Solomon Burke loves a good deal as much as he loves a good song. So when Andy Kaulkin, president of the punk label Epitaph Records, handed the burly soul singer a fat check attached to a promise to make an album with him written entirely by great tunesmiths familiar with his life and recordings, Burke figured it would be the easiest payday of his long career.
"I went home and told my kids, ĎBoy, did I make one of the greatest deals. Iím waitiní on a guy to go out and find all my friends to write songs for me,í " Burke relates with a deep chuckle. "My friends? Sam Cooke, Joe Tex, Otis Redding, Jackie Wilson . . . theyíre all gone. So I figured Iíd wait until Andy called us in 325 days to tell us we couldnít do it."
Three weeks later, Kaulkin telephoned, and as he ticked off the list of songwriters, Burke found he had more friends ó or at least heavy-hitting admirers ó than heíd imagined. Of course, there was Dan Penn, who wrote Burkeís 1964 hit "The Price," but Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, Brian Wilson, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Nick Lowe, and Joe Henry were also on the list, and Henry was on board to produce.
"I had never imagined that these people, who I consider legends and superstars, would take the time to write a song for me or even know who I am," Burke says with modesty unfitting a man who proclaimed himself "the King of Rock and Soul." "Itís a wonderful gift, the greatest gift that Iíve ever had in my whole career."
Even better than money for nothing, because the gift that Kaulkin gave Burke, a venerable-but-still-toothy lion of the golden age of rhythm and blues, is a chance. Burkeís new Donít Give Up on Me (Fat Possum/Epitaph), which arrives this Tuesday, is the kind of singerís recording that rarely gets made anymore. Itís beholden to no trend or style, whether the tics of boxed contemporary rhythms, smooth-jazz-inflected arrangements, or those raw-velvet signifiers that Burke himself helped perfect during the first wave of the soul-music era, starting with his initial hit for Atlantic Records, "Just Out of Reach (Of My Two Empty Arms)." Instead, everything about the disc bows to Burkeís voice, a gilded instrument that can dart from a low dirty moan to an imperious falsetto roughly four octaves higher. Itís a voice more than capable of launching romances and stirring up trouble. Perhaps even capable of turning a new generation on to its power.
Although Burke was inducted into the Rock íní Roll Hall of Fame last year and producer Jerry Wexler, the architect of many of Atlanticís classic R&B records, proclaimed Solomon "the greatest soul singer of them all," he has labored in relative obscurity for more than 20 years. His albums havenít received much airplay, even though 1981ís Soul Alive! and 1994ís Live at the House of Blues capture his elegant style of soul stagecraft at its peak. He hasnít cracked the Billboard Top 40 since 1965ís "Tonightís the Night." Further, his engagements ricochet from sold-out affairs in urban centers and at festivals to sparsely attended gigs like his brilliant 1994 all-gospel night at Cambridgeís House of Blues, which drew fewer than 50 people.
So Burke knows that Donít Give Up on Me is likely his last and best opportunity to become an icon to a new generation of listeners, to earn the kind of respect and love accorded B.B. King and the late John Lee Hooker. Lucky for the deft entertainer with the 48-year résumé, the ballads and stories he sings on the album have enough gunpowder to blast away the notion that its title is a plea. If anything, the granite certainty of his performances make it seem a commandment.
Burkeís vocal takes are the discís bloodstream. "I set myself a mandate that everything was going to be dictated by Solomonís voice, and that his voice would lead the band, much like Sinatraís did," says producer Henry. "I explained to Solomon when we first met that I was going to side with him as an artist, because thatís what I am first, and that my job was to make an R&B record, but not a traditional R&B record."
To do that, Henry threw out the soul arrangersí textbook. The honking, driving horn lines that Stax and other R&B finishing schools defined are gone, replaced instead by delicate acoustic guitars that find a comfortable pocket within the band. The organ plays with church-like simplicity. The drums benefit from more reverb than does Burkeís voice, which transforms their percussive attack into something more elegant and textural. And when the horns do raise their bells, they whisper low accompaniment to Burkeís own throaty trumpet calls.
Burke is a man of many interests. Before he began singing, he was a child preacher, and today he is the bishop of the House of God for All People, an international church with 40,000 members. Heís also a funeral-parlor operator, a limo-service owner, and the founder of the concession supply businesses Soul Dog and Soul Corn. But primarily he considers himself a kind of holy messenger and thinks of the 11 songs on Donít Give Up on Me as sermons. Surely they play that way, with numbers like "Soul Searchiní " and Tom Waits & Kathleen Brennanís "Diamond in Your Mind" providing bursts of inspirational joy. And the rest of the tunes, like Costelloís "The Judgment" and Dylanís "Stepchild," are indeed the kind of blood-and-brimstone tales he might spin from his pulpit.
