Solomon Burke Gets His Due

Writer: Tim Newby

Solomon Burke, the King of Rock ‘n’ Soul, laughs often during conversation.  His laugh is a loud, deep, welcoming laugh that immediately brings a smile to your face.

And he is laughing right now.

Burke was talking about his musical influences naming many of the usual suspects you would expect, Nat King Cole, Dinah Washington and Count Basie, when he broke into his deep welcoming laugh.  He pauses for a moment before naming a not so usual suspect.

“I had one of the greatest mentors ever in the world, my grandmother.  She made us listen to the Top 40 music on the radio every week,” Burke laughs again before continuing, “She made us listen to the pronunciation of Gene Autry singing ‘I Am Back in the Saddle Again.’  Not ‘Imbackinthesaddleagain.’  She said when you sing every word must be clear, ‘I – am – back – in – the – saddle – again.’  She said make sure people can hear what you say.”

That advice served Burke well as he became one of the most prolific soul singers of the 1960s – the golden era of the Soul movement – when such giants as Otis Redding, Wilson Picket, Ben E. King, and Sam Cooke roamed the earth.  He first burst onto the scene in 1961 with a cover of the country standard “Just Out Of Reach Of My Arms” that was an immediate hit on both the R&B and Pop charts of the time, and instantly established him as a huge presence.  The song also introduced Burke’s slightly country-tinged voice that melded R&B and country music and set the template that Ray Charles would follow years latter with his classic Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music.

Burke followed this up by releasing 30 singles in the following seven years, with many of them cracking both the R&B and Pop charts. Burke also became known as much for his showmanship as he did his voice.  He would often take the stage in a flowing, 15-foot-long cape and bejeweled crown, his stage theatrics predating those of such legendary showman as James Brown.

Burke has long been championed by peers and critics alike.  When asked who the greatest soul singer of all-time was legendary producer Jerry Wexler answered, “Solomon Burke with a borrowed band.”  Ahmet Ertegun, founder of Atlantic records declared, “He is a great soul singer – probably the greatest.”   Tom Waits calls him “one of the architects of American Music.”  Countless legions of singers have looked to Burke for inspiration.  Mick Jagger openly admitted to trying to mimic the phrasing of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Famer’s one of a kind voice.  The Rolling Stones even covered Burke’s “Everybody Needs Somebody To Love” on The Rolling Stones! and “Cry To Me” on Out of Our Heads.  Everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Tom Petty to Otis Redding to Wilson Picket has been known to cover Burke’s songs in concert.  Even younger bands today have tapped into the deep well of Solomon Burke, as his classic “Everybody Needs Somebody To Love” has recently started popping up on setlists by the North Mississippi All-Stars.

Despite the endless parade of fans and praise, Burke always seemed to be two steps ahead or one step behind his contemporaries.  While he was always at the forefront of the Soul movement, paving the way for a slew of singers who followed in his large wake, he never had that one timeless hit like so many others of the time that would forever endear him to our memories.  So many of his peers of the time had that one huge mega-hit that would stamp them as eternal legends, and while Burke came close, he never found that one everlasting song.  He became more known for his inspiration on other musicians than for his music.  He is often criminally overlooked by the casual fan.

After the 1970s, the interest in Burke and his popularity waned.  He kept busy though; he was an owner in a mortuary business (which his family still has ties to this day), and he focused on family – Burke fathered 21 children and 88 grandchildren.

Occasionally something would reignite the public’s fascination in Burke again.  John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd used “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” in the 1980 movie The Blues Brothers, which sparked newfound interest, and the inclusion of “Cry to Me” in 1987’s Dirty Dancing introduced him to a whole new generation.  He continued to release albums during this time, but to little fanfare.

In 2001, Burke finally received the recognition he was due when he was inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame.  The induction kicked off a fresh start to his career that has seen him release albums comparable to his best work in the 1960s. Starting with 2002’s Grammy winning Don’t Give Up On Me (which teamed Burke up with a collection of legendary songwriters, including Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Brian Wilson & Elvis Costello) and continuing through Make Do With What You Got, Soul of the Blues, and Nashville, Burke has experienced a career renaissance that very few musicians ever get to know.

When asked about his career highlights Burke thinks for a moment before answering, “There has been a lot of exciting things in my life, but the last eight years have been incredible since I won my first Grammy for the Don’t Give Up On Me record.  Then to be able to follow that up and record three more great albums with Shout Factory has been great.”

{mospagebreak} Burke looks to continue that winning streak with the release of his new album Like a Fire.  Like Don’t Give Up On Me, Like a Fire again teams Burke up with a diverse roster of songwriters.  Burke reached out to long time friends and fans, Keb’ Mo’, Eric Clapton, and Steve Jordan, for songwriting help.  But this time around Burke also looked to a new generation of songwriters to contribute.  He enlisted the talents of Ben Harper and Jesse Harris (Norah Jones), neither of whom were alive when Burke first came onto the scene, but who he recognizes a similar spirit in that appeals to his positive upbeat nature.

