Last year on a blissful Sunday morning in Henham Park, I woke up giddy.
I’d been at Latitude Festival since Friday and had watched some great bands, availed myself of the free press drinks and had a fairly suspect tray of Fish and Chips – all good fun – but that Sunday, that morning, Bobby Womack was opening up the main stage.
Bobby’s been in my subconscious my whole life I think, without me even really realising. Ry Cooder’s sublime Paradise & Lunch was a constant fixture in our house, usually coming out of the kitchen on weekends and signalling that a fry-up was imminent. The version of Bobby’s “It’s All Over Now” on that record is the sound I associate with those moments the most.
So I stumble over the park to the Obelisk Arena humming that tune – “I used to love her, but it’s all over now” – there’s something beautiful about a chorus of just one word, or one line. Dylan’s “I Want You”, Nick Cave’s “Into My Arms”, Annie Lennox’s “Why”. It’s the skill of a songwriter who can set up a story in the verses and then crystallise the heart of the song so succinctly. This is one of the best examples. The verses have that classic blues shuffle, the kind that you’ve heard a thousand times before but still has a way of hitting you right in the gut, that the chorus line – long, almost crooned, descending notes. The verse lyrics are almost angry, this woman who’s been running all over town, but the way the chorus comes in, the way it’s structured, that’s the blues.
But despite all this nostalgia, all this excitement, the alcohol from the night before still buzzing in my system and the sun trying so damn hard to come out, there were still nerves. Could he still do it? Was his voice up to scratch or would watching him be like watching a slightly slick covers act? I remember seeing James Brown opening for the Red Hot Chilli Peppers when I was a teenager – a depressing enough sentence as it is – and though part of me was thinking “Fuck, yes, I’m watching James Brown”, it was all a bit Vegas, and you could tell he wasn’t really up to the actual singing part. In hindsight, I shouldn’t have been worried.
Strolling out in a red leather suit, with thick sunglasses and a matching leather train-driver’s cap, Womack delivered a set of songs that just aren’t being recorded anymore, save maybe for Charles Bradley’s records. He opened with “Across 110th Street”, a song I heard multiple times a day during a particularly mundane supermarket job, but that never lost any of its swag. That’s a heavy song, man, drenched in 70s blaxploitation style, a fat bassline walking you through the verses before those strings kick in for the chorus and totally change the character of the tune. It’s the same trick as “It’s All Over Now”, the sucker-punch chorus, coming out of nowhere. Needless to say, the whole crowd sang along, arms in the air, knowing we were in safe hands.
I think the most moving part of the set came towards the end, when Bobby introduced his daughter Gina to the crowd – good pipes run in the family clearly, the product of being taught to sing off the book. It was at that moment, when Bobby launched into “A Change Is Gonna Come”, that soaring first note, clear as a bell over the Suffolk park, that it really hit me how lucky I was to be seeing him.
Bobby is - was - one of our last links to Sam Cooke, Wilson Pickett, Ray Charles, a hugely important era of music that is unlikely to be repeated. With his daughter singing along, there was a sense of a torch being passed. Someone’s gotta do it, someone’s gotta keep those songs alive and sing them with the spirit in which they were intended to be sung.
So cheers Bobby, for singing me through that morning, for writing some of music’s best choruses, for not resting on your laurels and putting out great music right ‘til the end. You’ll be missed, but I’m honoured that I got to see you.