In the week he was due to play in London and headline Womad, XL Records boss Richard Russell remembers soul star Bobby Womack, who died on June 27 aged 70
My initial experiences with Bobby were as a fan. In the ’80s I used to listen to a DJ on Radio London called Robbie Vincent, who had a soul show. That was the first place I heard Bobby. His career had multiple phases. There was the ’70s phase, songs such as ‘Across 110th Street’, but he was also a big name in the ’80s. I got to know him through his big records at the time, which were ‘The Poet’ and ‘The Poet II’. That was the thing about Bobby: he kept coming back. I think he was very underestimated as an artist. He hadn’t just turned up once and done one thing; he done different things in different styles at different times and pulled it off.
Damon Albarn worked with Bobby on ‘Plastic Beach’ by Gorillaz. Bobby had gone on tour with him and they had a good relationship. When Damon was helping Bobby with his new album, he asked me to get involved, which is how ‘The Bravest Man In The Universe’ came to be released on XL in 2012. The idea was to just let him be himself. I think he appreciated that because he’d had tough experiences in the music industry, people saying things like, ‘You should be more like Marvin Gaye.’ People couldn’t quite put their finger on him. That’s the way with a lot of truly great people. They don’t make it easy for other people to understand them. He used to talk about conversations he’d had with Hendrix about being a misfit, about not fitting in to the narrow ideas in America about what music should be like. They both felt that coming to the UK helped them because they were accepted in a way they weren’t at home.
Bobby was a true rebel. His first group with his brothers, The Valentinos, were a gospel group. At a certain point they decided they wanted to make secular music, just R&B. His brothers convinced him to tell his dad. When he did, his dad gave him a sound beating and kicked him out of the house. Bobby and his brothers did it anyway. That says a lot about Bobby and his music. That is rebellion. He didn’t do what he was told. It’s an attitude that had been emulated by a lot of rock’n’roll musicians, not always convincingly, but Bobby was the real thing. He was about being authentic and doing what he wanted to do. He never tried to alter what he did to please other people, which is why I think he was misunderstood at times.
You could hear that spirit in his voice. Being in a studio with him and Damon, just the three of us, was incredible. Bobby’s voice was so amazing. It was undiminished. It still had all that power, but it was also more seasoned because he was older as well. It was a divine instrument. You don’t come across that expression of spirit very often. I don’t think there’s ever been anyone else like him.