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My Story 1944â"2014
By Bobby Womack, Robert Ashton
John Blake Publishing LtdCopyright © 2014 Bobby Womack
All rights reserved.
THE FACTS OF LIFE
I was born in a ghetto. This particular ghetto was in Cleveland, Ohio. The neighbourhood was so ghetto that we didn't bother the rats and they didn't bother us. They walked past and hollered, 'How you doin', man?'
Everybody had to survive. You could hear babies crying all the damn time and I was constantly scalping myself trying to scratch out those damn flies.
My mom and pop had come up from the south. My mother, Naomi Reed, was from Bluefield, West Virginia. My old man came from Charleston. His name was Friendly. My father had seven brothers and eight sisters. On my mother's side there were eight brothers and seven sisters. It was a big family.
My father and his brothers all sang, called themselves the Womack Brothers. It was real gospel stuff. He and his brothers would go to the little church and meet up with my mom and her sisters down there. Well, you know, someone has got to fall in love with all those pretty girls around.
Friendly quit school early, in fact all his brothers did, and around 12 or 13 they all went to work down the coalmines. But they kept up the singing and pretty soon him and Mom were courting. They got married when my mom turned 13 and he was 19.
My father predicted that he would have five sons and they were going to sing and he was going to call them the Womack Brothers, just like the group he had with his brothers. And you know? He was right. Every year my mom had a baby boy until she got to five and she used to cry, 'You can have a girl now.' But it didn't happen.
The first son they had they called Friendly Junior. We called him Jim because that was how Junior sounded when you said it fast: Junior, Jun, Jim. His other nickname was Stony Brooks. Curtis came second. His nickname was The Colonel. I was the third brother. Robert Dwayne they called me, Bobby for short. I came along on 4 March 1944. Star sign: Pisces. My folks had moved up to Cleveland by then – the house in Charleston had burned down – and my old man got himself a job in a steel mill.
I was the sickly one in the family. My mother said I was real weak and every couple of months I came close to checking out. They'd say, 'He's going out.' But I hung on. They called me Nobinee on account of the fact I had a knobbly lump on the back of my head.
After me there was Harry, who was called Goat, though to this day I don't know why. Then Cecil, or Cornflakes, as we called him because his skin peeled right off his hands and to us that looked just like cereal.
The house stood on 63rd and Central, right in the heart of the city's ghetto. It was a pokey one-bedroom shack, a small bathroom about the size of a closet and a living room a couple of strides wide.
My mother and father slept in the living room and the five of us slept in the big old bed – three at the top and two at the bottom. I was sucking toes every time the lights went out and tugging at the blankets in winter to get some warmth. The first song I ever wrote was a reminder of being chilled and cramped and pulling at that threadbare army blanket. It was called 'Give That Man Some Cover'.
Getting food on the plate was always a struggle. My mother got relief cheques and she bought powdered milk, powdered butter, powdered eggs, powdered everything. It was never enough.
We used to go out back of the grocery store down the road and pick through the garbage cans. They threw away chitterlings, pigs' tails, nose, ears, ox tails – all that stuff no one else would, or could, eat. The owner found us rooting through the bins once and he couldn't believe anyone would eat that shit.
Chicken was the dish most blacks ate. It was wolfed down with watermelon, only we never got the choice cuts. The real meat would go right to the church. We would get the neck, the gizzard, the butt, the feet with the talons still on them. My mom would fry up those claws real good for dinner.
We had a man come around bringing ice and, if we were lucky, he brought live chickens with him. We would wring their necks in the backyard, pluck the feathers – we put the chicken in hot water and the feathers came out easier – and hang them right on the door.
Harry got sick from all that poultry. He had nightmares from some chicken, its neck half hanging off and still running around our yard. I remember when we started to move up a little in life, I asked a lady once what she was eating. It was chicken breast. I said, 'What? A chicken has a breast?'
Sometimes my father would say, 'We're going to fast today,' and we'd all start praying. That's when I knew there was no food in the house and wouldn't be none too soon either. Sometimes we didn't eat for three days – one for the Father, one for the Son and one for the Holy Ghost – and just drank water. Yeah, we'd scoop up that water and drink down plenty to purify our soul. I was starving, but at the same time I believed I was fasting for God to give us strength as a family
My old man would announce, 'On the seventh day we break bread,' but my mom knew we couldn't go that long a stretch without grub. The lady next door most likely would slip a little something into our kitchen, and that's how it worked. Mostly people all got together, to try to help each other. Someone would get sugar, another flour and someone else maybe a little meat, chicken probably. So we all shared a little bit. But it was barely making it.
We realised that come Christmas time. I was about five or six and wondering how Santa Claus was going to get in the house because we didn't have a chimney. True to form, my father put me straight. He told me right then that there wasn't a Santa and that he had ate the mince pies we put out.
'I'm sick of a white man getting credit,' he said. 'I went out there to break my ass working and get you those damn toys. There ain't no one coming down no damn chimney. You know I practically went out and stole to get you that BB gun.'
