If James Brown is the Godfather of Soul, then Bobby Womack is the Emperor. Gifted with the most enviable voice a male singer could ever want, Womack has the down-home grit of Wilson Pickett and the melodic range of Sam Cooke. He can caress you with a beautiful melody, then scream harder than James Brown.
His career started in gospel in the early ’50s as a member of The Womack Brothers, and he later became the protegé of Sam Cooke, who gave him his first record deal with The Valentinos. He toured the chitlin’ circuit with a young Jimi Hendrix on R&B package tours supporting Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke. His first R&B hit was “Lookin’ For A Love” (which was later covered by The J. Geils Band), then the Rolling Stones took notice of his writing talents and covered “It’s All Over Now.” In addition, he wrote for Janis Joplin, and eventually, 17 songs for Wilson Pickett.
As an in-demand session guitarist, Womack played sultry rhythms and melodies on albums by Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Joe Tex, King Curtis, Gabor Szabo, George Benson, and Sly and The Family Stone. In 1972, he wrote the score for the film Across 110th Street, which is widely considered a classic in the “blaxploitation” genre.
Womack is a true soul survivor with the wisdom of the ages. He has a catalog of albums and singles that would make even B.B. King sit up straight, and in his latest endeavor, he has returned to gospel with Back To My Roots.
Vintage Guitar: What inspired you to pick up the guitar?
Bobby Womack: To make a little extra money, my father cut hair. One day, a guy came to him with a guitar and said, “Womack, if you give me some free haircuts, I’ll give you this guitar.” I didn’t even know my father could play, and he told my brothers and I to never touch it. I guess he figured we’d tear it up.
Anyway, he’d go to work in the steel mill, so that was my chance. I didn’t even discover that I had it upside down. I was left-handed. I kept learning so much that we would do a thing where we would put the radio on and take turns seeing who could play whatever song came on.
Did someone ever sit down with you and say, “Here’s a C chord, here’s a G chord?”
We stayed a couple of miles from The Majestic Hotel, where groups like the Cadillacs, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, and The Dominoes would stay. Every weekend, I’d go to the hotel and ask the groups where their guitar player was. I’d find out who it was, and go knock on his door – I couldn’t have been more than seven or eight, and I had my father’s guitar. I’d ask him to show me a chord, so he’d get his guitar and show me a chord. I’d walk all the way back home with my hand in that position (laughing)! When I got home I’d say to my brothers, “I got something new! Listen to this!” My brother would say, “Aw, man! That’s great!”
What kind of guitar was it, by the way?
A Kalamazoo acoustic. A few years later, a group called The Five Blind Boys came to Cleveland and they didn’t have a guitar player. They had heard about me, and wanted to know if I could play onstage. That was a big thing for me to play onstage with them.
How old were you?
Must’ve been about 13. They asked my father if they could take me to Chicago. Because they were blind, my father felt sorry for them. But those guys were hip – they were as fast as anybody! They said they’d take care of me. Plus, I was the only guy who could see, so I drove the bus. I was their leader.
I stayed with them for two or three weeks until my father had the police looking for me; I was a minor driving around with these guys, and I was in seventh heaven!
I learned so much playing with them, but then they took home.
When did you meet Jimi Hendrix?
In the early ’60s. I was playin’ with Sam Cooke at the time and I was also opening the show with my brothers, The Valentinos. Jimi was playing guitar for a guy named Gorgeous George O’Dell.
George would come out and open the show, and I remember Jimi would always steal the show. Blacks thought he was crazy! They use to call him a beatnick – this is before hippie. They’d say, “Man, this boy is weird.” Especially when he took out the lighter fluid and set his guitar on fire. He only had one guitar! So he’d run backstage, get a big ol’ blanket, and put it out.
So he was doing this way back then?
Yeah! And when you talk about soul concerts, they didn’t understand rock, or nothin’ like that. George would be onstage singing and taking off his shirt, and the women would be screaming – but they’d be screaming for Jimi! I remember George telling him, “Next time you take that guitar and put it in yo’ mouth and start trying to play with your teeth, you gonna be eatin’ it!
Did you ever swap licks with Jimi?
We use to sit in a big room backstage and play between shows. That’s how we became friends. I’d listen to him, but I couldn’t take him seriously because I couldn’t play like that with Sam. Curtis Mayfield would play for the artist – Jimi would overpower the artist. He was a leader, and he heard things in a different way.
A lot of people believe Jimi Hendrix didn’t start setting his guitar on fire until after joining The Experience.
No, no, no! I used to laugh at him because I thought his guitar looked like a piece of barbecue. George eventually gave it to me.
Is it a Silvertone?
I don’t know what it is – there’s no name on it, and he broke the head off. George said, “Jimi busted it up and tried to nail it back together for a gig.” George’s grandmother gave it to him – Jimi used to stay with her. I got it 25 or 30 years ago.
What kind of guitars were you using back then?
I was using the Cadillac of guitars – a big Gibson L-5 hollowbody. And sometimes a Gretsch. They were both perfect for what I did with Sam. Sam would do “You Send Me,” or “Twistin’ The Night Away.”
I was a rhythm guitar player. Eventually, I started getting into Strats and Telecasters. For amps I always used a Fender Twin. My favorite guitar, to this day, is a 65-year-old Guild acoustic.
