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Solomon Burke interview

| November 30, 2006 | 0 Comments

Solomon Burke
Just Duet

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Solomon Burke is a big man. In an interview, he launches into the rhythms of preaching, laughs irrepressibly (and often), and tells stories with skill, every bit the personification of the phrase “living with gusto.” On stage, dressed in sequined pin stripes (impeccably tailored), with kingly robes completing the ensemble, and sitting on an oversized throne, Burke is visually arresting. But looming bigger than everything else is his voice.

Broken down and analyzed, it isn’t necessarily special. There are other voices that are deeper, richer, clearer, or more unusual. But few can be all of them at once. There are other singers who are funkier, or who can caress a note more brazenly, toy with a phrase to greater effect, or belt it bolder and brassier. But nobody else can blend gospel, grit, and refinement, with as much emotional range as Burke. There are other singers who bring passion to their work. But none sing with quite as much love as Solomon Burke.

Burke doesn’t sing a song so much as he lives it, totally and freely — and it’s that which has, in turn, inspired people to talk of him using superlatives that rival his size. In 1955, shortly after releasing his first single, he was dubbed “Bishop Of Soul.” By 1964, after a string of R&B hits on Atlantic that helped keep the label afloat, he was proclaimed “The King Of Rock And Soul.” Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler called him “A vocalist of rare prowess and remarkable range” and dubbed him “The best soul singer of all time.” In 2001, Burke was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame.

In September, after a career spanning 51 years and 60-some albums, Burke released Nashville. On it, the man who has been referred to as one of the last of the pure soul singers covers songs by such country artists as Tom T. Hall (“That’s How I Got To Memphis”), George Jones and Earl Montgomery (“We’re Gonna Hold On”), and Kevin Welch (“Millionaire”). Produced by Buddy Miller, Burke also sings duets with Dolly Parton, Patty Griffin, Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, and Patty Loveless. It has become almost banal for older (male) artists to sing duets — Emmylou Harris is de riguer. But Burke and Miller keep the pairings to a minimum and the performances emerge unjaded and bracing.

In part the duets sound fresh because they are new to Burke. “These are my first duets with anyone ever recording,” he says. “I wanted to be part of, and not just the part. I wanted to fit into the atmosphere of the whole country feeling and the only way to do that is to be with someone, to sing with someone who really know what they’re doing, who’s really been there, who’s had the experience, who writes the song, who believes in the songs they’re writing. Of course when you speak of the people that we’re involved with here, it’s just incredible. I think I was the hardest person to work with because, you know, I was trying to see the technical ways of doing things and should I do this and do that and Buddy would say, “‘No. Just do you.’ I said, ‘Well, do I need to put a little whatnot?’ ‘No. Just do you.’ So I did,” Burke laughs.

Even though Burke’s first single to cross from R&B to pop was his cover of a country song, “Just Out of Reach (Of My Two Open Arms.),” the release of Nashville still begets the inevitable question: Why?

“It was important for me to do something that I started in 1960 and was not able to finish because no record company would allow me to do it,” Burke responds. “As a child, I loved country music. I’m excited to be a little kid again and sing some country songs. And it takes more than just boots and a cowboy hat to make a cowboy. It’s gotta be inside you. I did a little holding back on this album. I wanted to feel more of the music and more of the story and try not to put too much Solomon in it, you know. Too much hard R&B in it or too much soul. Just enough to feel the pleasure of being in a country atmosphere with the Western feeling and style and relaxing the way it’s done.”

Burke is from Philadelphia, not the first place one thinks of for creating a cowboy. But such is the power of even early TV. “I was ridin’ the broom stick with the rope around it as a kid back in Philadelphia, watchin’ Gene Autry and Roy Rogers on television and riding with them through the living room as they rode across the range.”

Raised by his grandmother, Burke preached his first sermon at age 7, becoming locally famous as a child preacher. Even after he left the church for Atlantic Records and more secular soul, Burke himself swears he never left gospel. “Gospel’s always been the foundation or the roots of whatever I’m doin’. From then to now. And it’s so important to know that you have a foundation, you have roots, that you can lean on. And even in this country album, you feel what I feel and that’s that gospel feeling that goes right back to the church. And that’s what’s so good about the country music. I mean, they never left the church. It’s still there, you know, in the songs. You still hear some type of religious feeling coming from each artist, no matter what they’re singing. There’s a story line there that says, ‘We’ll get through it. You know, we’ll make it. No matter how wrong you done me. I’ll find a way to get through this. Whatever lies you told me, I’ll overcome them because truth wins out.’ And this is what makes it so fascinating, so incredible, so enjoyable.”

A born entrepreneur, Burke owns a string of mortuaries (“At least you know I’m the last one to let you down, the first one to pick you up. And there’s a song with it.”) He has 21 kids, 84 grandchildren, and 17 great-grandchildren. “There’s no money that you could even pile up in front of me that would be worth one of their precious lives,” he says. “It’s not the dollars, it’s the life, it’s the love, it’s the tenderness, it’s the names that I don’t even remember. I look at them and I say, ‘That’s mine. That’s mine. That’s mine. That’s mine. That’s mine.'”

But it’s his stage act — and the voice that overshadows it — that he’s still known by. “I’ve always believed that show business was show business. When you see me onstage, I want people to remember that they saw me even if they don’t remember my name. I want them to know that I’m not James Brown,” Burke laughs. “I’ll never forget one kid — I love this. I have to tell this story, which is always great.”

Burke launches into his story, playing all the characters with verve.

“I was somewhere in a little town and I was getting out the limousine and there’s a bunch of kids came up to me and go, ‘Oh my God. Do you know who that is? You know who that is?’ You know, I’m very proud and I don’t want to turn around and say, ‘Hi. I’m Solomon Burke. I just say, ‘Hi. How ya doin’ tonight? Hi.’ So one of the kids says, ‘That’s Fats Domino.’ And the other kid said, ‘No that’s not. That’s Fats Somebody else!'” Burke guffaws as if he’s telling the punchline to the story for the first time.

“They didn’t know. They were all ‘That’s Fats Somebody else! Got any T-shirts?'”

Did he sign the kid’s autograph book?

“Absolutely,” Burke replies. “I signed it James Brown.”

— M.S. Dodds

Category: Features, Monthly

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