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'Fresh Air' Remembers Soul Singer And Songwriter Bobby Womack


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Soul-singer and song-writer Bobby Womack died June 27 at age 70. Today we listen back to a 1999 interview with him. Womack started singing gospel with his brothers in the mid-1950s. They were discovered by the great soul-singer, Sam Cooke, who recorded them on his label. After recording several gospel albums, Cooke changed their name to The Valentinos and had them record secular music with Bobby singing lead.

The Valentinos had a hit with Bobby Womack's song, "It's All Over Now." The song was covered by The Rolling Stones and became their first international hit. Bobby Womack wrote and recorded several other songs that other singers did well with. Janis Joplin recorded "Trust In Me." J. Geils covered "Looking For A Love." Womack wrote several songs for Wilson Pickett, including "I'm A Midnight Mover." Womack wrote and recorded the title song from the 1972 film "Across 110th Street," which was also used in Quentin Tarantino's film, "Jackie Brown."

When I spoke with Bobby Womack, he had just released an album called "Back To My Roots." This is a track from it - Sam Cooke's song, "Stand By Me."


BOBBY WOMACK: (Singing) Oh, Father, you've been my friend. Now that I'm in trouble, stand by me 'til the end. Oh, Lord - oh, I need you to stand by me. Stand by me.

Well, all of my money and my friends are gone. Lord, I'm in a mean world. I'm so all alone. Oh, Lord - oh, I need you to stand by me - to stand by me. And another thing - they tell me that Samson lived in ancient times. I know that you helped him kill 10,000 Philistines.

Oh, Lord - oh, I need you to stand by me. Stand by me.


GROSS: That's Bobby Womack from his new CD, "Back To My Roots" - a CD of gospel music. Bobby Womack, welcome to FRESH AIR. It's a pleasure to have you here.

BOBBY WOMACK: It's a pleasure to be here.

GROSS: Tell me why you're recording gospel again. I think this is the first time since the very start of your career.

WOMACK: It's because I think most artists and most people, in general, forget their roots. And if you don't have a root, you don't know where you started. You don't know where you're going. You don't know where you've been. You know? So you have to start all over again. And I found myself getting lost in the shuffle and moving at such a pace being in this so-called showbiz - you know? - that you lose your direction. And you got to stand for something, or you'll fall for anything.

And so I went back to my roots. I always said I want to go back to when I sung, and it was innocent. They used to pay us out of a frying pan. It wasn't about how much money you made, how many hits you had. It didn't matter. People was trying to survive, and they - we showed them that we were disciples for God.

And we traveled all over the world with people like Soulsters - Sam was a Soulsters - Five Blind Boys - which was my favorite - and Swan Silvertones, Caravans, crews like Staple Singers. We all traveled together. And we were paving the road when Kirk Franklin was getting diapers.

GROSS: The song that we just heard you sing was written by Sam Cooke, who, basically, discovered you and your brothers and was the first to record you and give you a big break. Before we talk about that, tell me about the first time you heard him sing in church. And I think this was in the early 1950s.

WOMACK: Yeah. It was in the early 1950s. He had just joined the Soulsters. And it was strange because the guy that was this lead singer of the Soulsters, R. H. Harris, was - Sam idolized and worshiped the ground he walked on. And that's who he was trying to sing like. So R. H. Harris started to give him voice lessons and work with him.

But R. H. Harris was like Rudolph Valentino. He had a woman in every city, and every city, he also had kids. So it got to a point for child support - he couldn't perform anywhere because they would pick him up and take him off the stage. So it was really weird. So he says I can't go out anymore.

I don't know why he was able to stay in Chicago. Would it be because he didn't have no kids there? But anyway, he got Sam.

Sam was 16, 17, and he said this guy's got to replace me because I'm hurting the group. And Sam came in and took over. He took over so fast that it seemed like the people forgot about Harris. And Sam came to Cleveland, performed with the Soulsters. And we were trying to get our break. In other words, if we could open up for the Soulsters, at that time, was like opening up for the Rolling Stones.

