TIME Music

Bobby Womack: A Passionate, Reckless Soul Man to the End

FILE: Bobby Womack Dies At 70
Echoes/Redferns/Getty Images Soul singer Bobby Womack in an undated portrait.

Just months before his death, the legendary singer of "Across 110th Street" told TIME about his life, lived as heartfelt and wild as his songs

It’s called soul music for the intensity with which its singers deliver a lyric: hearts on fire, the best seem to testify as they sing, wrenching their body when they perform, bellowing a message, funky and free. Bobby Womack was the quintessential soul man. The superb singer and songwriter, who wrote hit songs later put onto wax by the Rolling Stones, Janis Joplin and Wilson Pickett, and made a string of iconic R&B albums in the ’70s before having a career resurgence in recent years, lived his life with the same passion and, at times, reckless abandon that made him a dynamic musical force. He died last week at age 70.

“The only way you can create is you gotta be free,” Womack told TIME a few months before his passing. “That’s what you’ve gotta do to be in this business. You’ve got to be on fire.” His talent was always burning, but Womack, known for his gravelly voice and recurring bouts with cocaine abuse, never reached the commercial heights of his contemporaries like Marvin Gaye, Al Green and Otis Redding.

Born dirt-poor in Cleveland, in 1944, the third of five sons, Womack and his siblings formed the Womack Brothers — later renamed the Valentinos — a gospel-singing kiddie crew, in the ’50s. They found a mentor and champion in Sam Cooke, who inspired them to branch out into secular music; he later employed Womack as a guitarist in his band. “When I first started recording, I was just so loose,” Womack said of a fertile songwriting period in the early ’60s that spawned his first hit in “It’s All Over Now,” a 1964 chart-riser that got pushed to the side by the Stones’ cover. “I would just come up with an idea, and Sam Cooke would say, ‘What is that?’ And I’d say, ‘Oh, just something that I’ve just got.’ It just came to me out of nowhere.”

Record deals and solo chart success eluding him, Womack relocated to Memphis and backed up Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Dusty Springfield and Pickett before heading West to indulge in the excess of the budding Laurel Canyon music scene. He forged friendships with Joplin, Keith Richards, Ron Wood, Sly Stone and Frank Zappa. His drug consumption was heavy during this time. “I was really off into the drugs,” he told Rolling Stone in 1984. “Blowing as much coke as I could blow. And drinking. And smoking weed and taking pills. Doing that all day, staying up seven, eight days.”

“I was used to basically working by myself, answering to myself,” Womack explained, and this independent streak made him both successful and destructive in equal measure. In the early 1970s, Womack had a creative hot streak — the title track to the Womack-penned 1970 blaxploitation movie soundtrack Across 110th Street ranks among his finest work; his slow-grooving crossover hits during this period included “That’s the Way I Feel About Cha” and “Woman’s Gotta Have It.”

His personal life hit the rocks after his first marriage, in March 1965, to Sam Cooke’s widow, Barbara, just month’s after his mentor’s death. The union brought the disapproval of Cooke’s family and friends, but Womack went ahead and created a home with Barbara and her 12-year-old daughter with Cooke, Linda. Just five years later, Barbara discovered that Womack had been having an affair with Linda. She loaded a pistol, told him to get out of the house and took a shot at him; it grazed his scalp. They divorced later in 1970. He later married Regina Banks; they split up and then remarried in 2013.

“When it’s coming to you from nowhere for so many years,” Womack said of his knack for seeming bursts of creative inspiration, “believe it or not, it do get stale.” Aside from a hit single in “If You Think You’re Lonely Now,” off 1982’s acclaimed The Poet, Womack faded from the spotlight during the coming decades, a time most notable for his one-off collaborations and a trip to drug rehab.

Despite being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and cancer in the 2000s, Womack, who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009, re-emerged when U.K. rock singer Damon Albarn recruited him for work on the 2010 Gorillaz album, Plastic Beach. The pair, along with Richard Russell, head of XL Recordings, recorded Womack’s critically acclaimed comeback album, 2012’s The Bravest Man in the Universe. Its skittering electronic beats provided a fresh template for Womack’s still powerful vocals. “Damon would say, ‘I just want to get you in the raw,’” Womack remembered of the sessions in West London. “I would always argue with him: You need a couple instruments. He said, ‘I think your voice is what’s important and the message of your songs. Everything else is background.’”

In addition to a supposed in-the-works album, tentatively tilted The Best Is Yet to Come, with Stevie Wonder, Rod Stewart and Snoop Dogg, Womack said he and Albarn were planning to regroup in the studio at the end of this year to record a gospel album. “He was saying that he got a lot of response from the two gospel songs that was on the last album,” Womack said. “I wouldn’t have thought of it. He would say, ‘I just want to get you in the raw.’”

