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- Posted on Jun 5th 2008 5:00PM by Gaylord Fields
You've been creating music in one form or another for more than a half century. What keeps you in the game?
What's great about the music [is] it keeps you young. It's a spiritual blessing that every time I walk onstage I say, "Man, I feel so much younger. I wish I could stay up here forever." But you come off, you live the real life, you realize that you're getting older. You move at a slower pace, but the spirit makes you move at the pace that they want you to move at, and you enjoy it because you're feeding off the people, the people are feeding off of you, and everybody came for the reason -- to have a good time. I can remember very well going onstage and saying, "Oh, man, I got the flu, I'm probably gonna die of the wheeze," and as soon as they call my name, I became another Bobby Womack. I jumped onstage, man, and just was going crazy. Boy, that feeling will never leave. I say records and that stuff come and go, but the spirit lives on and it reminds you why you first chose the business. Because before I even had a record, I was able to go onstage and perform.
Do you consider yourself more of a performer than a recording artist?
I think it's a little bit of both, because all you do when you record, you're really going in telling a story if you write the song. And you're trying to get that message out with as less distraction as possible. And when you go onstage, you found out how many people heard the message because they're out there and they're responding. So you both have something in common. They giving it and I'm giving it. And we both getting off on it.
You come from a gospel background, and clearly that kind of spirituality has never left you. How did you personally and your soul music peers integrate gospel into soul?
Well, to be honest, that's going back to days that there were white people and there were black people. Black people sung with soul and feeling. White people didn't know nothing about that -- they just sung. And blacks taught them what that was about. Get into what you're saying. Get into yourself. If it's real, it'll come out. I listen today, and I say, boy, it's amazing ... I mean, you hear a guy and you want to know if he's white or black -- same with a female. But I know where they're coming from because I remember when that didn't exist.
A lot of white groups have done your songs: The Rolling Stones covered 'It's All Over Now' and J. Geils recorded 'Lookin' for a Love.' How do you feel about them having the hits with your music?
Today, I feel like that's a blessing. Because having a message get through, it gets through and it reaches people. And to be able to be a part of something that reaches the world, I say if it go from one hand to a messenger to another messenger, it's great. It's because it's doing God's will.
You're known for your deep friendship with Sam Cooke. How was it being so close to such an amazing performer, businessman and personality?
Well, that was the greatest experience for me because Sam was so loose and he was so real, and he wasn't into nothing but the music. He took me under his wing and taught me as much as he could teach me about performing, about writing, about just being able to relate. And he was able to do that if he walked into a room, not trying to. He just captured a whole room. And from watching him go through that, I used to always say, "Man, if somebody was on me every day, it would bug me." And he said, 'Well, when it bugs you, don't come outside."
He brought social consciousness into soul music with 'A Change Is Gonna Come.' How did that affect your own songwriting in regard to personal and political topics?
I've always been political. But it's amazing: To be honest, I thought at that time in my life, "Man, if I'm followin' him, I can't do nothin' about it. There's not enough people that matter do somethin' about it, and there's not enough of us that's gonna even get in politics to make a difference." But the world changes, and it took time to change, like 'A Change Is Gonna Come.' But the changes come, and when I look around and see Barack doing what he's doing -- and not just doing it, having people from all walks of life, from all colors, like rainbow, totally into him for real. It's been done before but nobody took it serious. And I said, "Man, today is a new day." I never thought I'd see that.
You can't underestimate how soul music has changed people's mind and prepared America for a phenomenon like Barack Obama.
I wrote songs that [are now] 40 years old, and different generations are still hearing it, because the truth never go out of style. It don't even need a face lift. It's just what it is, you know? I think we've got a positive way to go, and we on the right track. It's like Sam Cooke said many years ago: A change is gonna come. I say even he would be shocked if he was looking in on it. You talk about 40 years ago that song was cut, but I say the truth never go out of style. People just said, "Man, I want something different. I'm sick of hearing about politics." It's like they're telling you what you want to hear, and then make sure you don't get it. To be honest right now, it's at its worst on one end. And it's got a lot to do with the politics and who's in office , and they tell you what you wanna hear and make sure they do what they want to do. So, yeah, people are looking for the truth.
People might know you as a singer and a songwriter, but they might not know that you play guitar. These days, not as many black artists are picking up a guitar or getting behind a drum kit. Do you believe being an instrumentalist is important to creating music?
That's definitely an important thing as far as creating because when I have a dream, I can express that dream on a guitar -- the melody, the way it sounds. I mean, that's everything. And that's like your basic, it starts right there, and you start creating your chord changes, what kind of groove it's gonna be, whether it's gonna be medium, fast, slow. And then you come up with the lyric. You come up with the story, and it only enhances. You just take the subject and stretch it.
These days in the studio, you can take someone who can't sing and fix their notes with computers, and you've got a singer. How do you sit with all that technical wizardry?
Yeah, that scares me. I say if it's a studio, [I want] something old school. I want to see some musicians. I want to see somebody that comes in, and we all are building a house together, in a sense, rather than just my voice and the background comes, and I never see anybody. All I know is I see the track, and I'm lookin' at all these machines, and I say, where's the feeling? Where's the vibe? And there's some great things that come out of it, but ... just some things I'm never going to adjust to. I want to see who's playing what. And if I play most of the instruments, it's just a special feeling when it all comes together and it comes from people, not machines.
With these reissues of your catalog, people are getting another chance to see what you've accomplished in your amazing career.
And sometimes it gives you a chance to look back at it because, honestly, I never listen to my music. I perform it more than I listen to when I recorded it. At the time when I was working with all these people, I never knew that I was working with somebody famous. I just knew I was working with somebody who was going down the same road as I was. I took it as an opportunity to say, "Here's the guy that hears it this way. And here's the guy that hears it that way." But they hear it, and they express it from their ability, the best way they can. So you learn as you go along. But only now do I look back and say, "Man, I was with some of the most creative people I could ever think about. I didn't even know I was in it. I'm serious. I didn't know that they was gonna reach that path. I wasn't working with Jimi Hendrix because of the fact that he was gonna be famous. He was famous to me because he had his own style. And at that time, they was calling him a beatnik because he was so different and far-fetched from everybody else. And years later he became the godfather of rock and roll.
You have an interesting perspective: You've been a bandleader, singing up front, but you've also played with so many people.
Like I said, that's a lesson within itself. Sometimes we'd ride along in the car, and I'd say, "That guy sounds like me." And it is me! I'm serious. "Oh, man, I gotta get that record. What record was that?" By the time I got where I'm going, it's gone away. So it happens all the time, and I say, "Man, I was in the music business. I was everywhere" -- just the freedom of everywhere.
Is it fair to say you live music, that you breathe it?
Oh, yeah, yeah. It has to be a passion. It has to be something you do all the time. It's like, even I admit, I say when I first started playing guitar, I was playing to be the best guitar player that ever picked up one. And as I started to grow, I started to learn about writing. I wanted to write songs. Then the guitar became the second love, not the first, 'cause the first was saying, man, I have something to say and I can say it with my guitar, but the lyrics have to come from your heart and from you as a person. And it extends. It's like making love. It's like being with a person that you love to death. Forty years later they barely talk, but they still have something inside that say, "I'm still the same, I still love you." You don't have to tell them. You don't have to explain it to them every day. It's understood that we're in this together and we'll be together forever. Sometimes I think that's going out of style, but it still exists. The truth never go out of style.