Bobby Womack picks up the phone, and speaks what’s on his mind in a voice made of gravel.
“I know a lot of people who are not here anymore,” the R&B great says, “and I wonder why I’m still here. … Not a day goes by that I don’t think about Sam Cooke. His presence is so strong and so convincing to me, a true artist, a true talent, who never talked down to people. Being around the Sam Cookes and guys like that, how real they were, I didn’t realize how great they were until long after they left.”
Womack nearly didn’t make it either. The singer has battled drug addiction and diabetes for decades. This spring, he had surgery for cancer. But he’s back with one of the year’s best albums, “The Bravest Man in the Universe” (XL), coproduced by Damon Albarn of Blur and Gorillaz, and he has returned to the road, with an appearance Sunday in Chicago. He says his health is “OK – I want to take care of myself more than ever because I miss performing.”
Womack has packed several lifetimes of accomplishment and drama into his 68 years. From the Rolling Stones (for whom his “It’s All Over Now” became their first No. 1 hit in 1964) to Quentin Tarantino (who anchored his 1997 “Jackie Brown” movie soundtrack with Womack’s “Across 110th Street”), Womack has worked with, written for and inspired generations of artists (Jimi Hendrix, Chaka Khan, Aretha Franklin, Elvis Presley, for starters).
The Cleveland-born artist was all of 10 when he began his professional recording career in a gospel group with his brothers. They got the attention of Cooke, who signed the group to his label and eventually hired Womack as his guitarist. Three months after Cooke was shot and killed in 1964, Womack married his mentor’s widow, Barbara Campbell.
“Chicago is old stomping grounds for me,” Womack says. “(‘Soul Train’ founder) Don Cornelius used to bring me in, when they were very fearful of me because I married Sam’s wife. There were so many negative feelings about me. But I loved to sing so much, being young and naïve, all I thought I needed to do was come in and perform. If I’m a true entertainer I have to perform anywhere. It was a big thing for me to win over the crowd. (Dusties soul radio DJ) E. Rodney Jones would always bring me in. He said, ‘Bobby, you keep being you, they’ll join you.’
“One day in the 1970s, we had a big date at McCormick Place. That was great news. I got paid a nice price to come in, but the promoter came in and said, ‘We got bad news, your band had a bus wreck. Nobody got hurt, but all the instruments got torn up. We got to take our money back, or you got to go out and perform without them. It’s up to you.’ I had my acoustic guitar, so I started to perform by myself. I started to talk to the crowd like I’m talking to you on the phone. I played some songs I never recorded. I went into some of these songs, told jokes about me and Sam coming up. I walked off, got a standing ovation. It was a full house. I never forgot that.”
After spending much of the ‘60s and early ‘70s as a songwriter and in-demand session musician, working with everyone from Janis Joplin to Sly Stone, Womack flourished in the ‘70s as an R&B artist with a distinctively gritty voice that suited his tales of street life and domestic turmoil. A pair of ‘80s albums were entitled “The Poet” and “The Poet II,” a tip of his trademark boatsman’s cap to his facility as a lyricist and storyteller.
Drugs got the better of him in the ‘90s, however, and derailed his career – until Albarn called and invited the singer to record with Gorillaz for their “Plastic Beach” album, released in 2010.
“I never heard of Gorillaz, which I told Damon when he called me,” Womack says. “But he sent me some tapes of his music, everything they did over the past. My daughter walks into my office while I’m listening to their music and she says, ‘What are you doing listening to Gorillaz?’ She tells me they’re one of the hottest groups around. She didn‘t know about me working with Aretha, Janis, Jimi. But Gorillaz got her attention. I told her they wanted me to sing on a single they had coming out. She said, ‘Dad, that’s a break for you.’ But my break was being able to do what I wanted to do. Damon just wanted me to be me.”
Womack contributed to the album and was a featured performer on the subsequent Gorillaz tour. Albarn then invited the singer to make an entire album with him. He wanted to record Womack’s voice in a contemporary setting, a mix of electronic and acoustic instruments. XL President Richard Russell also was a key contributor on percussion, songwriting and production.
“I thought I’d have more keyboards, more instrumentation on the record, but there was just the three of us,” Womack says of the recording sessions last year. “It worked because the only thing that really mattered was my style, my sound. When the lead singer is doing what he’s supposed to, delivering his message, everything else is an accessory -- it’s there but it doesn’t dominate.”
One track, “Dayglo Reflections,” opens with a bit of dialogue from Cooke, speaking about how a singer’s perspective deepens as he grows older. Later in the track, the snippet is repeated, this time slowed down a bit, as if Cooke himself were aging before our ears.
“It was Damon’s idea to do that,” Womack says. “He is a genius himself. They had told me that particular day as we were cutting the album that my mom was sick, and that we should take the rest of the week off. But I said, ‘My mom would have a fit if I quit. I think I’ll just stay here and record.’ Damon started playing that Sam interview. What he was saying, it has the same impact today if not more. I thought I had to do this song, because Sam knew my mom, he practically raised me, so 50 years later I had to sing this song. I wanted to dedicate it to my mom. It couldn’t be better having Sam on there, talking about something that we talked about years ago, that I didn’t understand back then. But I sure do understand what he means now.”
Bobby Womack: 7 p.m. Sunday at Brilliant Corners of Popular Amusements Fall Showcase, Riverfront Theater, 650 W. Chicago, $30; ticketweb.com.Copyright © 2015, RedEye