I told him there couldn't be a black Santa. He proved me wrong, put on a little outfit and announced, 'I'm Santa Claus.'
We said, 'Yeah, Ghetto Claus.'
He said, 'See, there ain't no Santa. It's just a sneaky white man putting on a red suit that he got from a store in town.'
My mother was upset, she thought he'd ruined Christmas for us. I guess he did.
There wasn't much happening in that neighbourhood. But, when there was, it was always something that would come right back and bite me on the ass. Other boys in the ghetto had nothing to do, there was no TV, and they'd play games: one was to gorilla some drunk. They'd stand on the corner and watch someone get drunk and then beat them up.
One day some kids found a cat that had about nine kittens. They started a fire in a barrel and tossed the kittens in, one by one. I saw these cats jump up, burning up, screaming and clawing at the can and then fall back. I shouted and cried, trying to get them to stop, but I was too small and they pushed me away.
Then they went for the mother, who had just watched her young get a fire lit under them. Those kids snatched her up and started swinging her around by the tail. When they let go of the cat, she landed right on my back, mad as hell and scratching. I must have run ten blocks with her pawing at me and hissing. I've been scared of cats ever since.
I was only allowed to wander our part of town. No blacks ever went to the east – the white – side of town after dark. The whites would kick their ass. The same thing happened if any white faces were found wandering in our neighbourhood past lights out. There'd be heads butted.
My old man was kind of funny, though. Most blacks passing a white guy on the street in those days would drop their heads and stare at the sidewalk, otherwise they could expect some smartass comment for their sassiness. Something like, 'What you lookin' at, nigger?' But our father taught us different. He said, 'Never look away when you're passing white folk; that's when they will hit you.'
It was nothing to step into a shop or an elevator and hear some little white kid ask, 'Mom, is that a nigger over there?'
I remember when I was about eight and my mom took me to a park. After a couple of minutes a mounted policeman came riding up on his horse and demanded to know what we were doing. I told him we were playing baseball. This cop reached down and slapped me so hard across the head that he knocked me to the grass. My mom ran up crying for him not to hit me again. She said I was too young to know that I shouldn't back chat. And the cop shouted, 'Well, you teach him then.'
From that moment I thought white men were dangerous. It seemed to me that they wanted to stay in control. Blacks were allowed to become athletes or musicians, but they couldn't move out of the neighbourhood. I thought that couldn't go on, stopping all the blacks, all the Mexicans, anybody but the white man from being productive. One day, I thought, he wasn't going to be able to carry it, and when that happened America would not be the greatest country in the world.
It seemed the only time blacks got respect was when they sang, doing something that hurt no one. Singing about Jesus was just about perfect, so that's what we did every Sunday. We'd be down the church all hours. We didn't go to the movies; there was no card playing and no profanity. Just church.
The only one in the family who didn't have truck with that was Grover. Uncle Grover, my dad's brother, was the only one of us Womacks who had a 'night life'. He was six three, sharp as a tack and had us believing he didn't do a day's work, making his money as a chilli pimp. But, he was slaving down on the Chevy production line like the rest of them.
Grover knew how to have fun, though. He always had a new Caddy or some other fancy ride. He drank, smoked and seemed to have three ladies on the go most of the time. Old Grover gave me my first sip of whiskey and he used to sit there and warn me against the church. 'Don't let your daddy take you to all those preachers,' he'd caution. 'They're nothing but pimps. They fuck all the sisters in the church.'
My father didn't go for that. 'Grover,' he said, 'you're trying to take away my kids and lead them to Satan.'
Grover would do a bit of bootlegging and he'd turn up at the house with a suitcase full of green. Later on, he had to leave town. We heard he'd shot some guy, but the police didn't bother with it. I guess they just thought it's another dead nigger.
School was no fun either. I went to Rawlings Junior High and East Tech High and we couldn't afford to ride the bus to school so we had to walk maybe eight miles and it would be freezing cold. Every day. I used to put on a whole bunch of socks to keep warm, but so many socks meant I couldn't fit my shoes on properly.
I would try and outrun that bus, hobbling along with my feet crammed in my shoes, but sometimes I made it into school before the rest of the class. I'd be sitting there waiting for the lesson to start, just so I didn't have to answer why I never rode that damn bus.
Sometimes my mother used to make me lunch. Those sandwiches were special. Some days – no, most days – they'd be nothing but bread and butter. No meat. I'd bite down on a slice and nothing but mustard would come dribbling out. I never let on to the other kids my situation was a little bit worse than they had it. I'd just pretend those mustard sandwiches tasted real good.
I wanted to be the leader of a gang. That was the only thing I saw in my neighbourhood that got respect. When those gangs put on their shirts and walked out, everybody would hit the floor. And I thought, 'That's respect.' My father was a big man, with big arms, but he wouldn't go up against a gang.
So I reckoned I could make it in a gang, or maybe work it like this guy in the neighbourhood called Candy. Everyone in our quarter would get up at six, seven o'clock in the morning to go to the factory. Not Candy. Candy dressed real nice, sharp suits, and he smoked marijuana. He was always fixing his clothes, a real tall good-looking fella.