And all of the old guys in the group says, oh, no, let him come back when they grow up. We're professionals. And you guys, you all are nice. That's cute, but this ain't no place for kids. And Sam said what do you mean no place for kids? He says it's going to be a place today. And not only that, I want your mom to find the biggest purse she possibly can find. And we ain't singing 'til they all take up an offering for them. And I never forgot that.

GROSS: You once said that the first time you saw him perform in church, it's, like, he's fixing his hair in the middle of the concert. And women are going crazy.

WOMACK: Oh, yeah. He would be - he would sing (singing) wonderful - God is so wonderful. And he would just - I said look at this guy. Women are going crazy. It was just like a rock and roll show.

So the older people didn't like it. They'd say we don't think that they should play with God like this. I said, look, the bible said make a joyful noise. You don't have to be under some spell to shout or cry and jump up and down. I think it's great to see kids dancing off records, whatever.

If they're dancing, they're respecting God. And they showing him their love. So that's what it's all about. So the gospel is the truth. You just have to broaden the scope of it, and they can go as far as you let it go.

GROSS: Well, Sam Cooke not only let you sing when he performed, he later signed you and your brothers to his recording label and produced you for singing gospel, but, then, singing rhythm and blues. Now, Sam Cooke, I think was an inspiration to a lot of gospel singers because he crossed over from gospel to pop and made it really big.

WOMACK: And everybody was afraid to do that. Even Sam was afraid to do it.

GROSS: How'd you feel about making that transition?

WOMACK: I was scared to death because everybody was constantly saying Sam is not going to have any good luck because he sold himself out to the devil. And he was singing for God, now he's worshiping the devil. So that's the way we were taught.

And I was watching Sam. When is something going to happen to him? You know. And as soon as he had a car wreck, that was a warning. Then someone else happened. They said God's punishing him. I said I don't know that kind of God. Those things just happen.

And, tragically, I mean, sorrily, he did leave here on a death you would never expect. But today, I mean, you could be walking down the street and somebody shoot you for snoring or talking to yourself. You know, so it's crazy, but it was - then - that was, like - Sam wasn't a violent kind of person. And he died of a bullet being shot by a woman.

GROSS: Your father sang gospel. He sang with a group called Voices Of Love. How did he feel when you and your brothers started recording rhythm and blues?

WOMACK: He was very, very hurt. It broke his spirit. I remember he was so hurt that he told us, he said, all of you guys got to leave this house. You got to get out. You're not going to sing it in here. So he put us out.

We all - I quit school when I was about 16. And Harry was 14, and he quit. Cecil was 13, and he quit. And my other two brothers had finished. And so we told Sam, he put us out. He said where you at? I said we're standing on the corner. And he says, oh, God, man, I didn't want to cause that kind of problem. But he knew because his father was a preacher.

He said I know what you're going through. He said I just hate this responsibility. He said do you all know how to drive? I said I got temporary license, and my oldest brother got a license. He said, OK, I'm going to send you some money to buy a car. And you all get on Route 66, and do not get off Route 66 until you get to California.

GROSS: Is that what you did?

WOMACK: I was supposed to go buy a new Chevy Station Wagon, but all of the hustlers and the pimps and the fast-street people had the big Cadillacs. I said I can't buy no Cadillac with this car and go to California too. So I told my brothers, instead of getting a new car, let's get this old

Cadillac. It looks good.

GROSS: (Laughing).

WOMACK: So they say, come on, Bob. Let's do what he asked us. I said, no, let's get this Cadillac. I said the Cadillac only costs $600. We've got $2,700 left. You know. And they said OK. So we bought this Cadillac. And the first thing I wanted to do is drive back on the school grounds and talk to my history teacher who always told me I would be nothing.

He said you're not going to be nothing but a janitor. You're always talking about you all going - we used to go sing. And my father would drop us out the next morning. We'd come from Florida. He'd drop us out right in front of the school, and we're already an hour late.