Womack is survived by Regina Banks and four children: Gina, Bobby Truth, Cory and Jordan. He died two weeks after playing the Bonnaroo festival in Tennessee.


TIME Music

Lykke Li Reveals Everything on New Album “I Never Learn”: Q&A

Josh Olins

The Scandinavian songbird on what it takes for her to make great art

Lykke Li emerged on the music scene six years ago as a mysterious, free-floating ingénue, all black eye shadow and delicate swoon, her dainty vocals breathing life into lyrics about loneliness and detachment over hand-claps and raging, almost tribal drums. In the time since, the now-28-year-old Swedish singer-songwriter has released a pair of critically acclaimed albums and steadily built a rabid fanbase as well as a a reputation as a mystical, mesmerizing performer.

Still, as she prepares to release her third album, the bare, heartbreaking I Never Learn — an album the singer views as the final installment in a trilogy of LPs chronicling the search for love — Li believes she must continue fighting for respect. “I will always be the underdog,” she tells TIME in a wide-ranging conversation that touches upon the songstress’ sonic left-turn of a new album, being unfairly labeled as a “pop” artist and the benefits of throwing back a few bottles of wine before performing.

TIME: Was it always your intention to have I Never Learn be the conclusion of a trilogy of albums?

It was. I signed a three-album [deal] when I was about 21. So I knew that I had embarked on this journey and that there was no turning around. I’m interested in a lot of different sounds and types of music. Instrumental music or voodoo music or purely singer-songwriter [material]. So, on this album, I was like, “I want to do something completely different.” But I felt like, “No, I have to finish what I started.”

What’s been the overarching theme of your first three albums?

I’ve been trying to chronicle a woman in her twenties and her search for love and herself. I think everything in life comes in threes: heartbreak and all that. You’ve got to do the full round in order to learn.

With I Never Learn now complete, can you move on?

Yeah. In a good way. I do think it just coincides with my age, too. I feel like a lot of people, when they turn 30, it’s like the beginning of another chapter. It’s symbiotic.

This album, though, is different than its predecessors. It’s so bare, and it’s some of your most personal and revealing material.

I’ve always been a person that is searching for truth and always wants to go further, deeper. So it’s just natural for me to try and go as deep as I possibly could. And strip away. It’s almost like you go hunting. The thing is, when I was writing it, I just did it for myself. I was feeling all of this. And I didn’t know any other way but to write about it. I didn’t think that anyone would ever hear it. I made a really private [album]. Also, the type of art that I can relate to and that’s changed me is the most revealing and personal. I think it always has to be personal if it’s going to be great. And if it’s going to be able to reach someone else you have to reveal part of yourself. I think what’s been probably the most hard thing is to do interviews, because I have a tendency [to be] real honest. And that can get a bit too much.

It must be hard to dissect your own craft.

It is really hard. But at the same time I have to stand for the art that I did. And I can’t start lying now. I made an agreement with myself to be as honest as I possibly could. It would be strange for me to start lying and say like ‘Oh, this song is about someone else.’ It’s almost like I only know how to be honest.

Being that your music is so singular, is it frustrating see it labeled “pop”?

I think any type of label frustrates me. It’s hard being labeled as a woman. But what I’m trying to do with my art is not label it. And search. Search for truth. Search for meaning. Search for the unexpected. Search for mystery. So yeah, it’s hard when people put you in a box, and all you try to do is break out of that box.

It’s doubly funny that your music is labeled as “pop” seeing that you grew up with no TV, no Internet, literally no pop culture references at all.

That’s the thing: it’s weird because whatever music I do it comes very naturally to me. It’s not like I’m trying to replicate something. I’m simply just following my intuition. And especially because growing up, I didn’t have anything: I hardly had any toys. I guess what that allowed me to do was it gave me a lot of imagination and freedom. And that’s what I always look for in life too. So that’s why it can be hard to live life because it can be so restricting, you know?

Touring can be also be a tough pill to swallow — especially given the fact that every night you’re performing such highly emotional songs.

The time onstage is very lovely. It’s a lovely thing to be dealing with real material. It’s almost like when you do a play by Tennessee Williams: the lighting is so pure and so great. So it is great material, you know? But I guess what’s difficult is the life around me. So that’s why it’s really important for me to have my band close to me and people that I trust and people that I’ve known for a long time. It can also help me to let off some steam after the show.

What puts you in a good headspace before performing?

Drinking three bottles of wine. My favorite thing in the world is to have just a big dinner with friends and just sit and talk about their life and their difficulties and all of that.

Are you able to get a firm grasp on your growing popularity as an artist?

Not at all! I’m so unaware of anything. I’m the exact same person that I’ve always been. And I have pretty much the same habits. And I have no idea if I’m popular or not. I will always be the underdog. Always a dreamer.

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