was a charming presence who just seemed to enjoy the moment, happily introducing himself to those milling around with a winning grin and a humble, “Hi, I’m Bobby Womack.”
Quickly realising he had more than just a Gorillaz cameo, Damon Albarn – together with XL Recordings boss Richard Russell – signed on to turn this one song into a new Womack solo album. No small undertaking considering this was a man who already possessed such tracks as Across 110th Street in his arsenal and who boasted a backstory at the very heart of soul music’s folklore. (Interestingly Kevin Rowland told Q’s Chris Catchpole at Glastonbury that Womack offered to provide the same service and record the Dexys man’s first solo album in the ’80s but they never made it work – listen to the interview now)
“I’ve got to be the boss,” he later told Q of those sessions conducted at Albarn’s 13 studio in West London. “Could you imagine a car full of people with nobody driving? I don’t think so. The most important thing was that I was able to communicate very easily with all the people. Damon had his team and I had my team, and they came together as one.”
Womack did, however, admit he had moved with the times to make this record, explaining that the younger pair had a slightly different studio approach to the one he experienced in the ’70s. “The difference [between now and then] was there was no getting high,” he laughed. “There was no cocaine flying, no whisky bottles, no champagne bottles, no women crawling all over the floor! I did wonder what it had to do with recording, but I was into it. I loved it. [laughs] Then one day I woke up and I was tired with it.”
The resulting record, The Bravest Man In The Universe, explored and showcased the elemental nature of Womack’s vocals. Warm and strong, yet wounded and thoughtful when he needed to be, the album saw him join a select few – comparisons to Johnny Cash’s last works are obvious but worthy – who managed to return after a lengthy absence and make a record that not only contributed to that legacy, but one that also improved it. Q readers clearly agreed, voting it their Album Of The Year at the 2012 Q Awards.
For me, the culmination of this extraordinary return came at last year’s Latitude Festival. Playing the Sunday afternoon slot, organisers had timed it so that every other stage on site, other than the main stage where Womack was playing, had fallen silent.
In the main arena a huge crowd gathered to witness his performance in the box-seat, but as his played I decided to make the most of the shut-down elsewhere and wander around the site. It was a one-off experience. Wherever you went, from crossing the lake to walking through the Southwold site’s forest, Bobby Womack’s vocals filled the air. He was everywhere, he was everything and for half an hour or so, the godlike presence envisioned a few years beforehand for his Stylo contribution was a reality. In fact, Friday’s thunder had nothing on Bobby Womack. Farewell, you force of nature.
Paul Stokes @Stokesie