Orson Welles once described himself as kingly, an actor of epic vocal quality whose opportunities were forever rooted in the regal. This suits the 62-year-old Solomon Burke, too, an ideal at one with his origins as minister, bishop and crown prince of R&B; and gospel music.
His latest album, the high and holy Don’t Give Up on Me (Fat Possum), follows dignified LPs made during Atlantic’s glory days of ’60s soul as well as recent classics for Savoy, Rounder and Black Top. With a live recording process, aided by stalwart organist Rudy Copeland and some heavyweight songwriters, Burke is lifted to operatic heights and gives Don’t Give more majesty than a room full of crowns.
That he had his own church downstairs in his grandmother’s house in West Philly, mere blocks from where I grew up, makes Burke — impossibly — even better.
“I’m from the Black Bottom, 38th and Mount Vernon — the dinosaur era,” joked Burke from L.A., where his ministry, the House of God for All People resides; a ministry whose name emanates from the Philly ministry his grandmother — Mother Eleanor Moore — provided for him at age 7. “She was my mentor, a spiritual medium directly associated with Daddy Grace and Father Divine. She used to have a sign in her home. It read ŒJesus Never Fails.’ That’s when and what I began to preach.”
They were giants of their era. Burke learned from them, transferring God’s energy into sermons (broadcasted on WDAS 105.3 FM) and gospel-song in a voice deep, reverent and hauntingly emotional. Dressed in churchly vestments and occasional crowns, Burke became the “Boy Wonder” preacher, a gospel crooner whose hits (like “Christmas Presents from Heaven”) for Apollo Records led him to secular music and Atlantic Records. Burke was no babe in the woods when it came to secular music. At Apollo he recorded with saxophone legends King Curtis and Lester Young behind him. “Listen to ŒI Have a Dream,'” says Burke with enthusiasm for the artist-focused “flow” he had at Apollo. “It still haunts me. Not only did I make the song up on the spot, Lester made up his solo just by filling in my spaces.” His grandmother introduced Solomon to the “foundation that was gospel” as well as the gentle cowboy music of Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. His mother introduced him to Jimmy Reed and Ray Charles as well as that era’s king of smooth, Billy Eckstein. “She played all these records on our Admiral combination radio-record-player-TV. For that reason alone, I looked forward to doing chores — so that I could hear their music. Crossover sound was easy to accept. Music was never sacrilegious. What is God? God is love. If you can’t sing about love, life’s whole principle is lost.” His No. 1 rule of recording: Never stop doing your gospel music.
Burke had stirring hits like his own “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love.” Though Atlantic was known for its R&B; hitmaking, the record company sold him short, trying to foist the likes of “Hang on Sloopy” onto him. “They thought I was arrogant for not recording what they wanted. I didn’t understand Œthe business,’ the give and take of songs they want versus what you want, the handing people pieces of publishing or taking some for yourself. Atlantic taught me, eventually. I know all that now.” (Like others, Burke is suing Atlantic for back royalties.) That business sense — as well as a keen knowledge of what sound suited him — kept him in good stead when he recorded Soul of the Blues in ’93 and Definition of Soul with son Salassie in ’97, respectively. “Those records felt as natural as they sound. The musicians followed me wherever I went.” When Fat Possum came to call, Burke wanted that freedom: depth of sound and control of publishing. He wanted to see the angels of honest royalties.
“That’s what money can be — a parting of the clouds,” he says with a hearty laugh. Burke continues to double over with laughter recounting Fat Possum’s offer: to record Burke singing great new songs from a superstar jury of his peers. “My peers? They’re all dead. How ’bout we talk money instead?” A week later Fat Possum arrived with the prescribed amount in check form. And Burke? He waited for those superstars. Within one month, Burke stood in the parking lot of the studio where they were to record with producer Joe Henry, “the little guy who likes his pork chops and gravy.” He phoned Fat Possum’s Andy Cochran from the parking lot and told him to bring the songs out to the car. “I didn’t want to come into his office to see they got BooBoo and Jackie Whozitwatzit to send me songs.” Instead he found an envelope bursting with tunes written for Burke by Tom Waits (“Diamond in Your Mind”), Brian Wilson (“Soul Searchin'”), Elvis Costello (“The Judgement”), Bob Dylan (“Stepchild”) and Dan Penn’s title track. He told Henry and the label to pick the tunes and not show him what they had until he came back to record. “I like surprises. I wanted to unwrap each tune like a Christmas present. Every song was a gift from its writer. I gave ’em back with my own personal ribbon around them.”
Burke and producer Henry stripped away the frippery of horns for the sake of spacious sonorousness, allowing Burke’s heavenly, soaring voice to be anchored by Rudy Copeland’s immense organ fills. “He’s as soulful as can be. I lean on him,” says Burke of the blind organist’s contribution to his own dense vocalese. “Rudy’s there for the bishop. That frees me. I could move these songs, perhaps, where they weren’t supposed to go.” Though Burke is honored to move the songs — as he states enthusiastically — it may be an even greater honor for the writers. Having Burke deem material worthy is like getting Jesus to walk on your water, the ultimate seal of vocal approval. Along with giving Wilson’s forlorn song an empathetic level of sadness worthy of the Wilson family’s epoch, Solomon oozes inspired gregarious genius into heartbreaking tunes like Costello’s merry-widow operetta based on Burke’s own somber and personal classic, “The Price” (“I still can’t perform that song without breaking down in tears”) and Penn’s rusted elegiac look at redemption.
“I’m not into the hip of things,” says Burke modestly, despite enthusing about Philly’s The Roots and how much he’d love to sing with them. “I didn’t realize how powerful a presence Tom Waits was.” Yet, for all the majestic eccentric narrative élan of Waits and Costello, Burke may be the only man powerful enough to rearrange their words. “Waits provided me with lyrics I couldn’t say, things about women not praying, about God not doing things right. I am a minister. Those words can’t be mine.” Burke stated one obvious solution: Call Waits. Get it changed. That Waits agreed without hesitation says something about Burke beyond mere song. His is the power and the glory.