And we're running and trying to get into school. And the kids were laughing, but he would always make a joke. Womack, go to the board. Who invented the cotton gin or something question like - I'm looking for some girl to tell me. Help me, please, you know.

I had to write it 5,000 times. And he was always - so this guy - his name was Mr. Washington. I said I got to drive back. Before I go anywhere, I drove on the school grounds, and blow my horn. Everybody came running to the window. It's Womack. I said, yeah, that's where I got my start - got me a Caddy. You know. So he kept telling the kids, get away from the window.

And the strangest thing happened. The car cut off and would not start. And, man, I'm praying to God, Jesus, please let this car start. I just want to get off the school grounds. He said I'm going to call the police if you don't move the car. And it finally cranked up. And I got it home.

We left that night going to - on our way to California. My mother was crying. She was worried. She packed us a big lunch. My father probably was sorry to hear he pushed it to that point, but he was a very stubborn man. He wasn't the kind of guy to give in. So he says - he didn't say anything. We took off driving.

GROSS: Well, so you finally made it to Hollywood in this really bum car that you spent your money on.

WOMACK: It was bum. Oh, man, the car was terrible.

GROSS: ...And hooked up with Sam Cooke.

WOMACK: Exactly.

GROSS: Now, before we hear something that you recorded with your brothers, produced by Sam Cooke, I want to just backtrack a second, and play something that you recorded with your father. Since we were talking about him and his reaction to your crossover.

WOMACK: I hope you play the song that I think you going to play.

GROSS: "Tarnished Rings" from 1976.

WOMACK: Yeah, that's a great song.

GROSS: This is a great recording.

WOMACK: Great song - and I heard his voice the other day, I - it scared me to death because I drive his car right now.

GROSS: No, really?

WOMACK: That's my favorite automobile. It's a 1974 Buick, just like it was when he drove it off the floor. And that was the car I purchased for him that he said, if you ever do anything, and you ever make it out there, he said, you can buy me a deuce and a quarter.

So I said a deuce and a quarter - I didn't know what a deuce and a quarter was. I said, yeah, I'll get that for you, pop. But when I did make the - my first piece of money, I said, I'm going to get my father that deuce and a quarter. And I asked somebody what is a deuce and a quarter? They said you must be from back east. They said that's a Buick. I said is that what he wanted, a Buick and not a Cadillac? No, he wants the Buick.

So he had that Buick, and he would never let me trade it in. So when he passed away, I restored the car to its original - just the way it was originally. And I drive it all the time. It feels like when I start it up, he starts up.

GROSS: Right, when did he pass?

WOMACK: And so the other day, that song - I forgot I had a CD put in it. And that song just came on (singing) tarnished rings - scared me to death. I thought my father was in the car. I said, oh, my God.

GROSS: Well, let's hear "Tarnished Rings," recorded in 1976. This is my guest Bobby Womack with his father, Friendly Womack Sr.


WOMACK: (Singing) You know, people always ask me - they say, Bobby, where did you learn how to sing like that? Well, I think I'll let you in on a little something extra. I want you to hear my father sing this beautiful song...

FRIENDLY WOMACK SR: (Singing) Well, I seen a ring that never raised a finger. Dime store trinkets made of glass and tin. And how we cling - faded dreams that linger. Fancying depends - can I live again? Tarnished ring - imitation jewelry. Foolish things I can not leave behind.

WOMACK: (Singing) All right, dad, my turn. For this ring, I never touch that jewelry. Always bring you back into my mind. When I was young, I thought all...

GROSS: That's Bobby Womack and his father, Friendly Womack Sr., recorded in 1976. Let's pick up where Sam Cooke had signed you and your brothers. And after recording a few gospel sides, you started to do rhythm and blues. You were, you know, performing, I think, onstage with people like Sam Cooke. I think The Valentinos opened for James Brown, didn't you?

