Last Friday, the Guardian contained a two page spread on the great soul singer, Bobby Womack. According to the Guardian, he was in hospital suffering from pneumonia. Womack, though, is due to appear in London on the 12th of June and recent reports state he was cured of pneumonia earlier this year. Confusion is compounded because the same article has Bobby claiming that he played on what is now probably the best known song that Elvis recorded, ‘Suspicious Minds’. In the article, Womack appears to condemn Elvis although the quote is a little ambiguous because although he accuses Elvis of stealing his style he also says that Elvis ‘wasn’t shit’.
The man has had pneumonia and maybe the affliction messes up the memory and massages grievance. No evidence exists to suggest Bobby Womack played on ‘Suspicious Minds’. Nobody is more obsessed with finding facts than Ernst Jorgenson. He is not unlike McPherson in the classic film noir, ‘Laura’. Not only is the policeman, Mark McPherson, obsessed with the exceptional creature, Laura, we soon realise that McPherson believes that he is the only one capable of not only understanding the murder but her personality. Jorgenson is the same with Elvis. In his book, ‘Elvis Presley – A Life In Music – The Complete Recording Sessions’, pages 264 and 274 list the musicians who played on the American Sound Studio sessions in Memphis in 1969. Jorgensen identifies not only the musicians who were present in the studio but those who contributed to the overdubs. For the first sessions, he names 45 musicians including Ronnie Milsap. The piano playing of the blind country singer was added to just two tracks.
The point should now be obvious. Jorgensen does detail. Bobby Womack is not mentioned.
It is tempting to think that an old soul singer was led by the intellectual snobbery of the Guardian to mix up his facts to discredit a popular performer to whom the paper has always been hostile. I am a Guardian reader but its identity depends on clinging to the grammar school certainties that cloud how the English evaluate not just music but probably everything. Elvis is unacceptable because he is neither authentic nor cerebral. This ideology contains its own absurdities and dead ends but its contradictions are examined thoroughly in the brilliant ‘Faking It’ by Yuval Taylor and Hugh Barker, and also in my own book, ‘Treat Me Nice’.
But apart from the Guardian there has been another interview in which Womack has asserted that Elvis stole everything. He quotes Elvis copying Robert Blackwell in the clubs of Memphis. Otis Blackwell wrote several Elvis hits including ‘Don’t Be Cruel’ and ‘Return To Sender’. This is the first time, though, a non-existent club performer has been brought into the mix. The man from the clubs in Memphis was supposed to have been fat and have worn milk bottle glasses. If Bobby has weakened the potency of this urban myth by adding that description it should help it persist.
What makes all this bewildering is that Bobby Womack in 2002 appeared in the TV show, ‘Elvis Lives.’ In his brief appearance, not only does Womack praise Elvis he reveals his impatience with those who condemn musicians who steal. Music is there to be performed, argues Womack. Of all the celebrities that appeared in the programme, Womack was the person who impressed me the most. But then I am a lifelong fan of Bobby Womack.
I have every album that The Last Soul Man has ever recorded. His new album, ‘The Bravest Man In The Universe’, which I hope is meant ironically, is released in Britain on the 11th of June. It is co-produced by Damon Albarn and Richard Russell. Despite grave reservations about great soul singers collaborating with my countrymen I will buy a copy because I always have. The last time I saw Bobby Womack was seven years ago. He was okay but had declined from the giant I witnessed in the eighties. Thirty years ago I sat alone in a half filled Apollo theatre with a whole row to myself. It felt like the ultimate in self-indulgence. The voice and performance were fabulous and Womack like McPherson had his own mysterious compulsions. He wore a strange uniform that made him look like an old fashioned cinema commissionaire. His son stood in between his legs and just listened. Womack belongs in my top five alongside Elvis, Bobby Bland, Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin.
Bobby was much more credible when he condemned those critics who castigated musicians who wandered from their roots. This is the soul singer who was brave enough to include his interpretations of ‘They Long To Be Close To You’ and ‘Fly Me To The Moon’ on his soul albums. Astonishingly, his version of the Carpenters’ hit was preceded by a three minute rap. Womack has also covered country music innovatively on his album ‘BW Goes CW’. I know, Bobby is not great at album titles. If singing music that has been written by other people constitutes stealing then Elvis was a thief because he sang all the American genres plus some Italian opera and even some British junk bought on the cheap by Freddie Bienstock. Surely, Womack is not arguing that we should no longer listen to his own country and white pop material. If he is, I will ignore him because I value his efforts too highly. Ah, some will say, ‘Bobby Womack reinterprets. Elvis merely steals.’ This is not true. Elvis may only be a singer but whatever he did with his tonsils it gave him a unique identity and the ability to make music that sounded differently from those who influenced him. Read Hemingway, we need to accept that musicians, writers and painters steal. In fact, sometimes stealing provides the infrastructure that allows additional creativity to flourish. It is a paradox but true and the proof will be in the next ‘original’ creation to be lauded by critics.
It helps to imagine American music as a field full of tents. Some are small and some large and all are owned by musicians. What made Elvis different was that he innocently decided to go to the four corners of the camp site to plant his tent poles. Inevitably, the huge tent when erected was flawed. There were some holes in his tent where the tents of the other giants could not be obscured. And not all the material in the tent of Elvis was good quality. But no matter what the other talents did with their own tents and some did have impressive outdoor skills, as far as I am concerned nobody else carried their tent poles as far as Elvis. Of course, he assumed he was walking over open land. Now we know that the people who claim land rights over others are everywhere and will never go away.
The holocaust of slavery and continuing racial discrimination produces a grievance that is still not being adequately addressed. The oppressed also have entitlement. The powerful with their need for territories may pretend otherwise but entitlement is something which we all share. Understanding that grievance is personal to an individual or a minority but entitlement is universal helps us endure. Meanwhile, Womack has had pneumonia. Let us hope he recovers and prospers.
For a different take on Elvis and black culture read this, especially the long quotation from Mohammed Ali.
To read about Elvis, American music and much more click here.