Singer-songwriter Bobby Womack

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Legendary singer-songwriter-guitarist expresses his feelings on being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Bobby Womack is one of soul music's survivors, with a career spanning more than 40 years. He got his start in the gospel quintet the Womack Brothers and, mentored by the legendary Sam Cooke, became a consistent hit maker on the R&B charts. He's also enjoyed success as a writer and guitarist for numerous artists, including the Rolling Stones, Sly Stone and Aretha Franklin. Womack gets his due this year as an inductee in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—the first Cleveland native ever inducted as an individual performer.



Tavis: Pleased to welcome Robert Duane Womack –
Bobby Womack: Man, I’m telling you.
Tavis: – Bobby Womack to this program. The legendary singer, songwriter and musician will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame next month in his hometown of Cleveland. He ain’t been there in 30 years. We’re going to talk about that. If you are a Bobby Womack fan, as am I, you will want to pick up the re-release of three of his classic albums this year – more on that in a moment. But first, here is Bobby Womack performing that classic, hello, “Across 110th Street.”
Tavis: Here’s some trivia for you. I’ve said to Bobby Womack any number of times – he met him recently, my long-time personal assistant, Raymond Ross, a huge fan of Bobby Womack, and this is something even Raymond don’t know. So, who asked you to sing background on that song?
Womack: Pam Grier.
Tavis: Pam who?
Womack: Pam Grier.
Tavis: Pam Grier. Tell that story, Bobby Womack.
Womack: Yeah. Well, a long time ago (laughter) me and Pam was tight (unintelligible).
Tavis: Oh, I ain’t mad at you, Bobby Womack. Tight with Pam Grier. (Laughter)
Womack: And she told me, she said, “Bobby, let me sing on this.” And I said, “Do you sing?” She said, “No, I don’t, but I just want to be on – can I do background?” So I put her on the background and we overdubbed, and I was just thinking, watching “Jackie Brown” – not “Jackie Brown” – yeah, “Jackie Brown.”
And she was going off and she was – the movie was going over, but she was singing. And I was just thinking to myself, having a flashback, said, “Damn Pam, that’s (unintelligible). She did it.”
Tavis: But let me back up. I love Pam Grier, but what does an artist of your stature do when somebody comes to you who can’t sing, asking you to sing background on your record?
Womack: And if she’s pretty as Pam was, (laughter) I just said, (unintelligible) “…sing with you. Yeah, we can work this out.”
Tavis: What you do is you say, “Overdub. Overdub.” (Laughter) Give Pam a part. First of all, can I – I’d bow down if I were – if I could get down fast enough and get back up. Congratulations on this Rock and Roll Hall of Fame thing, man.
Womack: It’s a pleasure for me because so many of my friends and constituents that I worked with over the years have went into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but actually, I was singing professionally before the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was even in existence. I was thinking about how to pay the rent and make sure the promoter paid me.
Tavis: Have you figured that out yet?
Womack: No, make sure you get paid before you go on.
Tavis: That’s the answer, huh? (Laughter)
Womack: Yeah, that’s the answer.
Tavis: But for a kid, to your point, you were doing this thing before the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was even in existence. You are from Cleveland.
Womack: I’m from Cleveland.
Tavis: Haven’t been there to perform in 30 years. And you –
Womack: And I thought they had forgot about me. They just put me in. I said, “Damn, don’t wait until I die.” (Laughter) Because I looked, I said, “Everybody in there – most of the people in there ain’t in there – after the fact.”
Tavis: What’s it feel like to be going back home after all these years?
Womack: I don’t know. I hope it’s not cold. I hope the weather is, like, normal. But it’ll be a great feeling because my mom is coming; my brothers are coming, which was the Womack Brothers when we were singing gospel.
Tavis: That’s how you started, yeah.
Womack: So it’s a lot of remembrance. And then I got a lot of kinfolk that’ll be back in Cleveland.
Tavis: I know you’re on the move and you’re –
Womack: So I’m looking forward to it.
Tavis: I know you’re on the move, Bobby, you’re an international star, but how did you end up staying out of Cleveland performing that many years? How did that happen, even?
Womack: What happens is that when they’re ready to book me, I’m booked somewhere else. And it just kept going on and on and on, and so I’ll make up for all of that lost time.