WOMACK: Yeah, we opened for James Brown. We opened for Solomon Burke. We opened for The Falcons, who had Wilson Pickett as their lead singer at the time - and Eddie Floyd.

GROSS: Now this must have been something different for you than singing in the church.

WOMACK: Well, it was different because the women could come in mini dresses and whatever. And you didn't have pretty women backstage in church. You know. They caught the service, then they went home. But then I could take them home.

GROSS: Did you go wild?

WOMACK: Did I go wild? They called me Wild Bill Hickok. Yeah, but I'll tell you - and something - when you first get it, I mean, you're basically saying 70 percent of the audience is women. But after being in it for 10 years, you adjust. And you find out this is going to be happening every night. You know. You better get used to it.

GROSS: We're listening back to a 1999 interview with soul singer and songwriter, Bobby Womack. He died two weeks ago. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: Let's get back to my 1999 interview with soul singer and songwriter Bobby Womack. He died two weeks ago at the age of 70.


GROSS: I'd like to play what's probably the best-known song from the early part of your career. There's a song you co-wrote. It's called "It's All Over Now," which was covered by the Rolling Stones after you recorded it....

WOMACK: They just did a commercial on that again. Yeah.

GROSS: Well, tell me a little bit about writing the song. Do you remember writing it?

WOMACK: I remember I had an uncle. His name was Uncle Wes. That was my father's youngest brother, and he was in love with this woman named Betty Jo. But Betty Jo was going to church with him and Dad all the time. And she was a pretty lady. And one day she just said, enough is enough. And she started going to night clubs and hanging out, and she used to wear these long dresses, and then she took a dress up to past her knees. Uncle Wes could not control it, so every weekend, he didn't know where she was. Nobody knew where she was. They knew she was out having a good time. And she come in - but he be talking about, I'm leaving Betty. This it. No, it's all over now. I swear it's all over now. Soon as Betty Jo came in the house, (whispering) what's Uncle Wes - what's he going to do? She come in there, and she say, how you doing, honey? He say no, no, no - you got to get - I got your bags packed. She said, come here a minute. She'd take him in the other room.

We never understood what happened, but he'd go in that room, he never came out. I didn't know if they were dead, but the next morning, he'd be unpacking her bags. We said, Uncle Wes, you fell for it. So I said, next week when she go out this week, don't go in the room with her.


WOMACK: You got to fight. Hold on to the couch. We'll help you. He kept saying, you don't understand. I said no, no, no, no, no. I understand, just don't go in that room. So the same thing applied again the next week. She'd say, come here, Wes. And so he'd be coming, no, it's all over now. So that's how the song came about. (Singing) But I used to love her, but it's all over now. And that - I didn't know about because I wasn't too young to fall in love - I was 15, I wrote the song. But just thinking about - that's where the song came from.

GROSS: Well, let's hear "It's All Over Now," recorded by the Valentinos, which is the Womack Brothers.

WOMACK: The Womack Brothers.

GROSS: My guest Bobby...

WOMACK: That's what they used to call us in church. The Womack boys.

GROSS: My guest Bobby Womack is singing lead on this 1964 recording.


WOMACK: (Singing) Well, baby used to stay out all night long. She made me cry, she did me wrong. She hurt my eyes open, that's no lie. Tables turn and now it's her turn to cry. Because I used to love her, but it's all over now. Because I used to love her, but it's all over now.

GROSS: That's Bobby Womack and his brothers, who were known then as the Valentinos, recorded in 1964. So what was your reaction when you found out that the Rolling Stones wanted to record your song?

WOMACK: I was very upset.

GROSS: Why were you upset?

