He’s relaunching his career after what amounts to a two-decade, self-imposed exile and he can’t get his doctor to cooperate. There’s so much to do, Womack says in a gravelly voice, which has aged like the most expensive single-malt whiskey. Yet his doctor has ordered him to shut down for nearly two weeks – an eternity for a restless man seeking a rare second act at age 68.
“Can I tell you the honest truth? I’ve been through a lot, more than I’ve ever been through in my life, in the last two months,” Womack says in a telephone interview from his Los Angeles home. “You know, I had prostate cancer, then they got rid of that and discovered I had colon cancer. Then after that my lungs completely shut down and they had to put me on a machine and I was out in a coma for 10 days. Then after that I had walking pneumonia – twice. So there’s only so much the body can take. I want to go back to work, but the doctor says, ‘Man, you’ve got to rest 10 days and not do NOTHING.’ He said, ‘Because we done lost you,’ and he said, ‘It’s a miracle you’re walking around.’“
And Womack can’t disagree, especially when you take the long view.
A gospel and soul singer, a songwriter and a guitar player with few peers, Womack is largely a forgotten figure today – but one who is getting a close re-examination. His new album, The Bravest Man in the Universe, was produced by Damon Albarn, and Womack has ambitious plans for a tour later this year – if his body and doctor cooperate.
His return is a welcome development for those who recognize his deep contributions to modern music – as Sam Cooke’s guitarist, the writer of the Rolling Stones’ first hit and someone who scored many of his own during his solo career. Some worried Womack might not have the same vitality that made him one of the most inspiring and imitated artists of his generation. And even Womack wondered sometimes. He admits to having seizures during his tour with Albarn’s Gorillaz several years ago and his health problems loomed large.
“Yet as so often is the case with Bobby,” said Mark Rowland, executive producer of the “Unsung” series, “he gets counted out over and over in different ways throughout his career, and yet he keeps coming back.”
The “Unsung” episode that aired in January on TV One featuring Womack was among the most watched and commented upon in the series.
“There’s so much to say about his music and there’s so much to say about his life,” Rowland said. “He’s had a life that’s really even more dramatic than some of the more dramatic aspects of the songs he’s written.”
Womack hopes for a little drama in the next chapter of his career and calls “Bravest Man” ‘‘a fresh start.” It’s his first collection of original material in 18 years – since he quit the life to save his life. He gave up music because he was addicted to drugs and alcohol. Drugs and music. Music and drugs. The two were so intrinsically entwined, he felt the only way to really quit one was to give up the other.
He released a few albums of others’ material during this hiatus, but it wasn’t until Albarn tapped him for his Gorillaz side project that Womack caught the fever again. The way he sees it, he’s carrying the torch for all those friends who fell victim to the lifestyle or were forgotten by time.
“I’ve got to represent some of the greatest soul singers that ever walked in life. I still feel that they don’t get their propers for what really happened,” he said. “Since I’ve outlived 90 percent of those people, I said, ‘Let me make a statement.’“
The Bravest Man in the Universe is a broadside at soul traditionalists looking for a recreation of something Womack might have dropped in the 1960s or ‘70s at the height of his influence. Programmed beats and electronic sounds skitter behind Womack’s voice and a smattering of traditional instruments, including piano and Womack’s guitar.
Richard Russell, Albarn’s co-producer on Bravest Man, thinks their work fits right into the spirit of Womack’s career. He calls it “organic and earthy.”
“I didn’t see what we were doing being in any way any type of radical departure from what he’s ever done before, and I’ve been quite surprised at some of the feedback to it which has suggested that it is that,” Russell said in a phone interview from London. “Bobby’s always made rhythmic records that have always been modern at the point he’s been doing them, right? Bobby’s never made retro records and there’s no reason why he should now.”
Womack entered the 2011 recording sessions for the album with an open mind and knew they’d be using programmed beats. But he admitted the recording style employed by Albarn, the Blur frontman, and Russell, the XL Recordings owner, took some getting used to.
The trio sat down together in the round, joined by Womack’s writing partner Harold Payne, and hammered out arrangements as they went. Womack worried they were moving too quickly, but says he loved the final product.
“As loooong as the most dominant thing is there and that’s your vocals and your lyrics – that’s your story – that’s all that matters,” Womack said. “Ain’t nobody going to be listening to who programmed the drums or who did the piano. They don’t care. They’re just listening to the basic song itself. And when you hear me sing, even if you’ve only heard me sing once, you know my voice.”