The Bravest Man In The Universe is Bobby Womack’s first album of original material in 18 years. It was co-produced by Damon Albarn and XL Recordings’ Richard Russell and recorded in three main sessions between October and December 2011. Two were in Damon’s Studio 13 in West London and the other was in New York’s Manhattan Center, which is situated above the legendary Hammerstein Ballroom. A few extra sessions were in London at the XL Studio and Richard’s own home studio. All ten tracks are co-written by the three plus Bobby’s longtime songwriting partner Harold Payne, except for radically rearranged spirituals “Deep River” and “Jubilee (Don’t Let Nobody Turn You Around).” There are striking vocal guest spots from Lana Del Rey on “Dayglo Reflection” and Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara on “Nothin’ Can Save You.”
A man whose talent as a singer, guitarist and composer is matched only by his self-lacerating honesty, Womack dismisses three albums he made at the turn of the millennium (a live album, a gospel album and a Christmas album) and sees his first album for XL Recordings as the first, real Bobby Womack album since 1994’s Resurrection. You see, for those three lost albums and his few live performances around that time, Bobby Womack wasn’t really there at all. “There was a Christmas album in 2000,” he recalls, dismissively, in a voice so dirty and cracked that it’s almost as musical as his singing voice. “But to be honest, I haven’t released an album in 18 years. I had given up on music. I didn’t have the desire that you have to have. I assumed that I’d stayed in the business too long… like an old fighter.”
Thankfully, Damon Albarn had other ideas. When he had the brainwave of tracking The Last Soul Man down and asking him to collaborate with Mos Def on “Stylo,” one of the finest tracks on the 2010 Gorillaz album Plastic Beach, he had his timing just right. Womack had been inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 2009, and had finally emerged from the long, painful aftermath of his addictions to cocaine and alcohol. The “Stylo” collaboration went so well that Womack also worked with Damon on “Cloud Of Unknowing” for Plastic Beach and later on “Bobby In Phoenix” which was released on the low-key Gorillaz travelogue album The Fall in December 2010. It was the beginning of a friendship, solidified by the 50 dates they spent touring together around the world in support of Plastic Beach and one fruitful enough to persuade Bobby Womack to get fully back into the ring, and come out fighting.
Says Damon, “It’s heaven to be able to listen to Bobby Womack sing. He hadn’t really been in the studio or performed for about 15 years and I think he thought he wasn’t going to bother again. But his fire has come back – and that’s a treat for everybody because the world with Bobby Womack in it is a richer place.”
The Bravest Man In The Universe is, in essence, an electronic secular gospel album. But boiling it down to those basics doesn’t convey the album’s power, nor get close to expressing the sheer joy of hearing one of soul’s greatest singers reaching for Heaven – and Hell – again, a sound Womack fans had never expected to hear aside from getting out battered copies of Communication, or the Across 110th Street soundtrack, or The Poet II.
Richard Russell and Damon Albarn were friends and became collaborators when Damon contributed keyboards to “Me And The Devil” from I’m New Here, the album Russell produced for Gil Scott-Heron. They had also both been part of a team of UK musicians and producers who traveled to the Democratic Republic Of Congo to work with Congolese musicians for the Warp label’s DRC project Kinshasa One Two, the 2011 album where profits went to Oxfam. “Damon was someone I knew and who I’ve always looked at as a really, really masterful maker of records,” Richard explains. “We’d found there was a good working vibe between us and that we have similar views about music making. He suggested that we make the Womack album together.” For Russell this was a dream come true. He had been a Womack fan since his days as a teenage soul boy. “The era of Bobby Womack that I got into was his ‘80s stuff. I used to listen to Tony Blackburn and Robbie Vincent on Radio London when I was a teenager, and the track that I got into him via was ‘I Wish He Didn’t Trust Me So Much,’ which was on the 1985 So Many Rivers album. I worked my way back to the ‘70s material. Some of those ‘80s records were quite programmed, and not that dissimilar to how we did The Bravest Man… Communication and Understanding are the two great albums from the ‘70s, but few R&B artists made the transition from ‘70s to ‘80s like Bobby.”
Womack’s life would make one hell of a movie. Born Robert Dwayne Womack in 1944 in Cleveland, Ohio, Bobby and his four brothers were inspired to form a vocal group, The Womack Brothers, by their gospel-singing father Friendly Womack. The boys made their first record when Bobby was just ten, and were eventually discovered by the legendary Sam Cooke, who changed their name to The Valentinos, signed them to his own SAR label, and also employed Bobby as his onstage guitarist. Just three months after his mentor was shot dead in December 1964, Bobby shocked the soul music establishment by marrying Cooke’s widow Barbara Campbell, a marriage that would last until 1970.
Meanwhile, The Rolling Stones had their first UK No.1 hit with a cover of Bobby’s “Its All Over Now” in 1964, beginning a working friendship between Womack and The Stones that would continue through tours, studio work with latter-day Stone Ronnie Wood, and a guest appearance as backing vocalist on The Stones’ 1986 cover of Bob & Earl’s “Harlem Shuffle.” But success as an artist in his own right was still some way off for Bobby in the mid-‘60s. He became an in-demand guitarist, playing on three of the greatest albums of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s: Aretha Franklin’s Lady Soul, Janis Joplin’s Pearl and There’s A Riot Goin’ On by Sly And The Family Stone. The latter, apart from being the deepest funk record ever made, was also an album made by a band on dark drugs. Sly Stone never entirely recovered from the netherworld it sonically depicted. But Bobby, despite being addicted to coke and alcohol, went on to his greatest successes as a solo artist. He scored big US R&B hits with ‘70s albums Communication, Understanding, Across 110th Street and Facts Of Life, and hit singles “Harry Hippie” and “Lookin’ For A Love,” while dealing with the violent demise of his brother Harry, who was stabbed to death in 1974.