WOMACK: It's because, as far as I can remember, that every time a black artist came out with a song - you know, segregation was everywhere, it was in music and everything - so they would say, we can't let that record be played on pop stations, which are white stations. So we would get a Pat Boone, somebody to take the same song and sing it, which the white audience never knew it was sung by a black artist - the same with Elvis Presley songs. You know, it was written by a lot of black artists and sung by most black artists and there were hits on the black side of town. On the white side of town, it was a whole different thing. So when Sam came to me and said, Bobby, it's a group called the Rolling Stones. And I say, yeah, that's nice, I hope they keep rolling. He said, no, what I'm trying to tell you, he said, they like your song and they want to sing your song, they want to record it. And I said, man, let them get their own song. I don't want them to sing my song. He said you don't understand, they're going to be huge. He said, Bobby, the Rolling Stones coming, whether you like it or not. And he said, plus, I own the publishing. He said, I'm trying to tell you that this is going to be a career move for you. I said, yeah, but, man, this is our first break.

GROSS: Did you like their version of it?

WOMACK: Well, I didn't like their version 'cause I didn't think Mick Jagger - and to this day I say Mick Jagger can't outsing me. You know, but, when I saw that first royalty check, I liked their version.

GROSS: Right.

WOMACK: Much. I said, good God all mighty. I said, man, I could go back and buy Cleveland.

GROSS: Let me ask you...

WOMACK: So I've been chasing them for the past 30 years saying just do one more song. If ya'all do one more song, man, I can retire. (inaudible) He said, Bobby, you started us to writing. Because Andrew Odom (ph) says Bobby when you put that song - I tell myself you want to be the Beatles, you can't keep taking songs from other people. You've got to start writing your own songs. But he said, you can't write. But he says, yes, you can - you can write. And he was the sixth stone, really.

GROSS: We'll hear more of my 1999 interview with Bobby Womack in the second half of the show. He died June 27 at the age of 70. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview I recorded with soul singer and songwriter Bobby Womack in 1999. He died June 27 at the age of 70. He started off singing gospel music with his brothers. Sam Cooke discovered them and recorded them on his label. He changed their name to the Valentinos and started recording them doing R&B with Bobby Womack singing lead. Womack's best-known songs include "It's All Over Now," which the Rolling Stones covered, "Trust in Me," which Janis Joplin recorded, "I'm A Midnight Mover," which he wrote for Wilson Pickett, and "Across 110th Street," the theme from the 1972 film of the same name.


GROSS: I want to play another song that you and your brothers recorded during the Valentinos era, and this is "Looking For A Love." And...

WOMACK: J. Geils Band covered that.

GROSS: Yeah, they covered that one - had a big hit. Now, you've recorded this...

WOMACK: I'm going to write a song called, "Cover Me."

GROSS: (Laughing) You recorded this twice in your career - once in the '60s with your brothers and once in 1974 - solo. And because I'm a swell person, I'm going to ask you to decide which you'd rather hear.

WOMACK: I'd like to hear the version with the Valentino's 'cause I actually was just copying them - I learned to copy people, too. I was copying my brothers - right? - I was covering them.

GROSS: You covered your own song. OK. So this is Bobby Womack with his brothers as the Valentinos - "Looking For A Love."


VALENTINOS: (Singing) I'm looking for a love. I'm looking for a love - I'm looking for a love. I'm looking for a love - looking for a love. I'm looking for a love. Well, now - I'm looking here and there, and I'm searching everywhere, and I'm look- I'm look - I'm look - I'm look - I'm looking for a love. Oh -I'm looking for a love. I'm looking for a love. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah - I'm looking for a love. Well, now - oh - I'm looking here and there. I'm searching everywhere. And I'm look - I'm look - I'm look - I'm look - I'm looking for a love - Yeah, someone to get up in the morning.

GROSS: Now, that session was produced for Sam Cooke's record label. Sam Cooke was killed - shot and killed in 1964, and I know that changed your life in every way. I mean, he was your close friend...


GROSS: Your close musical associate. And then you became - you and - became part - part of his family, in a way.

