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Event Spotlight: Q&A with Bobby Womack

The truly legendary Bobby Womack talks about the Stax days: gospel with Elvis, guidance from Sam Cooke, playing with Aretha and getting high with Sly and Janis Joplin.

Let's start in the '70s. 1974, you re-recorded your '62 single Lookin' For A Love and it became your biggest hit. Did you expect it to a hit second time around?

I didn't expect it to be the massive hit that it was, it was more sentimental [reasons]. Me and my brothers, it was sort of a reunion, and a chance to be on stage again.

So, it was less a case of re-recording a strong song that slipped through the net?

The song, the first time we did it, I had an idea in my mind that i wanted to upgrade it. Once we got into the studio and started working on it [...] it just did something for us in the studio, that I knew was going to translate to the people.

Did you notice a different type of audience springing up at your shows in the '70s? Especially after Across 110th Street?

I did simply because, at that particular time, that was a change for me, to record with orchestration like that. Across 110th Street had meaning, because although I lived on Central Avenue in Cleveland Ohio [growing up], it was like Across 110th Street. That's what made me in the frame of mind to write the lyric as I did, because it sort of typified me and my brothers growing up.

You were also a prolific session player prior to that. How quickly was life moving to you during the late '60s, when albums and singles were turned around in a much shorter timeframe?
Fast. It was great, because what happened was there were times when I was in the studio for a week, night and day, and I was there recording for different people, playing on different people's sessions – The Box Tops, Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett – and I really spent a lot of time down at Stax, playing for different people: Sam and Dave, The Staple Sisters. I really got around quite a bit, playing for Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, just to name a few people I played with.  

Was it a competitive scene around there, in terms of the different players and artists?
Oh yeah, as a matter of fact, I got more professional work than anybody at that time because of how I played. You see, I never had a music lesson and instead of changing the strings around, I turned the guitar upside-down. There was only one guitar in the house and two of my brothers were right handed and three of us were left-handed, we had to share it, and we couldn't very well turn the strings around, we just turned it upside-down so the left-handers could play it.

There's been a lot written about that time at Stax, when things were thriving. How close to the truth are those work hard/play hard accounts you read?

It was hard work, because the way I recorded with Damon Albarn, for example, was completely different than the way I was used to recording. Back then, you would go into the studio and the bands wouldn't have chart music, they would listen to what the song was, and they would just do it from their head. Whatever came into their minds to play, they would play it. They would play a track that was 45 minutes-to-an-hour, and take parts out that they wanted to use for songs.

That's a very odd way of writing.

A very odd way (laughs) But that's the way they did it in those days.

I've read your autobiography. You're quite open about your drug-use. Were you worried about being so candid? 

Well, no, because I've always believed in being truthful. My father was a minister, and even though he didn't like the way we went as far as our careers were concerned, he always admonished us for lying, and was about telling the truth - how telling the truth would someday set someone free. So I've always been open in talking about my experiences. I felt that these young people today need to hear it: somebody they maybe admire, just what they went through.

Did you get negative feedback?
You kinda get negative feedback regardless, I don't care what you're doing and I don't care what you're saying. But then you'll get more positive feedback. It's always a good feeling when you're in a country or a city and someone comes up to you and says, "I listen to your records, and I read your notes and you used to use drugs and you quit, and I was on drugs, and it made me quit - just to see that you could do it." Those testimonies are more heartwarming and mean more than anything. I don't mind telling the truth. I try to do that in my songs; all of my songs are about something that's happened in my life, or something I saw happen and wrote about - you know?

Early on The Rolling Stones took one of your tracks to #1 in the UK. What was that like: these white British guys putting one of your songs at the top of the charts?
Well, you know, when we first heard the song - it wasn't that we didn't like the song, we were just angry because they recorded our song, and they were getting more notoriety then we were. But after I found out how the business worked, I found out that the best thing that could have happened was for The Rolling Stones to record our song because I'd never made that much money before.

Your first solo hit was California Dreaming, also a cover. What made you choose to record that, as opposed to one of your own?

I knew Mama Cass, you know, and it was just one of those kinda things that when we came to California, California seemed like a land of opportunity - a beautiful place to be. But if you're out in California and you don't have the finance to carry you to a nice restaurant or to live in the nice places, California can be a drag. But if you go away from California, even if it's not what you wanted it to be, it's still California. The lyrics to that song made me wanna record it over again, and put my twist to it. The lyrics were true lyrics, you know?

When you came to California what were your first impressions of it?

We'd seen California on television, and when I first came to California, it was like being in another world, from being in Cleveland, because we were in Sam Cooke's world. He was living in a million-dollar house, which at that time was unheard of for an artist, and we got a chance to be with someone, that, at the time was number 2, behind Elvis Presley in sales on RCA Victor - he was living well. He would encourage us to write songs and record so that we could see that side of life.

Did that shape the way you viewed things?
If you're in this music business, you're going to meet people from all walks of life, and especially in music. One of the first people we met in California was Elvis Presley. That was because he and Sam were on the same label. Elvis was a down-to-earth person; he had sang gospel, so he could identify with us. You'd be looking to him to sing rhythm and blues, and he'd want to be singing gospel.

You wrote a song for [Janis Joplin's 1972 record] Pearl too, a short while later. How did that come about? Was it a San Francisco connection?

I'll tell you, it's the craziest thing: Janis Joplin was going home with me one night, to record a song, and she was riding in my Mercedes, and she's asking me, like, "What kinda car is this?" and I said, "it's a Mercedes Benz" so she starting laughing and said, "I like this car", she started - in the car - singing a song that she was joking about at first, you know: "I wanna buy me a Mercedes Benz". She was laughing and talking about this, and then all of a sudden she says, "Let's go back to the studio, I'm gonna lay this down - and she did. She laid it down with just her guitar - and mild at first, so that she could get the melody and everything down on tape. And when she went back and recorded it, it just turned out to be a huge hit for her.

Were there hard plans to work together before that?

It was just something that happened. I just a chance to meet her in the studio - I was recording with someone else and she was there.

Was that Sly and the Family Stone?
Right, exactly! And I think her just being in the studio and seeing the way that Sly worked, and his attitude about things… she could definitely identify with him, because everyone was in the studio getting high, seeing us taking the music to another level when we were like that. I think with her, she honed in on that, and she took a page out of his book and just went back to the studio and recorded.

How early on did the drug use in the studio happen? Was it always the case: you'd take drugs and make music or was it something that seeped it once money was involved?
It's always been the case, from the beginning, that when we started to record gospel with Sam Cooke, he would go into the studio, and he would stay it there until we got it. Sometimes it would be all night, you know. Sam didn't use any drugs, though. When he would, he would drink gin. We didn't do anything, we didn't smoke, we didn't drink. I think that starting creeping in when we went out on the road. We were meeting a lot of different artists. We'd meet Wilson Pickett, and you hadn't seen him in a long time, since he was a kid, and he was getting high. It's just the influences you were around. 

And, after that point, did drugs serve creative purposes in the studio, or were they merely functional?
I think it was done so that you could stay up and continue to do the music. Otherwise, you couldn't stay in the studio for days, if you didn't have any help.

Bobby Womack plays Hamer Hall this evening in Melbourne, and at the Sydney Opera House as part of VIVID on Friday and Saturday (May 24 and 25).

- Nathan Jolly


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