I couldn't figure it, but he told me that his ladies brought him money. They would all come along, four or five at a time, hand over the cash, bat their eyelashes and purr, 'There you are, Candy.' Candy reasoned he was called Candy because he was sweet. I guess it was as good a reason as any. And a good name for a pimp on the hustle.
Naturally, Pop couldn't stand Candy. He called him a good for nothing. He said, 'You think he is something? Well, he ain't.'
I told him the guy was smart, he doesn't work. I asked Candy one day which of his ladies brought him the most money and he laughed and told me they all did. That pimp had those women right where he wanted them, in competition. And they tried to turn more tricks each week for Candy.
So I thought, 'Man, I'm gonna make my scratch as a street hustling gang member or do it just like Candy with a hot stable of hookers.' And that was it. That was my ambition.
Now, my old man had other ideas. He was an honest, hard-working john and he wasn't going to see his kid end up as some kind of shakedown artist. He wanted the best for me, all of us, but he didn't know what was best: all he knew was he had his five boys. I knew he'd pray to God, 'I got these boys. I told you I wanted them to sing gospel,' but not one of us was showing any interest in gospel or any other kind of singing – or so he thought.
The old man worked in the local steel mill, but he still played guitar and sang, and found himself a gospel qroup. There was Roy, Harold, Joshua and Mr Hampton and they called themselves the Voices of Love. My father was used to running things at home, so naturally he figured he could run that group.
These guys would come over to the house and rehearse every Wednesday night. Harold used to sing real flat, 'cos Harold was always drunk. My father was churchy so he hated booze, but they got on mostly. They used to stand in a circle and sang with their arms locked around each other's shoulders: Harold singing flat, my dad trying to boss them.
Those nights my mother would bake doughnuts, cake and cookies, and she put them out on a big old tray with a big coffee pot for the guys. She'd say to us boys – I was about six – we could have anything they left, but they never left anything, ever. We were always mad about that and began to hate the Voices of Love, scoffing our grub.
When they left, we picked over the few crumbs on the plates and took a couple of sips of cold coffee. Then we'd start mimicking the Voices of Love. We'd each assume one of the characters in the group. Harry always wanted to be Harold, singing flat.
That's how we started out, imitating Dad's group. It was fun, just mucking about. We didn't see it as singing, but we sang in their voices and, if one of Dad's friends had a cough that night or a jigger in his neck, we would copy that too. We had them down to a tee.
We'd nibble at those crumbs, lick the dregs of cold coffee and then go through their routine and I'd complain every time. 'They can't sing, they ate all the cake. And the one with the bad breath, Roy. Oh my God, I don't know how Dad can stand being near him singing.'
One night we were mocking the group as usual and my father caught us out. The window was open and he could hear us joking around and singing like him and his friends. He stood for a while there, watching and listening. We were too busy having fun to notice when he stepped into the room. 'You sassing my friends, boys?'
That was it; we all thought we were in for a thrashing. Instead, the old man asked us how long we'd been singing like that. 'Ever since you started singing with that group, Pop,' I said. 'And Harry sings better than Harold.'
My dad wanted to buy us stage outfits right there and then. He was so proud now he'd finally got his singing sons, and from then on we were singing every day. If we didn't, we got to feel the back of his hand. Whack. That was the old man's way; he would give us a clout if we didn't know the song he'd taught us the day before. He was on a mission to scare the songs into us.
Gospel was the thing in the ghetto so it was only natural the songs we kicked off with were gospel, the kind of tunes my dad knew. We wouldn't have known the songs unless he'd belted us around like that. Maybe we would have gone off in different directions.
Dad was so serious. He could never give any one of us a compliment without ruining it. He'd maybe say something nice, but ten minutes later he'd be pressing us to learn four new songs. 'The first one that don't get it will have to strip his clothes off,' he'd threaten. I thought, Man, I don't want to be hanging out naked. So we got to know those songs real fast.
As well as the steel mill, Dad used to cut hair to make ends meet. One day a man came around and asked for a short back and sides, but he didn't have the money for a trim. What he had was a proposition. 'Womack, I need a haircut and the only thing I got to pay for it is a guitar. Is that helpful for you?' The deal was struck that my dad would trim the guy's hair four times and then the guitar was his. That's how the Womack family got its first guitar.
Excerpted from Bobby Womack by Bobby Womack, Robert Ashton. Copyright © 2014 Bobby Womack. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Bobby Womack (1944–2014): Tributes,
Prologue: Jealous Love,
1: The Facts Of Life,
2: A Change Is Gonna Come,
3: California Dreamin',
4: Across 110th Street,
5: All Along The Watchtower,
6: Somebody Special,
7: It's All Over Now,
8: Woman's Gotta Have It,
9: Crying Time,
10: Fly Me To The Moon,
11: More Than I Can Stand,
12: Fire And Rain,
13: There's A Riot Goin' On,
14: Hang On In There,
15: The Poet,
16: Harlem Shuffle,
17: Where Do We Go From Here,