Tavis: What does it mean to you that – you were joking about it earlier, but seriously, what does it mean for you that you have been so honored by this Hall of Fame?
Womack: It means a lot. It means a lot because just being in the business – I worked with people like the Jimi Hendrix, the Janis Joplins and the list goes on, and I never looked at those people as being famous. We were just that group of people that did the same thing and loved what we did. And I still look at it like that. It’s just that when people make such a big to-do after most of those artists are gone, I just said, “Man, God is still in the blessing business.”
Tavis: Take me back to the days of the Womack Brothers and tell me how you all got – your daddy, of course, at the center of all this – but take me back to the beginning of you and your brothers.
Womack: Well, my father was singing in a group called the Voices of Love, and –
Tavis: Hold on, we got to get some love to that title. (Laughter)
Womack: The Voices of Love.
Tavis: The Voices of Love.
Womack: Yeah. And he wanted to run the group, and they was just sick of him having to always have to be in charge. So, he found out that we were singing a little bit, and he said, “Well, I know I can boss my sons.” (Laughter) And he left the group and started taking us around, and we were singing every church that was in Cleveland.
And the two biggest churches there was the Friendship Baptist Church and the Temple Baptist Church, and that’s when Sam Cooke had just joined the Soul Stirrers. So my father was, like, asking everybody in the group – not the new guy, because Sam had just got there – that could we open up his show.
Tavis: Open up for them?
Womack: Yeah.
Tavis: Right.
Womack: And he said, Mr. Crain at the time said, “No, they’re too young – let them grow up a little bit. They’re too young little guys – too young.” And Sam said, “Hey, if they want to sing,” he said, “They could be out doing a whole lot of negative things.” And he said, “So let them open up.”
Tavis: You guys are what age around this time?
Womack: I was about seven, eight. Because I remember, he was saying, “If I let you on the show, you ain’t going to hurt me, are you?” And I was saying to Sam, “No, I’m not going to nothing to you. I’m just going to perform.” And so he was laughing about it. And through his push, saying, “If they don’t go on then I won’t go on,” and that’s how we got on the show.
Tavis: What do you recall – I’m going to test your memory here, Bobby Womack – at seven, eight years of age, give me a couple songs that you remember singing on the stage back then. Y’all were doing gospel stuff. What do you recall singing when you were seven or eight? Give me a couple songs you were singing back then.
Womack: This song that I do remember was a song called “Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray.” (Singing) Couldn’t hear nobody pray. And another song was “The Bible is Right.”
Tavis: “The Bible is Right.”
Womack: If the Bible is right, somebody’s wrong.
Tavis: That’s a cold title, too. If the Bible is right, somebody wrong. (Laughter)
Womack: Yeah.
Tavis: I must admit, though, I’m still laughing – your daddy’s group was the Voices of Love.
Womack: The Voices of Love.
Tavis: There wasn’t no love in those voices that kicked him out. (Laughter)
Womack: No, but they said he had to go.
Tavis: You got to go, man.
Womack: All the guys said, “You can’t tell us everything we do is wrong. Why don’t you get your own group?” And so he looked around and said, “The Womack Brothers.”
Tavis: But your daddy knew what he was doing, though, because he got you all together.
Womack: Yeah, he definitely – because he would always tell us, “I know I’m not going to be able to send y’all to college,” he said. “That’s out.” He said, “But you can sing your way out of here.” And I was saying, “Really?” And he said, “Yeah, you can sing your way out of here.” And we went on to – later in years went on to start singing secular music, and –
Tavis: I want to talk about that. For the true Bobby Womack fans, we know that before you really became the star that you are for your vocal talents, you were playing an instrument first.
Womack: Playing the guitar.
Tavis: Playing guitar.
Womack: Yeah, matter of fact, I started to bring my guitar today.
Tavis: I wish you had, man.
Womack: And I said, man, I knew I should have did that, because I saw somebody else with they guitars out there and I said, “Oh, now wait a minute.” (Laughter)
Tavis: Should have brought my guitar.
Womack: This is a different day. (Laughter)
Tavis: How did you – even though you were singing as a kid then, how did you make the transition from being such a great guitarist to being a great vocalist? When and where and how did that happen?
