Bobby Womack, back in action (after a long illness) with the remarkable Bravest Man in the Universe album, was at the top of his soulful game when Cliff White interviewed for New Musical Express in March 1976. Read the first half of the article here…——Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages
After ten minutes with Bobby Womack, you know why half the groups that visit L.A. beat a path straight to his door. He's just got to be one of the friendliest and most entertaining guys in the business, a self-confessed compulsive talker — in fact a compulsive person, period — "with a whole lot of energy to burn."
Womack doesn't so much submit to being interviewed as let you tune in to his stream of conversation for as long as you want to stick around. If you've got anything to ask he'll be glad to tell you, if you haven't then just hang loose, because you'll still learn a lot.
Whatever subject crops up you'll hear no bullshit from this man. He's strictly to the bone. He's one of the few artists that a sympathetic interviewer might voluntarily censor for fear that certain of his comments could stir up too much trouble for him when he gets back home... So, we'll bypass his opinions about a certain record company, and their treatment of friends of his, and stick to the twists and turns of his own career.
For his first official visit to Britain, United Artists had rounded up as many journalists as they could lay their hands on and by the time I arrived he'd already been holding court for nearly two days solid.
When I was finally ushered out, Bobby was still going strong, his only regret at that point being that he'd spent more time in Britain talking than he had performing.
"I like to keep the groove going. I don't mind being off one day a week but otherwise I'll play all the time. It keeps you tuned up, man, you know?"
His groove is not necessarily performing live, which he feels only works well after a long lay off — "When you really get the urge to go out on the road. That's when an artist give his best. Then after a while you get stale again, singing the same songs every night, so that's the time to go back and work on new ideas. It's a question of doing it, whatever it is, when it feels good. Not when you have to.
"The greatest feeling is to go in the studio and tell a story on record. If I've got something strong I'll go in and cut one after another, the whole thing like nothing, just be grooving, and they'll say, 'Man, you oughta cut like that all the time.' But you can't be like that all the time.
"Or you get the kind of thing where they say, 'Bobby, we've booked you to record for the 18th? Man, I might not be tuned in on the 18th; I might not even be around on the 18th. I can't deal with that.
"Record industry people don't understand people who create. They'll say, 'We've gotta get you a room and a piano, see how many songs you can turn out a day,' but it doesn't work like that. I gotta be out there with the people for a while, then come back with the ideas. You can't put your feelings on time schedule."
It was precisely by bucking the system and recording exactly the way he wanted, when he wanted, that Bobby finally got across to a mass audience after ten years on the sidelines. From 1967 he had begun to score minor hits in his own right, as opposed to the previous group hits and his compositions for other successful performers, but it was the two albums worth of relaxed soulfulness in 1971 that really displayed the full extent of his unique talent for the first time.
"I cut Understanding and Communication in one week because I was in a creative frame of mind. They weren't originally planned as two albums, I was just cutting a lot of songs at a time when I had a lot of ideas.
"That was right at the time I met Sly. I'd been divorced when I met him and he was hanging free, a little too free as it's turned out, but it was good for me because I needed to release all that energy.
"Before that I couldn't really record when I wanted to; with him I just went in and played all the time, trying things. And I was just open because it was at his house.
"Before I knew it we had something like 27 songs, so I called one Communication because I'd starting communicating through my music at that time on a positive side, and then the first one was going to be Understanding because you have to understand before you can communicate."
Then with a characteristic throaty chuckle at the perversity of the industry he wraps up the story. "So what happened? The company went and put 'em out in the wrong order!"
© Cliff White, 1976