Bobby Womack has seen it all. He started his career in the '60s, collaborating first with Sam Cooke, then with everyone from Ray Charles to Aretha Franklin to Jimi Hendrix. His solo career took off in the '70s, and the material he released then has made an indelible, if underappreciated, mark on pop music. But after a few unsuccessful albums released in the '80s and '90s, and some time in rehab, Womack had all but given up on his life as an artist.
Thankfully, his talents did not go unnoticed by Damon Albarn, whose collaborative brain-children have included Blur, Gorillaz and The Good, The Bad and The Queen. After having Womack add guest vocals to a few Gorillaz tracks, Albarn approached the soul singer about doing a full-length album. Though apprehensive, Womack agreed to go into the studio.
"I didn't know what was going to happen. I hadn't picked up my guitar for a long time," Womack says. "Plus, I had walked away from drugs completely, so that's like a whole new life -- I found out I
couldn't fit in because all I knew was a bunch of druggies, whether they were musicians or what. ... They was too paranoid to be around me."
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Womack and Albarn settled into a comfortable collaborative relationship, which produced an album in record time.
"I've never cut an album this quick," Womack says. "What Damon Albarn would do, he would start playing a track and once he played that track I'd say, 'Man that sounds like me. I can do this.' And he said, 'OK, we'll do it' and I'd jump on the song and before I knew it, the song was finished. He had a nice way of approa-ching me. He let me do what I wanted to do. It was a creator talking to a creator -- the things that [I had been] afraid to try, I wasn't afraid to try with him."
And so the world now has "The Bravest Man in the Universe" -- Womack's first album of original material in more than 15 years, with featured collaborations with Lana Del Rey and Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara. Albarn's electro-beat imprint is apparent -- and will serve to draw new and younger listeners in -- but Womack's thoughtful soul is at the heart of the record.
"I love the fact that I have something to say," says Womack "And I'm going to say it. And I think the best way to say it is on this new album."
At 68, Womack has said goodbye to many of his former collaborators, but his new album is in part a tribute to them. Womack has recently struggled with colon and prostate cancer, and mortality weighs heavily on the singer today.
"I wonder what a lot of these artists would be thinking at the time of their death," he says. "They put me in charge and I feel like that -- the last old man standing. I say, let me say something to wake these people up to how fortunate they were to have the Wilson Picketts, the Sam Cookes, Ray Charleses and so many other superstars. They gave me the football, and I'm running with it."