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He'll be there when the sun goes down

IN 2009, Bobby Womack was inducted by his great friend Ronnie Wood into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio.

As chance would have it, the R&B/soul legend was returning to the city where he had been born, 65 years earlier. It was, as the Rolling Stones guitarist noted jovially, "about time" that Womack was being inducted, given everything he had achieved as a singer, guitarist and songwriter.

He began, very young, singing gospel with his brothers, when his potential was spotted by Sam Cooke, who mentored him. Womack went on to play alongside Wilson Pickett, Sly Stone, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and many more. His first recording with Cooke, his "second father", was the hit single Twisting The Night Away. He was just 18 at the time.

Womack played on Elvis Presley's Suspicious Minds, toured alongside Jimi Hendrix, met Janis Joplin on her last day alive. His song Breezin' became a huge hit for George Benson. He'd never heard of the Stones before Sam Cooke told him that they wanted to record one of his songs, It's All Over Now. It gave Jagger & co their very first UK No 1 hit.

Under his own name, Womack recorded such illustrious albums as The Poet (1981) and The Poet II (1984). Throw in addictions to drink and alcohol, several bereavements, serious health issues and a marriage at 21 to Sam Cooke's widow Barbara, which saw him ostracised and vilified (and bloodily beaten up by Cooke's brother, Charlie), and you realise that Womack - now 69 - has had a hell of a life.

But he is also a man reborn. Damon Albarn recruited him as a featured vocalist on two songs on the Gorillaz's 2010 album Plastic Beach. The association led, in 2012, to The Bravest Man In The Universe, a superb (and very well-received) album masterminded by Albarn and XL Records boss Richard Russell. It was Womack's first all-new recording since 1994's Resurrection deservedly won Q Magazine's accolade of album of the year, and was a forceful reminder of Womack's glorious, gravelly, lived-in voice.

When I ring him to ask about his career and specifically about his Celtic Connections gig a week tomorrow at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, he proves to be a garrulous and engaging interviewee, off and running before we've even had time to introduce ourselves.

"I just feel that it's a special, special blessing to meet so many artists along the way, and I say, 'God, what happened?'" he says. "I think a legend means a person that outlived everybody else - it feels like that, you know? But I like the idea of being here spiritually. I won't say I'm at my best, but I have more experience than I had years ago. I don't use the word love unless I'm really in love."

What kind of show can his Scottish fans expect?

"I'm still trying to figure that out. I know, and I always say, The Bravest Man wasn't the first album I cut. I've cut a lot of albums. I'd be on the stage too long if I tried to do all of them songs. So I go on and do maybe eight of the original songs that people are gonna request, then I'll break into The Bravest Man, then I go back and sing some gospel, then some more originals. Then I talk about songs I haven't released yet but have already recorded, and I call these songs out.

"That's the reason why I was arguing with Rod Stewart the other day. He says, 'Why you always change bands? How they gonna know every song?' I said, 'First of all, I'm not gonna try to sing every song.' Rod said, 'I guess that makes sense, but when you're up there you still can't do everything you've recorded and you're never gonna make people happy - they're gonna say, he missed my favourite song. So when I get up there, I let the spirit take control. I go crazy, I feel good, and I say, 'Y'all done? Cause if you ain't, I'm done!'"

When he was younger, he toured relentlessly, as was the custom back then. Even in the last three-and-a half years he has done more than 100 gigs, from Gastonbury and Latitude, Japan, the US, Manchester, Liverpool, Australia. He "doesn't think" he's played Scotland before.

"[After a] long time in this business," he says, "you stop being afraid. I remember the first time I played the Apollo Theatre [in Harlem], with Sam Cooke. I was 16, and didn't know how to be afraid. I remember saying I loved the cheers and the ooh and ahhs and the pretty women coming at me, and I said, man, that was heaven for me."

He shows no sign of slowing down now, either, and has recently been busy in the recording studio. He has duetted with Van Morrison, in London, for a song for the Belfast Cowboy's new album. "I don't remember the title, but I remember the song's story. I always wanted to record with Van, and he wrote this song and said it was perfect for us to sing together. It's a song about coming off the stage and having nowhere to go." (The album's producer, Don Was, says the song is an old Van number called Some Peace Of Mind, and enthuses: "[Bobby] was amazing ... he is really one of the giants.")

There's a good chance next week that he'll touch on the greats he has worked with in the past. It's plain they still mean a lot to him, that he feels privileged to have known them. As he told a New York radio station the other week: "All they were doing was trying to pay their rent for the day, and enjoy what they did. Now all those people are gone … and ever since I feel like I represent them when I go on stage to say, 'This is what soul music is about'. 'Cause everybody's got it - don't care what colour you are - you know, you just gotta recognise your soul, that's like your style. What motivates you and makes you move and makes you wanna get out there and do what you do."

His vividly-narrated 2006 autobiography Midnight Mover (named after his song, I'm A Midnight Mover, which was recorded by Wilson Pickett) tells his story in compelling detail - his career, his triumphs, his lows, his marriages, the deaths of two sons, his love life. He and Barbara divorced in 1970; he married Regina in 1976 and it lasted 18 years.

The book ends on a poignant note: "I don't even try to talk to women now. Don't need one. I ran out of energy. I don't pick them up or see anyone else, not with this ton of baggage I still got. I guess I could tell them I got two kids in Chicago, one in New York, another in jail and two deceased. I guess that's enough."

He seemed to be done with music, but eventually Gorillaz came calling, and that led to The Bravest Man, and Womack is now back where he belongs - up on stage, making music. He even re-married Regina last year.

Womack says he doesn't know any artist who, along the way, hasn't slowed down, "who don't have the craziness you need to have to be in this business. I can understand that, 'cause I've had a little taste of it all. The good times, the bad times, the low points and the highs ... the high for me was being able to do something for my family, the low was the death of my brother Harry [in 1974]. Through it all, it makes you stronger, and when you wanna be strong, you go forward and you get that signal."

He turns 70 on March 4. How would he like to celebrate it?

"I would like to be somewhere performing," he says. "You know what, if you've done that so long ... When I was in the hospital, I said, damn, that's my only home, because I'd already gone through a divorce, my kids had grown up, and it was just me and the band. And when I've come off [the road], I would say, man, it's just a whole new world out there. You start to think older, you start to do older things, more mature things. I don't know how to explain it. As I said, it's a blessing that I'm here, you know?"

Bobby Womack plays Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on January 27 as part of Celtic Connections. Visit www.celticconnections.com for details

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