But when I played with Sam, all you needed was a big, full, clean sound. Jimi used to tell me, “Man, you play some beautiful chords!” I said, “There’s a country western piano player by the name of Floyd Cramer who I got my style from.” Jimi said, “But he’s a piano player!” I said, “Yeah, but imagine me hittin’ the same notes on the guitar, playin’ what you’d hear on a piano. It’s different.”
So when Jimi played rhythm, he used to listen to me and Curtis Mayfield doing these riffs.
Did you honestly like his playing?
To be honest, what he was doing was foreign enough for me to say that he could never have played with James Brown. It wouldn’t work – he’d get fired. Plus, nobody could understand why a guy would love his guitar, then all of a sudden turn around and try to destroy it. He was just different.
You’re left-handed. Do you flip your stings so the low E is at the top?
Jimi would say, “You know, me and you are the only left-handed guitar players. You’re worse than me! Yo’ **** is ****ed up! Look at yo’ strings!” He used to flip his strings over, but I didn’t. I could tell what he was doing on the guitar, but he couldn’t tell what I was doing. I’ve always played this way.
What guitar players influenced your style?
Clif White, who played rhythm for Sam before me. He played rhythm, and I played all the cute stuff – the fills. He use to be with The Mills Brothers, and he could play show tunes inside and out. That cat was awesome!
Anyway, that’s who I wanted to be like, and he later told me that he was jealous of my playing because while he was spending so much time learning and reading the music, he’d see me come up and feel it. I didn’t know what I was playing, but I knew when it felt good and when it sounded good. He said everything he learned that was technical took away from what he could’ve had.
How did you make the leap from Sam Cooke to session work?
Everybody would notice a guy. I was with Sam Cooke, plus playing those songs on the record… and I was left-handed. Those cats would say, “He plays with his strings upside down! He just turns the guitar upside down!” It was like a joke. “All his chords are unorthodox! He made ‘em up himself! And… he’s black!” (laughing).
Which songs did they hear that made them say, “I want this guy on my record.”
“Bring It On Home To Me,” “Having A Party,” that kind of stuff. Wilson Pickett called and said, “I want you to play on my album!” So I went to Memphis. He’d say, “Give me an intro.” And that was the thing – coming up with intros or something that would make the song happen.
You played on Aretha Franklin’s “Doctor Feelgood.”
Me and Aretha were real close. She wanted me to play blues… I never could play no blues. I was tryin’. She said, “Bobby, you ain’t feelin’ the blues enough for me.” I was playin’ what I used to play with Sam, but it didn’t work for a blues song. So she brought this white guy in and asked if he could have a shot. I’ll never forget it… he started playin’ the guitar and it freaked me out because I didn’t think no white guy could play no blues. What do they know about the blues? And it was embarrassing because Bernard Purdie and those guys were laughing. They were like, “Damn, Womack! You let that white boy come in here and kick yo’ ass? He come in here and teach you how to play the blues in yo’ own house?”
They was crackin’ up! But he was wearin’ that guitar out. I was shocked. I wasn’t crying, but I was lookin’ at him so hard that water came to my eyes. He said his name was Eric Clapton, and he was with a band called Cream.
Did you end up playing any blues on it?
No. The blues is just not my style. Can you imagine Curtis Mayfield tryin’ to play the blues? His style is just his style. I never liked blues, even when I had the blues. I remember when I use to hear blues when I was a kid. The blues was bad. I wanted to get far away from the blues.
You played some mean blues on “Laughin’ And Clownin’.”
That was the only time! The only time!
I am one of the strongest rhythm guitar players you’ll find anywhere. When I wrote “Breezin'” it was just a rhythm. I wrote the entire song, but it started with just rhythm. It even had lyrics. When George Benson wanted to do that song, and he wanted me on guitar, he said, “I think the magic of it is in your rhythm.” He played the lead part and I played the rhythm.
You also worked on Sly Stone’s “There’s A Riot Goin’ On.”
With Sly it was a whole different vibe. Sly liked the way I played and said, “Bobby, play what you feel.” That was the most fun you could ever have. There was so much going on in his life at the time. And I was going through a divorce with Sam Cooke’s widow, so Sly’s home studio was a nice place to hang my head. Everybody was on marijuana and coke. Sly would stay up all night, and just play, play, play. One time I came in, and he was laying on the piano asleep. I woke him up, and he looked at me, and started singing (in a sleepy voice), “One child grows up to be, somebody that just loves to learn.”
I played wah-wah all over that album, and he ran tape the whole time.
But he taught me a lot about freedom. I also learned I couldn’t mix getting high with making music!
Any advice to guitar players who want to find their own style?
Don’t go to school (laughing). When you go to school, they teach you the correct way. But what’s the correct way for you? Some people hold their guitars differently. You may make up a chord, and a teacher will tell you to play it a certain way. You lose the richness of what you originally came up with. Then you sound like everybody else. The best thing you could do is learn how to read music.
When you write, do you pick a time to work, or do you wait until the feeling hits you?
It’s best to write when the night is still. When it spiritually hits me. I know it’s got to be very frightening for any artist, but sometimes nothing’s there. You feel like all these materialistic things took your talent away – you have nothing to talk about.
I’ve talked about how I’ve been divorced three times… that’s just in and out of love. Hard times, up and downs, losing someone. Then, after awhile it gets to a point where it becomes small. But there’s always something that will hit you hard enough – when you see it through somebody else.
Photo courtesy of Bobby Womack
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Jan. ’02 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.