Dylan, Waits, Costello Help Soul Legend Regain His Throne

'Cry to Me' singer Solomon Burke poised for comeback in his 60s.

Epitaph President Andy Kaulkin approached soul legend Solomon Burke after a
gospel show in Portland last year and asked if he wanted to record a secular
album for his Fat Possum imprint. The self-proclaimed King of Rock ‘n’ Soul
was understandably skeptical.

“I thought he was representing a football team and he wanted me to be their
mascot or something,” said Burke. “I had no idea what a ‘Fat Possum’ was,
except the ones I’d seen in the fields.”

Burke took the meeting, though, and Kaulkin offered him a deal he couldn’t
refuse: record for me and I’ll have the giants of the music industry write
you amazing tunes.

“I asked, ‘How are you going to do this?,’ ” Burke said, having heard all
manner of empty promises in a four-decade, roller-coaster career. “Then, I
asked, ‘Where’s the check?’ ”

When Kaulkin’s check cleared, Burke knew he was for real. And when Burke
found out Fat Possum’s parent company was called Epitaph, well, this
part-time mortician was definitely sold.

Kaulkin made good on his word, too. In fact, better than Burke could ever
have imagined. The first secular album in five years from this 62-year-old
hot dog manufacturer, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer (2001) and bishop of his
own Los Angeles church is called Don’t Give up on Me (July 23). It
boasts 11 previously unreleased or new songs written for Burke by Van
Morrison, Brian Wilson, Elvis Costello, Bob Dylan and Nick Lowe.

Also contributing tracks are such songwriting legends as Dan Penn (co-author
of soul classics like “Dark End of the Street” and “Do Right Woman”), Barry
Mann and Cynthia Weil (“You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling,” “Walking in the
Rain”), and singer/songwriter Joe Henry, who also produced the album.

Rather than try to update Burke’s sound by hooking him up with hot, young
producers or pulling a Santana and pairing him with contemporary singers,
Henry sprinted in the other direction. Even before he got the job he never
thought he’d land (“They were talking with some very heavy hitters,”
he said), Henry urged Kaulkin not to try remaking Burke’s image.

“Don’t do a phony retro soul record,” Henry counseled Kaulkin, admitting
he’d have been more intimidated by producing Burke if he were a “smarter
man.”

To his surprise, Henry got the job without even meeting his hero. (But Burke
said Henry later impressed him well enough by ordering pork chops with gravy
and eggs for their first breakfast together.)

The producer, too, was true to his word, paring down the elegant
arrangements to their barest bones and placing the spotlight firmly on Burke
and his still amazingly subtle, rich voice. In the center of the sessions,
improvising, writing new lyrics and nailing just about every song in two
takes or less stood Burke, happy to take direction but clearly holding the
experiment aloft on his considerable shoulders.

“I’m just waiting for the lawyers, waiting for the lawsuits,” Burke joked
about his original take on the all-star cast of songwriters’ work. “I’m just
waiting for all these people I haven’t met to hear what I did to their songs
and file some suits.”

Burke needn’t worry. The result sounds timeless, like a trip back to the
early ’60s era of soul superstars (and Burke contemporaries) such as Otis
Redding, Sam Cooke and Wilson Pickett.

Aching songs of faith tested and the purity of a positive mind (“Don’t Give
up on Me,” Waits’ “Diamond in Your Mind”) slow dance alongside soaring
gospel meditations (“None of Us Are Free” featuring the Blind Boys of
Alabama) and Henry’s midnight blue, tortured love song, “Flesh and Blood.”
In an age when artists routinely take months to record albums, Burke, his
longtime blind church organist Rudy Copeland and a backing band assembled by
Henry took just three days to record and mix the entire album.

While Burke did not have the same pop impact as such peers as Redding and
Pickett in the early ’60s, his signature mix of country, soul, gospel and
R&B, and lush, melodic ballads influenced everyone from the Small Faces to
the Rolling Stones, who covered his hits “Cry to Me” and “Everybody Needs
Somebody to Love.”

Like Aretha Franklin, Burke’s use of gospel influence came from a personal
space. He preached in his family’s Philadelphia church and hosted a gospel
radio show at age 7. He made his first gospel records in his teens and
signed on to sing secular pop songs for Atlantic Records in 1960 at age 20,
his biggest hit coming in 1969 with a cover of Creedence Clearwater
Revival’s “Proud Mary.”

His colorful past explains why so many artists were willing to pitch in.
But, with the exception of Costello — who popped in on day three to
walk the band through his tricky arrangement on “The Judgement” — none
of the other star songwriters had met Burke. Yet somehow Henry said they
were able to tap into aspects of the singer’s personality that amazed even
Burke, crafting songs that sound custom-made for his expressive, supple
voice.

“I have 21 children and 63 grandchildren, and I believe that when you marry
into a family, that’s your family,” Burke said, explaining his connection to
Dylan’s walking blues, “Stepchild.” “That song is tapping into me, that’s
what’s so phenomenal and how freaked out am I that these people knew
something about me mentally and spiritually that they could write these
songs.”

“They’re all terrific fans of his sensibility and style, and the structures
of those classic soul songs by him and others are part of our DNA as
writers,” Henry explained.

The secret, Burke said, is “sometimes less is best. Joe Henry sat
back and said, ‘I don’t want to mess this up.’ He did not demand the control
other producers would have. He said, ‘Let it flow.’ ”

Realizing the magic they captured, Burke said he knows he and his band could
never record this album again.

“It’s impossible,” he said. “Every one of these songs is the moment.”

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