“These young writers have been listening to their moms and dads and their grandparents, and to the old songs,” Burke says, “and they’re combining their messages with the truth, with reality and with the times we live in.”

Burke said that his goal for the new album was to, “branch out and to be different, to reach some new territories, some new avenues, and new markets.  To be able to sing for all the people, young, old, all around the world.”  With the help of his all friends – both old and new – he does just that.  Like a Fire stays true to Burke’s past; his powerful voice and positive outlook give meaning to all the unique collaborations on the album.  Each songwriter approached their time with Burke in their own way, with each song developing based on the interaction between Burke and the individual songwriter.  “We had an adventure with these songs,” Burke says, “there are songs of comfort and there are songs of the times.”

Some of the collaborations were simple affairs.  Burke says the process when working with Clapton was easy. “There is magic between Eric and I.  If he starts playing I start singing.”  The two got together in London and wrote a couple of songs, eventually settling on the mellow-mood banjo-led contemplative tune “Thank You” for the album.  “Thank You” also includes a classic Burke moment with a spoken word breakdown mid-song, which provides him a chance to dig deep into his bag of his tricks and preach to us for just a minute like he has done for so many years.  Clapton also contributed the title track for the album.  “Like a Fire” is the perfect way to start off the album, as more so than any other song on the album it harkens directly back to Burke’s long past with its classic R&B soul sound.

On “A Minute to Rest a Second to Pray,” written by Ben Harper, Burke relied not on a magical connection but the spontaneity of writing in the studio, letting the moment dictate the feel of the song.  Burke describes the process, “The song you actually hear on the record was done as he was writing the song for me.  He was feeding me the lyrics as I was singing them.  I said ‘Let’s do it now, while you are writing, while you feel it, while its spontaneous; as its coming to you give it to me. Let’s just go with it’ So if you hear a quick pause that is him giving me the words.  You want to hear that in the moment, because it’s a minute to pray and that’s what the song is about.”

Harper’s aggressive backing vocals and distinct slide-guitar give the song a sense of urgency and help highlight what Burke feels is the central theme of the album.  Like a Fire examines the hardships and realities of our times, but does so with Burke’s unwavering optimistic spirit.  “A lot of people are going through change in their life, both good and bad, and there is going to be an even greater change in everyone’s life in the next three to four years.  We have to be prepared for that.”

Blues master Keb’ Mo’s “We Don’t Need It” is an unflinching look at this reality around us.  Telling the story of a family who has fallen on hard times and how they rally in the face of this adversity, the song and its positive message of hope is the thread that ties the whole album together.  As with much of Burke’s previous work, the song does not shy away from looking at life’s problems in the eye – it tackles them head on, but as is his customary way Burke provides a positive outlook on the situation – a solution perhaps.

Burke recognized this immediately when he first heard the song. “Mo’s an old friend of mine and he came up with the song, and I said ‘Let’s do this man, this is a message for a lot of people right now in this day and time.’  The message in the song is so important, that we learn to listen to each other and that we listen to learn.”

Like a Fire touches what Burke likes to call that “inner soul.”  And that is what he has always looked for in his music. “That inner soul makes a great cake, I can tell you that.  It becomes the bread of life that is so sweet in your mouth it is everlasting.  You remember the taste of it because it touches you.  It makes you feel like you want a little more of that, it makes you want to hear just a little bit more.”

For Solomon Burke that is what music is about for him: a way to communicate with people, because he believes communication is so important to people and their lives.  When one is at a loss for words, Burke says there are songs because, “songs take a message directly to your heart.  When you can’t speak for yourself, sometimes a song can say something in three minutes that you’ve been trying to say all your life.”  Like a Fire speaks loud and clear for all of us.

The legend has outlasted almost all of his peers, many of whom have passed away or stopped making new relevant music. Burke truly is the last man standing.  A giant from the golden era of soul, as much responsible for the shape of the music made then as he is for those who followed in his footsteps and make music today.  He is not content to stand still and coast on his past glories.  His musical output over the past few years arguably rivals his greatest material from the 1960s.  He wants to take advantage of this rebirth of sorts he has experienced since his induction into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame.

Burke is already looking forward to his next project, a possible collaboration with long-time friend Van Morrison sometime next year.  You can the hear excitement in his voice when he talks about it.

“We have been planning on it and it is something that is so exciting in my mind.  We want to write some songs together and sing some songs together,” Burke states.  “The secret to it is when he and I are together we just create.”

Burke says another dream of his would be to record with Aretha Franklin.  “That would be fantastic,” he says, “to just sit down with her at the piano and record on the spot spontaneously.”

For Burke, though, it is much more than just making music.  It is about life, and how he impacts people with his music.

“This is how I am directing my life and career, not just to be the soul singer, or the gospel singer, or the R&B singer, but to be the people’s singer, to sing for all the people.  To let them hear what they want to hear come from me. To be able to utilize the gift that I have to the best of my ability.”

Burke laughs again, that deep laugh that makes your soul smile, before finishing, “And I want to keep learning, everyday I want to keep learning.”