WOMACK: Yeah, I - I married - I married Sam's wife. A lot of people - I mean, I think I must have invented the tabloids 'cause, I mean, they ate me alive. They used to call me the boy that married Sam Cooke's wife. And I was saying , I've got to cut some hit records now 'cause I want my name back - Bobby Womack. And I figured the only way I could take that was through song. You know, it was trying to compare me with Sam, and I wasn't Sam. And I still say today - I'm 55. I was 19 when I married her - that I married her because I saw a move going down where it was separation between the two. Sam played around a lot. They - people talked and said, don't let her know the business. Don't let her know anything. But she'd be the first one to divorce you - you'll be broke. Let us keep the money up here - and this kind of thing. And I said, well - and he used to always say - I said Sam, why don't you get a will. And he said, will? He says, Bob - he said, Bob, if I made up a will, my wife would kill me. He said, I'm scared. I have to play around. I love women. And that's just my nature. That's just part of me. So he said, but if I should die - he said, bury me deep and put two women on each side of me. And he would always laugh. And I said, I don't find that funny, man. I think - but - here's a guy - I mean, I'm 19 and Sam was about 30, you know. And so he thought it was funny. He said, I'll tell you what - you be my will. If something happen to me, you take care of my family. And he would joke like that, but I took him very seriously. So as soon as that happened, I started being a detective, walking around saying hey, I know where the money's at. I know what bank it's in. I know this is this, and he also owned this. He owned that? What is the publishing? And I told her the publishing. So...

GROSS: So you're saying you didn't feel like you were betraying him in any way?

WOMACK: No, I wasn't betraying him. In my mind, I was doing just what he would have done if he was here. And I said, I will make sure that she's in a position. I told her - I said, I don't love you. She said - she's the one that said - it was like "The Graduate" - she said, marry me. I didn't know her like that. But I knew how he felt about her family, regardless what a man do, you know. I mean, he would've died a thousand times before he thought that came out. But he couldn't protect himself because he got killed. And I said, it's all over the headlines. And - and they put it in the worst way.

GROSS: Now, you were also really well-known as a session guitarist in the '60s and '70s. And I want to get to an example of your session work and a very kind of famous wah-wah guitar line that you played for Sly and the Family Stone's recording "Family Affair." Where did you learn to play wah-wah guitar?

WOMACK: Well, I just - I play upside down. I'm a left handed guitar player. My father was a guitar player, and I learned how to play - I taught myself. And I'm going to make it real short. I'm not going to deviate. I'm not going to talk a long time. You won't have to edit me - that's it.

GROSS: (Laughing) The end.

WOMACK: (Laughing) That's the end.

GROSS: All right.

WOMACK: (Laughing) That's a good one. I'm good for me.

GROSS: Now, I know you knew Jimi Hendrix. Did he teach you anything, guitar wise?

WOMACK: No because we both had two different styles - even though he was a left-handed guitar player, too. We - Jimi was a very gentle guy - very gentle and wanted to help everybody, was easy - I mean, Jimi would walk around a roach. And normally, you see a roach crawl and you just step on it. You know, he was just a nice guy. Jimi played different. He played - he could play the way I played, but he also had his style. His style was hard-driving. He used to stand up to the - I remember when he used to set his little guitar on fire he had bought at Sears and Roebuck. And then he would jump on it with a blanket and put it out. By the end of the week, he'd keep doing it to the guitar - it looked like somebody tried to barbecue it. And he said, one day - he said, one day, I'm going to have me a line of guitars. He'd say, I just get so - I get so engrossed by them, and I climax, And I want to climax so much. I just want to - after the guitars on fire, I want to cut it and burn it. And then, after I get through burning it, break it up and bust it all over the stage and walk off.

GROSS: Did you think he was crazy, doing that to his guitar?

WOMACK: Well 'cause I've been in show business, I just figured, he's just coming from another angle.

GROSS: Right.

WOMACK: I thought he was different. And I said, well, he's weird. I said, I would never put my - set no match to my guitar.

GROSS: Well, let's hear...

WOMACK: But, now he had so many guitars, he finally did work it out where he could just burn them every night.

