- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 27, 2002

"Ididn't have any idea these people knew who I am," says Solomon Burke, the "king of rock and soul," regarding the songwriters who contributed material for his new CD "Don't Give Up On Me," which hit stores earlier this week. When one considers the songsters he is speaking of are the likes of Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Brian Wilson, Tom Waits and Elvis Costello, it's easy to understand Mr. Burke's humility and why he calls the songs, "remarkable gifts."
Clearly, Mr. Burke's famous contributors know exactly who he is a 2001 inductee to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame who recorded a string of hits for Atlantic Records in the 1960s such as "Cry To Me," "Tonight's The Night," and "Everybody Needs Somebody to Love." Atlantic producer Jerry Wexler, known for his work with Mr. Burke, Aretha Franklin and others, has said Mr. Burke is "the greatest soul singer of them all."
Mr. Burke has recorded consistently since his heyday, but now, at 62, and with a little help from some friends he didn't know he had, he's turned in a masterpiece. Listening to "Don't Give Up On Me" is like viewing great art at an exhibition each song is a distinctive painting encompassing Mr. Burke's interpretations of Mr. Dylan, Mr. Morrison and the other songwriters' lyrics.
"He's like a great actor," says Joe Henry who produced the CD. "It was amazing to see Solomon act out the parts of the different songs from all the great songwriters."
Mr. Henry, an accomplished singer-songwriter, should know. He contributed the beautiful and haunting song "Flesh and Blood," and says as soon as Mr. Burke began to sing it he knew there was no other way the lyrics could be phrased. Just about all the material was recorded instantly it took Mr. Burke and Mr. Henry only four days to complete the 11 songs on "Don't Give Up On Me," giving the CD a live, urgent feel.
"It was all done spontaneously, at the moment, at the time," Mr. Burke says in an interview from his Los Angeles home. "So whatever you're hearing is what you're hearing. There's no changes, no fixes, re-mixes. There aren't three whole takes of any of these songs. The secret is to not overdo it. We did it like I think the songwriters would like for us to do it. I don't know how great it is or how wonderful it may be is, but I know how wonderful it felt. It was one of the highlights of my career to be chosen by these superstars to do their songs."
The idea was hatched for "Don't Give Up On Me" when Epitaph Records and it's imprint label Fat Possum put out a call for material for the soul legend to sing. Subsequently the label was overwhelmed with submissions from Mr. Burke's famous fans. Mr. Burke says there was enough material to record two CD's, and that he was forced to shelve songs by Carole King and an extra tune by Van Morrison, who's groovy "Fast Train" and stirring "Only A Dream" made the final cut. It's clear the stars flocked to Mr. Burke because they hold him in such high esteem.
"He is Solomon the resonator," Tom Waits says in the August issue of GQ magazine. "The golden voice of heart, wisdom, soul and experience. He's one of the architects of American music."
Another star, Elvis Costello, who wrote what Mr. Burke calls one of the "heaviest" songs he's ever recorded, "The Judgment," showed up at the studio one afternoon unannounced.
"We had just finished the Brian Wilson song ["Soul Searchin"]," Mr. Burke says, "and people came running into the studio saying 'Elvis is here, Elvis is here.' And I'm thinking, they must be having problems if they think Elvis is here because you know the Elvis that popped into my mind. And in walks this British gentleman who says, 'Hi, my name is Elvis Costello, I've been wanting to meet you.'"
"I'm standing there in amazement," Mr. Burke continues, "because nobody for one minute knew that this man was coming to the studio. Elvis said, 'When my wife and I wrote this song we first thought biblically of a Solomon, but what stands out in our mind was a song you had written years ago.'"
It turned out to be "The Price" (1964), one of Mr. Costello's favorites from the Burke repertoire and the inspiration for "The Judgment," his own eventual contribution to the CD.
"That had me hooked," Mr. Burke says, "because 'The Price' has always been very special to me but I felt it was unfinished. As a writer, composer and performer I think of it as an unfinished symphony, and for Elvis to think of it that way was like a grab in my heart."
More inspiring moments for Mr. Burke came when his gospel heroes, The Blind Boys of Alabama, came to the studio to perform background vocals on the CD's anthem-like "None of Us Are Free," written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil co-authors of the classic song "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling."
"The Blind Boys came into the studio with one-hundred pieces of fried chicken," says Mr. Burke, an obvious food lover. "Hot sweet potato pies, cornbread and lemonade. This was their opening salute to this recording session, a little good soul food. We did the song within an hour and we had a glorious time."
Bob Dylan's "Stepchild" is also a memorable performance by Mr. Burke and underscores how he can easily switch vocal styles, from pop to gospel to blues. The song sounds like a bluesy outtake from Mr. Dylan's 2001 CD "Love and Theft." Mr. Dylan sometimes plays the song live but has never recorded it. On "Stepchild," Mr. Burke sings like a New Orleans juke-joint crooner, and Daniel Lanois' crunchy guitar provides a fine counterpoint.
While "Don't Give Up On Me" is sure to wow the artists who contributed material, Mr. Burke's influence on other artists and his audience has sometimes been overlooked. Although the Rolling Stones paid homage to him in the early 1960s covering "Cry to Me" and "Everybody Needs Somebody to Love," Mr. Burke's contemporaries Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett became better-known artists within the soul genre.
"The significance of his influence surrounds popular music but it's often forgotten," says Mr. Henry. "It was even lost on me when Solomon did something vocally during our sessions that I thought reminded me of Otis Redding, then someone pointed out to me that Otis got that style from Solomon."
Mr. Burke doesn't worry about such things. He's a humble man who says his first priority is God. He's an ordained bishop and incredibly, also a licensed mortician. His second priority is his family: he's the father of an astonishing 21 children and has 64 grandchildren. Only as a third priority does Mr. Burke finally acknowledge music.
Maybe that's why he's genuinely touched that "Don't Give Up On Me" actually came to fruition.
"I'm totally overwhelmed by the fact that everyone wrote this material for me and it all worked out," Mr. Burke says. "I never thought I could pull it off. I kept calling Wilson Pickett and saying, 'Can you believe it?'"


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