The title cut reteams him with Dan Penn, who also authored classic hits for Aretha Franklin and Sam & Dave, among many others. Like "The Price," the emotional potboiler Penn wrote for Burke in 1964, "Donít Give Up on Me" is a pensive examination of need, love, and redemption ó almost every ingredient of soul melodrama. Burke sings it like a sinner on his knees, pleading for salvation in his tenor wail.
"None of Us Are Free" unites him with his fellow travelers along the gospel road, the Blind Boys of Alabama. A fried-chicken lunch in the studio put all parties in the down-home mood they injected into Kurt Weillís lyrics, transforming the light opera number into something between gospel and a protest anthem. Burkeís fiery performance makes the tune a rallying cry against all manner of intolerance, but Henryís "Flesh and Blood" provides the albumís peak. At the songís rippling climax, Burke proclaims, his voice rich with gravity, "All I ever wanted was the freedom to refuse/Or something of my own to love enough to hate to lose/The fever in my brain is leaving smoke behind my eyes/When the part of me that wants to change fights the part of me that tries." As he sings them, the lines epitomize the surreal battles of inner conflict. They spiral to theatrical heights as he climbs to the honeyed zenith of his range, then slips back to earth with a baritone sigh. Itís a brilliant, adult performance ó the sound of an original telling the truth from a place thatís so, so far from the cruel, calculated world of todayís music business.
Yet Burke remains hopeful. "Iíve done my best for this record, and because Iíve tried to get the message out for the Lord all my life, I think Heís looked out for me." Nonetheless, the 62-year-old concedes, "I feel like Iím on trial. This is my chance to prove if Iím going to be part of this new generation of music or not. Iíve been performing for five decades, and Iím grateful, but itís very possible that this could be my last couple of years of touring. Iím pretty content with the church and the other things that I do, so I may not want to tour any more two years from now. So as far as history is concerned, itís very important for me to get the message out, to be heard by as many people as possible and to try to bring them the food of love and peace and harmony through music."
Thatís hardly the credo of the other artists on Epitaphís Fat Possum subsidiary, rough-and-tumble Mississippi bluesmen with rap sheets in their past and rumbling thunder in their guitars. Then again, Kaulkin signed Burke personally after witnessing one of his charismatic festival performances, and he handed the album down to Fat Possum when it was finished. And Burke himself, who was born in Philadelphia, has been an entertainer and preacher all his life.
Although the legendary singer never picked cotton, his story is also one of perseverance. Burke has made at least four comebacks. The most spectacular was in 1960, when he regained his footing and almost singlehandedly keep Atlantic Records alive with the string of hits that fills the double-disc set Home in Your Heart: The Best of Solomon Burke (Rhino/Atlantic), including "The Price," "If You Need Me," "Just Out of Reach," and "Got To Get You Off My Mind." During the three years before, he had skidded into homelessness and poverty after concluding that Apollo Records and his manager were swindling him.
"I lived on the street for those years," he explains. "I was sleeping in abandoned cars, living in boxcars, eating out of garbage cans. I know how a can of pork and beans tastes cooked over an open fire. I know what itís like to have to wear pants with holes in them." That time his luck turned while he was panhandling in his native Philadelphia. A man tossed him 50 cents, and as he bent to pick it up, he heard a voice tell him that if he pocketed that change, heíd be taking handouts for the rest of his life. So he turned and ran into the street. As fate or faith would have it, the car that almost struck him was driven by a woman whose niece he had dated, and she helped him regain himself. In September 1960 he cut "Just Out of Reach (Of My Two Empty Arms)."
Burkeís life is full of colorful stories, many of them far more unusual. There was his practice of selling sandwiches to his own band aboard his tour bus, and the time he stopped at a funeral parlor to display his undertaking skills to his doubting musicians. He almost backed out of an Apollo Theater concert when the respected venue refused to give him the popcorn concession. And thereís the tale of how he and his orchestra once played to an audience of 30,000 rabid fans ó at a Klan rally.
"Well, 99 percent of the stories about me are true," he concedes. "And at this point in my life, Iím beginning to enjoy them myself."