Carlton Stories - THE WOMACK!
It’s June 23rd, 1984.
Bobby Womack is laying across the bed in his hotel room clad only in a t-shirt and plum colored underwear.
I remember this because I’d never seen an R&B superstar dressed as if he was laying around his house, but nonetheless there we were.
I sat on the floor beside his bed and we began to talk.
This was just prior to his appearing at the Beacon theatre and in fact was the same day that Howard Davis challenged Edwin Rosario in his hometown of Puerto Rico for his WBA lightweight title. This is for all of you boxing aficionados like myself. Howard Davis was a member of the 1976 USA Olympic boxing team that also featured Leo Randolph, Sugar Ray Leonard, along with Leon and Michael Spinks. On this day Howard would box convincingly against Rosario but an early round knockdown coupled with a last round knockdown cost him the title. Bobby Womack had planned to watch the fight that afternoon but he was kind enough to put aside some time to talk to me.
At the time I was working for the premiere dance music label out of New York city, Prelude Records (D-Train, Sharon Redd, Unlimited Touch, etc.). Prelude Records was helmed by Marvin Schlachter formerly of the legendary record label Scepter which was home to Dionne Warwicke, Chuck Jackson, Tommy Hunt, Etta James, etc.). The vice president of Prelude was Stan Hoffman who would then go on to make quite a name for himself as a boxing impresario, even managing the heavyweight champion of the world Hasim Rahman for a few short months.
I’d met him a few days earlier in the lobby of the Sheraton hotel on 7th avenue and he gave me the address to his hotel and told me to meet him there in the afternoon. I arrived and his wife Regina answered the door and his son Vincent (I believe that is his name) was running around.
At one point he told me that I should learn to play guitar because then it would open up my song writing. He said, “…I’m always telling my brother Curtis to learn how to play guitarbecause when he tries to write songs he’s always hipping and hopping all over the place…” Bobby mimicked his brother playing guitar. I mentioned a performance he gave seven years earlier at Radio City Music Hall in which he was the co headliner with the Temptations. Archie Bell and the Drells opened the show and it was Donna Summers USA debut. Bobby came up on the famed Radio City Music Halls rising stage and literally laid waste to the joint with selections from his just released “SAFETY ZONE” LP on United Artists records and tapes. By the time they got around to “I FEEL A GROOVE COMING ON” the holy ghost had entered the room and everyone was sanctified. I remember Bobby’s new wife, Regina dancing in the wings. In fact the Bobby, the band and everyone jammed as the stage descended back into the basement. When they finally stopped I leaned over the stage and yelled, “...BOBBY!...” he said, “…YO!!!...”, I said, “…Congratulations on the marriage…”, he yelled up at me, “…THANKS!..”.I can still see him in his Black vest, black pants and silver boots. Well this day Bobby remembered that show and said people still spoke to him about it . We even talked about James Brown and where his career was at during that period. “…James need another hit!...” At that time I had NO idea that Bobby and his brothers the Valentinos were on the same bill at the famous LIVE AT THE APOLLO lp that Mr. Brown had recorded back in 1962. I had no idea that Bobby and his brothers had been taken under James Browns wing at the behest of Sam Cooke. He was incredibly gracious to me and we chit chatted about a few more things until it was time for me to bid Mr. Womack adieu. I would go on to meet with Mr. Womack time and again.
I first saw him at the Apollo theatre in 1972 on a bill with New Birth, and Candi Staton. He was hot on the heels of his latest album “COMMUNICATION”. He entered stage right and lit a soulful fire up under all of us! At that point I had no idea how much of an inspiration he would become for me. Bobby Womack taught me to never be afraid to write about what’s going on in your life or what’s happening in the world around you. Bobby Womack taught me that it’s OK to sing about the ups and downs of love even if you come out on the losing end…in fact….you may become an even better songwriter as a result.
