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."