GROSS: Well, let's hear you on guitar - wah-wah guitar - on this recording of Sly and the Family Stone's "Family Affair"


SLY AND THE FAMILY STONE: (Singing) It's a family affair. It's a family affair. It's a family affair. It's a family affair. One child grows up to be somebody that just loves to learn - yeah. Another child grows up to be somebody you just love to burn. Mom loves the both of them. You see, it's in the blood. Both kids are good to mom. Blood's thicker than the mud. It's a family affair. It's a family affair. It's a family affair. It's a family affair. Newly wed a year ago. But you're still checking each other out, hey. Nobody wants to blow. Nobody wants to be left out. You can't leave 'cause your heart is there...

GROSS: That was Bobby Womack on guitar. Now, tell me - you know, wah wah guitar ended up sounding so dated after a while. Like, was there - was there a time when you said, OK, it's over for this style of playing? (Laughing) I'm not going to do it anymore.

WOMACK: The guy that had the name for wah-wah guitar was a guy whose name was Wah Wah. And he played wah-wah on everything. I just played wah-wah on that song because I was trying to create something. Somebody said, hey, Sly's never used a wah-wah. I put the wah-wah on it. And we was in the studio, and we were just, like, hanging out. And it came out that way. But I didn't play wah-wah on everything. I didn't even like it. I liked it on that song 'cause it just sort of fit with the grace notes that he was playing on keyboards.

GROSS: Well, it certainly adds to how memorable the song is.

WOMACK: But during those days, Wah Wah played on all The Temptations stuff. His name was Wah Wah Watson. And he was the wah-wah king. And I said, one day, they're going to not need your pedals. They're going to be sick of that wah-wah-wah-wah wah-wah-wah. And he used to laugh. And, sure, the day came.

GROSS: We're listening back to a 1999 interview with soul singer and songwriter Bobby Womack. He died June 27. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: Let's get back to my 1999 interview with soul singer and songwriter Bobby Womack. He died two weeks ago at the age of 70.


GROSS: Now I want to move on to another of your many great records, and this is "Across 110th Street," which you wrote as the theme for the movie of the same name which starred Anthony Quinn and Yaphet Kotto. And this was one of, like, the great action films of the early '70s. How much of the movie had you seen before you had to write the theme song for it?

WOMACK: I saw the movie all the way through one time.

GROSS: Did you like it?

WOMACK: I love the movie but I thought that the company really didn't want to let me do the - and I was getting ready to go on tour the very next day - they said you've got to have the score done in two weeks. You know, and that's - but I couldn't - but what they didn't know is that that whole story was about something I lived all my life, the ghetto. So I said I could write this song and just keep elaborating on it and do other songs without ever seeing the movie again because everybody told me they should have given you TV, edited version down so you could look at it, and you could set the song tones to. You know, I didn't get a chance to do that and plus when you're touring and hitting one-nighters every night, I was surprised that I came off with what I did. And I had to record it - all this in two weeks. I went to Muscle Shoals and cut everything and got the tape back, and the guy said that's incredible. Boy, if we would have given him the time that he needed, no telling what would happen. I said probably the same thing.

GROSS: No, I'm not sure it would've gotten better in this.

WOMACK: No, I don't think it would've gotten better because I think you - I'm better when I'm under pressure.

GROSS: Let's hear your recording of "Across 110th Street."


WOMACK: (Singing) I was the third brother of five doing whatever I had to do to survive. I'm not saying what I did was alright. Trying to break out of the ghetto was a day to day fight. Been down so long, getting up didn't cross my mind. But I knew there was a better way of life, and I was just trying to find - you don't know what you'll do until you're put under pressure. Across 110th street is a hell of a tester. Across 110th street, pimps trying to catch a woman that's weak. Across 110th street, pushers won't let the junkie go free. Across 110th street, woman trying to catch a trick on the street - ooh, baby. Across 110th street, you can find it all in the street.

GROSS: That's Bobby Womack's theme from "Across 110th Street." You must have been pleased when Quentin Tarantino used this in "Jackie Brown" to open the film.