Womack: Well, I was singing. The vocals was already there and I was singing, but my father was a barber and he worked on the – when he didn’t work in the steel mill. And so somebody came to him and said, “I need a haircut but I can’t pay you. But I got a guitar,” and we got the guitar. So he took the guitar and I think he serviced the guy for a couple of months to pay it off.
And we started playing the guitar. And I didn’t even know that I had the guitar, because I’m left-handed, and I had the guitar upside down. (Laughter) And so I had learned a few chords – plus on top of that my father had already said, “Don’t ever touch this guitar. This is a very expensive instrument.”
So when he wasn’t looking, I’d – naturally being me, I touched the guitar. And when he would leave to go to work, like 6:00 in the morning, working in the steel mill, I would practice. And we had a thing that if you miss a note – you’d turn on the radio and if you play the song, as long as you could play the song without missing notes, you get the chance to keep the guitar longer.
And so I was sliding all the time, but I wasn’t giving the guitar up. And that’s how that came about. And then the rest, we just started to –
Tavis: The rest is history.
Womack: Yeah.
Tavis: So two things about that story – you can’t fade Black people. The ingenuity of teaching themselves how to play by listening to the radio and as long as you’re hitting the notes you get to keep playing, and this Negro playing the thing upside-down. (Laughter) You’re killing me.
Womack: I remember once when I joined – after Sam passed away and I joined Ray Charles playing guitar for him, and he was asking me, he said, “You don’t read?” Because they kept passing all of these notes, all of these books. And I said, “Oh, no, I don’t need that.” So, he said, “Well, have to play yourself, just me and you.”
And so we started playing and he said, “Man, that’s unbelievable.” He said, “Now, I’ve been on to Sam,” but he said, “I didn’t know you didn’t read.” And he said, “How do you know what’s coming?” I said, “I just slide into the chords.” He said, “Well, you ’bout a sliding ass.” (Laughter) Because I didn’t miss no notes and I remember that very well.
Tavis: I just slide my way in.
Womack: Yeah.
Tavis: Let me ask you right – I got a minute to go, I could talk to you all day. You’re one of the few people that heard that now-classic by your friend, your late, great friend, Sam Cooke, “Change is Gonna Come.” Sam called you and played it for you before it came up. We know it’s a classic now. What did you hear when you first heard that song?
Womack: When I first heard the song, he asked me what did I think about it and I said, “Man, this song feels like death.”
Tavis: Feels like death.
Womack: I said, “It feels -” the arrangement was so incredible, I said it just feels like something’s going to happen. So that’s when he said, “Well, something is going to happen. He said, “Change is going to come.” And we were laughing about it because I said, “Man, I can’t see a change coming.” And he said, “Well, I’ll never live to see it, I don’t think,” he said, “But you will.” And I said, “Yeah, but we can’t even stay in hotels now.”
I said, “We stay in motels.” And he said, “Motels?” He said, “Bobby, don’t you get it?” He said, “Well you get more tail when you’re in a motel.”
Tavis: That’s Sam Cooke. (Laughter)
Womack: And me being young, I said to myself, I said, “Well, I’m sure not getting none.” Because I was the youngest one in the group. (Laughter) And it was funny.
But, looking back on that and I say, 40-something years later “A Change is Gonna Come.” I say Father Time has a way of changing the time, and I say, “It’s now called ‘A Change Has Come.'” And if Sam’s listening, I say, “We got our first Black president, and his name is Barack Obama. Tell all the soul singers up there.”
Tavis: I can’t close any tighter than that, so I’m done. (Laughter) After I tell you that Bobby Womack, you got to get this and add it to your collection. “Bobby Womack, The Poet I & II,” all of the original hit recordings. I’m going to have to fight Raymond for this, but anyway I love you, Bobby Womack. Glad to have you here.
Womack: My pleasure, my pleasure.
Tavis: And congrats on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Womack: Okay, then.
Tavis: Good to see you.
Womack: You should come down.
Tavis: I may do that.
Womack: It’d be nice. I’ll be looking for you. (Laughter)
Tavis: You got a ticket for me?
Womack: Yeah, I’ll get a ticket.
Tavis: All right, I’ll work it out then.
Womack: I’ll get a ticket.
Tavis: See you in Cleveland.
Womack: Okay.


Last modified: June 27, 2014 at 10:47 pm