The Bravest Man In The Universe is Bobby Womack’s first album in twelve years. But he doesn’t see it that way. A man whose talent as a singer, guitarist and composer is matched only by his self-lacerating honesty, Womack dismisses three long-players he made at the turn of the millennium and sees his first album for XL Recordings as the first, real Bobby Womack album since 1994’s Resurrection. You see, for those three lost albums and his few live performances around that time, Bobby Womack wasn’t really there at all.
‘There was a Christmas album in 2000,’ he recalls, dismissively, in a voice so dirty and cracked that it’s almost as musical as his singing voice. ‘But to be honest, I haven’t released an album in 18 years. I had given up on music. I didn’t have the desire that you have to have. I assumed that I’d stayed in the business too long… like an old fighter.’
Thankfully, Damon Albarn had other ideas. When he had the brainwave of tracking The Last Soul Man down and asking him to collaborate with Mos Def on ‘Stylo’, one of the finest tracks on the 2010 Gorillaz album Plastic Beach, he had got his timing just right. Womack had been inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 2009, and had finally emerged from the long, painful aftermath of his addictions to cocaine and alcohol. The ‘Stylo’ collaboration went so well that Womack also worked with Damon on ‘Cloud Of Unknowing’ for Plastic Beach and later on ‘Bobby In Phoenix’ which was released on the low-key Gorillaz travelogue album The Fall in December 2010. It was the beginning of a friendship, solidified by the 50 dates they spent touring together around the world in support of Plastic Beach and one fruitful enough to persuade Bobby Womack to get fully back into the ring, and come out fighting.
The Bravest Man In The Universe is co-produced by Damon Albarn and XL Recordings’ Richard Russell. All ten tracks are co-written by the three plus Bobby’s longtime songwriting partner Harold Payne, except for radically rearranged spirituals ‘Deep River’ and ‘Jubilee (Don’t Let Nobody Turn You Around)’. There are striking vocal guest spots from Lana Del Ray on ‘Dayglo Refelection’ and Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara on ‘Nothin’ Can Save You’.
Womack’s life would make one hell of a movie. Born Robert Dwayne Womack in 1944 in Cleveland, Ohio, Bobby and his four brothers were inspired by to form a vocal group, The Womack Brothers, by their gospel-singing father Friendly Womack. The boys made their first record when Bobby was just ten, and were eventually discovered by the legendary Sam Cooke, who changed their name to The Valentinos, signed them to his own SAR label, and also employed Bobby as his onstage guitarist. Just three months after his mentor was shot dead in December 1964, Bobby shocked the soul music establishment by marrying Cooke’s widow Barbara Campbell, a marriage that would last until 1970.
Meanwhile, The Rolling Stones had got their first UK No.1 hit with a cover of Bobby’s ‘Its All Over Now’ in 1964, beginning a working friendship between Womack and The Stones that would continue through tours, studio work with latterday Stone Ronnie Wood, and a guest appearance as backing vocalist on The Stones’ 1986 cover of Bob & Earl’s ‘Harlem Shuffle’. But success as an artist in his own right was still some way off for Bobby in the mid-‘60s. He became an in-demand guitarist, playing on three of the greatest albums of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s in Aretha Franklin’s Lady Soul, Janis Joplin’s Pearl and There’s A Riot Goin’ On by Sly And The Family Stone. The latter, apart from being the deepest funk record ever made, was also an album made by a band on dark drugs. Sly Stone never entirely recovered from the netherworld it sonically depicted. But Bobby, despite being addicted to coke and alcohol, went on to his greatest successes as a solo artist, scoring big US R&B hits with ‘70s albums Communication, Understanding, Across 110th Street and Facts Of Life, and hit singles ‘Harry Hippie’ and ‘Lookin’ For A Love’, while dealing with the violent demise of brother Harry, who was stabbed to death in 1974 .
Disco affected Womack’s career, as it did every soul original, in the late ‘70s, before an extraordinary reinvention in the mid-80s with his trilogy of acclaimed albums The Poet, The Poet II (the only soul album to ever top the NME Critics’ Poll) and So Many Rivers. But as Bobby’s career waned in the late ‘80s onwards, so his addictions and demons grew stronger. Drugs made Womack difficult to work with, stormy marriages and relationships came and went, his son Vincent committed suicide. Sliding into semi-obscurity, Bobby finally kicked his habits in 1996, and holed up in semi-retirement in Los Angeles.
But Bobby’s music began to revive itself, unaided by its maker. Quentin Tarantino used Bobby’s theme from ‘Across 110th Street’ for his 1997 movie Jackie Brown, as Ridley Scott did a decade later for American Gangster. Bobby’s stunning version of The Mamas And The Papas’ California Dreamin’ was used in an ad and as a major part of Andrea Arnold’s superb council estate drama Fish Tank in 2009. Journalists and soul fans continued to remind the world that Bobby had written or sung or played on records as enduring as ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ by Sam Cooke, ‘Midnight Mover’ by Wilson Pickett, ‘The Letter’ by The Box Tops, ‘Son Of A Preacher Man’ by Dusty Springfield and ‘Suspicious Minds’ by Elvis Presley.
It was only a matter of time before an enterprising artist or two decided that working with Womack would be a good idea. Entirely fitting that it should be serial collaborator Albarn and the man who gave us Gil Scott-Heron’s last musical statement… although Richard Russell is keen to dismiss obvious comparisons between The Bravest Man… and Scott-Heron’s I’m New Here.
For Richard, one particularly happy surprise of the sessions was Bobby’s enthusiasm for experimental electronica. Womack may be the last original soul man standing, but he was never a traditionalist, as anyone listening to the sonic architecture of There’s A Riot Goin’ On or The Poet will attest. As far as Bobby’s concerned, those new-fangled gadgets were just a key part of the spontaneity of the experience, helping him write and sing about subjects close to his heart, from pain and forgiveness to grief and love, from God, guilt and redemption to the TV evangelists that are the object of his ire on Stupid, a track kicked off by a mordant Gil Scott-Heron joke.
In association with Bobby Womack & Company International