WOMACK: Yeah, because, you know, I used to date Pam Grier.

GROSS: Oh, wow.

WOMACK: That was Rosey Grier's - ex-Ram - that's his niece. And so he introduced me to her after me and Barbara divorced. And he says, hey man, she's a beautiful girl. And she was saying, I'm going to be a star. And she was real wild, but she was real positive. I mean she would get anywhere, and anything she wanted to do, Pam Grier found a way. So I had her singing on "Across 110th Street," and that song would bring us both back. And at the end, I snuck in the movie to see it and I was, like, just knocked out. I couldn't even - there was - it was a standing room with nowhere to sit. I sit on the floor. And so I was listening. At the end, she walked away and got in a car that was the same car I drove when we dated each other 20-something years ago.

GROSS: You mean the same model or the same identical car?

WOMACK: Same model. Same model.

GROSS: Oh, OK. Wow.

WOMACK: Identical to the car - and she drove away with all the money singing "Across 110th Street." And I said isn't that incredible? There was tears in my eyes. And then I start thinking, boy I sure wish I could be in that car with her. She got all that money. Where would we be going? So the only thing - I wasn't in the car.

GROSS: Well, Bobby Womack, now that we've heard several of the many songs that you've written over the years, I thought we could listen to your cover of a very famous song. And I think I'll surprise our listeners with what it is.


WOMACK: (Singing) The loveliness of Paris seems somehow sadly gay. The glory that was Rome is now yesterday. I've been terribly alone and forgotten in Manhattan, but I'm going home to my city by the bay. I left my heart in in San Frasncisco. High on a hill, it calls to me to be where little cable cars climb halfway to the stars. The morning fog may chill the air. No, I don't care. My love waits there. That's why I got to go - to San Francisco, by the blue and windy, windy, windy, windy sea. When I come home to you baby, San Francisco, your golden sun has got to got to shine for me.

GROSS: What inspired you to record "I Left My Heart in San Francisco?"

WOMACK: Well, I had the (singing) fly me to the moon. But, I did it up-tempo. And when I met Tony Bennett, I was teasing him about it. I said who wants to fly slow? I said (singing) fly me to the moon and let me play among the stars. I said, but - (singing) and fly, dah, dah, dah, da, dit, dit, dit, dit. So it was the same thing. It was taking songs way before disco ever came in and giving them what you call it a facelift. I took fly - I took San Francisco - "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" and took it up-tempo.

GROSS: And what did Tony Bennett think of your recording? Did he hear it?

WOMACK: He loved it. I ran into him in the theater. And I had been talking all this talk in paper, but I didn't know him. So I was trying to to ease out the theater - for they - and he said - they said, I got a guy that sings your song. And he say, hey, Bobby, come here a minute. And I froze - came back. Hey, oh man, I didn't see you. He said I loved the way you did the song. I think it's fantastic. And I felt really good. I said oh, I'm glad you really like it, Mr. Bennett. And that was it.

GROSS: Well, I'm really glad that you made this album of gospel songs, and I really want to thank you for joining us. It's really been fun. I really, really...

WOMACK: And Terry, I must say, you know, next time I'm in Philly, I want to be my special guest. I really do. I want you to come up and just watch me perform and see. And when I come off the stage, I want you to tell me, Bobby, you're slowing down. Maybe you need to pick it up.


WOMACK: Or tell me, Bobby, you a monster. Bobby, you still got it. Bobby, you stronger than you've ever been. 'Cause I know you'll tell me the truth.

GROSS: That's right.

WOMACK: I already know. They said, Terry, man - if you thinking you look good, she say, Womack, you don't look too hot now. But I mean I love you. But you don't look good. Take care of yourself, baby.

GROSS: Oh, you too.

Bobby Womack, recorded in 1999. He died two weeks ago at the age of 70. Coming up, David Edelstein reviews Richard Linklater's new movie, "Boyhood." This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.