Disco affected Womack’s career, as it did every soul original in the late ‘70s, before an extraordinary reinvention in the mid-‘80s with his trilogy of acclaimed albums The Poet, The Poet II and So Many Rivers. But as Bobby’s career waned in the late ‘80s onward, his addictions and demons grew stronger. Drugs made Womack difficult to work with, stormy marriages and relationships came and went, his son Vincent committed suicide. Sliding into semi-obscurity, Bobby finally kicked his habits in 1996, and holed up in semi-retirement in Los Angeles. “I had to get my personal life straight,” Bobby insists. “I was not happy with myself, so the first thing I did was cut out the drugs. Once I’d cut the drugs, it then took me 15 or 20 years to even think normal. Just wake up on the natural, not paranoid, not afraid. But if you put your body through Hell, you gotta go through Hell with it. I haven’t touched anything in 15 years. But I started when I was 21. It wasn’t an easy task to say no.”
But Bobby’s music began to revive itself, unaided by its maker. Quentin Tarantino used Bobby’s theme from Across 110th Street for his 1997 movie Jackie Brown, as Ridley Scott did a decade later for American Gangster. Bobby’s stunning version of The Mamas And The Papas’ “California Dreamin’” was used in an ad and as a major part of Andrea Arnold’s superb council estate drama Fish Tank in 2009. Journalists and soul fans continued to remind the world that Bobby had written or sung or played on records as enduring as “A Change Is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke, “Midnight Mover” by Wilson Pickett, “The Letter” by The Box Tops, “Son Of A Preacher Man” by Dusty Springfield and “Suspicious Minds” by Elvis Presley.
It was only a matter of time before an enterprising artist or two decided that working with Womack would be a good idea. Entirely fitting that it should be serial collaborator Albarn and the man who gave us Gil Scott-Heron’s last musical statement… although Richard Russell is keen to dismiss obvious comparisons between The Bravest Man… and Scott-Heron’s I’m New Here. “I cherish the work I did with Gil, but I’m New Here and The Bravest Man In The Universe are completely different, because Gil and Bobby are completely different people with very different outlooks on life. Also, the recording I did with Gil was quite fragmented and done over a long period of time, whereas we made this record with Bobby very quickly. It’s the result of a real outpouring of music and work which we then edited down to a ten-track album.”
Richard admits to some nerves in the build-up to The Bravest Man… sessions. “When you go into the studio with someone who has made some of the best soul records ever and worked with some of the soul greats, part of you is wondering whether you need to be deferential. It very quickly became apparent that we didn’t need to be. He knew that we wanted to make a record that was right for him. I like working with performers and artists and helping them to be them. But I’m also into the sonic side of it; texture, atmosphere, beats and basslines. Damon is a multi-instrumentalist and great player so we thought that, between us, we could provide anything that Bobby needed. We’d build the platform and Bobby would be the leader and the voice and the lead writer. In a way, we formed a band.”
Bobby Womack recalls the whole recording experience with something approaching delighted surprise. “It was like a big party – we had a great time. We were all full of ideas, and Damon being Damon… I’ve been mentally ill a long time, and Damon just got mentally ill so he can understand what I’m talking about. Haha! I love him. And I’ve never experienced anything like Richard Russell. He’s the President of XL, the record company, but he’s doing all the percussion and drum programming. I worked with Ahmet Ertegun, Tom Dowd, Jerry Wexler… some of the greatest record executives. But this guy really knows – not just about sound, but about the story of the record. He would drop one word in that could tell that whole story. So, we worked as a team.”
For Richard, one particularly happy surprise of the sessions was Bobby’s enthusiasm for experimental electronic music. Womack may be the last original soul man standing, but he was never a traditionalist, as anyone listening to the sonic architecture of There’s A Riot Goin’ On or The Poet will attest. “What was amazing about Bobby was that he was very open-minded. I went in with some sort of trepidation about whether he’d be open to using drum machines and synths and doing it in a non-traditional way. And he loved it. He actually pushed that side of it. It was Bobby who suggested slowing down the Sam Cooke sample in “Dayglo Reflection” the second time so that it sounds like the voice is getting older. It was a really good sonic instinct which had nothing to do with playing or singing.”
As far as Bobby’s concerned, those newfangled gadgets were just a key part of the spontaneity of the experience, helping him write and sing about subjects close to his heart. From pain and forgiveness to grief and love; from God, guilt and redemption to the TV evangelists that are the object of his ire on “Stupid,” a track preceded by a mordant Gil Scott-Heron joke. “The music is very fresh and very daring. There’s more electronics on it than anything else, but my voice makes it hold still and do what it’s supposed to do. When I get into it, the spirit comes in and electronics has to take a back seat. And the lyrics are so close to me. We’d talk about stuff, like war, for example, and laugh about other stuff, and then sit down and write a song about it.”
As the boss of the label, Richard Russell must have expectations for The Bravest Man In The Universe. And he does, of course. They are very simple. “I hope people hear Bobby, get excited by Bobby, realize how great he is and check out his old records. A lot more people should be aware of him. Bobby reckons this is his best album. The fact that he thinks that makes all of this a massive success.” “It is the best thing that I’ve done,” Bobby Womack confirms. “And for the first time I was straight as an arrow, so I could understand myself, and get right to the point.” He pauses, and thinks. The Bravest Man In The Universe is, after all, something unique. Few artists manage one truly classic phase in their career. But, if you include the ‘60s period where he was the most in-demand session man in American music – and one surely must – then Bobby Womack has already had three. What he says next makes it clear that the great man has the passion and energy, at the age of 68, to be thinking in terms of Classic Phase No. 4.
“It’s a step in another direction. I wanna grow.”