On March 19th, 1994 Mr. Womack was in town appearing at the Beacon Theatre with the Mighty Dells headlining. I’d tried to catch up with Mr. Womack all day long without much success. I hung out backstage at The Beacon and waited for him by the entrance. Everyone I spoke to seemed to be clueless about Mr. Womack’s whereabouts. I eventually went out front in the theatre and met two of the dearest people in my life, Trudie Eppich and David Laviscount. I took my seat next to them and warned them that there may be trouble in paradise. We sat in the audience and the show began. The band played two instrumentals which was two more than they would usually play. And as everyone looked around nervously Altrina stepped up to the mike and began to gamely sing one of Mr. Womack’s signature tunes, “NOBODY KNOWS YOU WHEN YOU’RE DOWN AND OUT”. As I stated earlier Altrina has one of the most powerful GOD given voices ever…but she didn’t seem comfortable leading the band and taking Bobby’s place and she kept looking around as if waiting and hoping like all the rest of us in the audience for Bobby Womack to appear. Lo and behold amid some hustle and bustle stage side Bobby Womack appeared, looking MUCH leaner than he had when I saw him last. The man almost looked skeletal. The band went back to the intro for “NOBODY WANTS YOU WHEN YOU’RE DOWN AND OUT”. Bobby Womack thanked us for being patient and then he thanked GOD for allowing him to remain, “…in the land of the living…” and proceeded to go into the first verse of the song. Or at least he attempted to go into it. He opened his mouth and a painful croak came out…he cleared his throat and tried again. This time it was worse and it became immediately apparent to everyone in the building that Mr. Womack would NOT be able to sing that night. The boos began to cascade immediately from the balcony seats and picked up steam down in the mezzanine. Bobby gamely tried to soldier on but there was nothing in his throat. He then went on to say in a hoarse croak, “…I’m sorry y’all…I gave you thirty years, you can’t give me this one night?...”. This only caused the boos to intensify. I couldn’t take it, I felt like I was seeing a dear friend get beat up and was helpless to do anything about it. I got up from my seat and raced up the aisle. I stood out in the lobby and just felt horrible for Bobby. I scooped up Trudie and David and went backstage and upstairs to find Bobby. He was sitting in his dressing room surrounded by some stern faced folks – I can only imagine that it must have been the promoters and his management team deciding what to do about tonight’s “performance” – after all Bobby had technically been onstage so he had to be paid…something. There were a lot of nervous looking band members milling about as well. Just then an elderly gentleman with a large plume of white hair appeared…walking slowly and steadily towards Bobby. I recognized him as the legendary J.W. Alexander. J. W. Alexander was instrumental in helping Sam Cooke to become the major force that he became in the music business. It was he that encouraged a young Sam Cooke to forgo the world of Gospel and instead record Rhythm and Blues. J.W. Alexander formed the first Black owned publishing company KAGS and later along with Sam Cooke formed SAR records, a label that would focus on recording R&B and Gospel groups. I was honored and humbled to be in the presence of this legend who was clearly Bobbys last link to Sam Cooke – his mentor.
Finally Bobby came out of his room and greeted me, Trudie and David. I apologized on behalf of the audience and he told me not to worry. He then said something that as a vocalist I will never forget. Regarding his non-performance that evening he said, “…I usually can break through the wall…but tonight I couldn’t break through the wall…”. I mentioned how I had come there to see him about a year ago when he was there with Sly Stone, he said, “…sheeeittt you were trying to reach me then?! Man Sly had nine problems and I had three!!!...” An obvious reference to their crippling drug problems. We all talked a little bit more until he had to go and take care of business concerning his wages that night and we all collectively bid Mr. Womack adieu. Little did I know that the next time I would see him would be the last time I would see him.
As much as I represent James Brown every time I step onstage in terms of presentation and showmanship, when it comes to vocalizing and getting my point across lyrically about love? It’s Bobby Womack. GOD BLESS AND KEEP HIM.