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Recording of Don't Give Up On Me by Solomon Burke
ABCnet, 2002-07-22
- Brian Wise


The Return Of The King Of Rock and Soul

By Brian Wise 22/7/2002

“It was four days of Christmas,” says Solomon Burke about the recording of his new album Don’t Give Up On Me which is released in Australia today.

The album, produced by singer/songwriter Joe Henry, features new songs from an array of great writers: Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan, Elvis Costello and Cait O’Riordan, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Nick Lowe, Dan Penn and even the producer himself.

“Four days of Christmas,” repeats Burke, “just opening up these presents that were given to me to give back to you, and to give back to the world.”

After more than forty years in the business, the King Of Rock and Soul – who is actually an ordained bishop, licensed mortician and member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – is probably still best known to a wider audience for the fact that early in their career the Rolling Stones covered his hits ‘Everybody Needs Somebody To Love’, ‘Cry To Me’ and ‘You Can Make It If You Try’.

“I’m so grateful for every person that’s ever purchased those songs, or bought those records, by me or by the Stones or by the Blues Brothers or Wilson Pickett or whoever recorded or cut them,” says Burke graciously. “Because every time it plays it’s just a blessing for me and for my family and for the person who’s listening to it.”

While he has been recording spasmodically over the years, running his own production company and a string of mortuaries on the US West Coast, Burke is set to have his career resuscitated through an intriguing deal with the Fat Possum label, previously renowned for its blues albums by such artists as R. L. Burnside.

Andy Kaulkin, one of the labels execs, approached Burke with the idea of teaming him with Henry on some new songs and bringing the huge soul voice to a new audience in the same way that the label had been able to get Burnside to a younger, hipper audience than the traditional blues crowd.

“I thought maybe it was a football team when I first heard of it,” says Burke of the label and laughs at the memory. “And I thought the guy was trying to get me to be a mascot or invest in it. I got very excited when I found out it was a record company. So far it’s been one of the best things that’s happened to me in decades.”

Burke’s laughter continues when he recalls the fact that he thought he had pulled off one of the sharpest deals in his career, pocketing the advance for a project that even he thought might have been a little ambitious.

“Well, I’ve got to be honest with you,” he says, “I thought I had the greatest deal going in the world. I came back home and I said to my children, Dad just pulled off one of the greatest deals of all time! Look at this cheque. Is this a nice fat cheque? and they said, Dad, it’s great! What you gotta do? I says, I have to sit here and wait for this gentleman for a year to come up with great superstars that are going write songs for me like never before!”

Burke admits that he thinks Kaulkin has had the last laugh, though he also says that when he was told to come to the company’s office to hear the contributed songs he refused to move from the parking lot downstairs until he was assured that there were some heavyweight names on the writing credits.

“Andy comes out just with a bag,” he recalls, “and he says, Brian Wilson, Elvis Costello. I said that’s it! I couldn’t believe he managed it.”

Burke was just as easily convinced that singer/songwriter Joe Henry, of whom he had never previously heard, could produce the album after having breakfast with him to discuss the album. (Food seems to be a constant theme in Burke’s conversation - understandable given his not inconsiderable size. Last week he appeared on the Letterman show sitting on a throne as the King of Rock and Soul).

“He has a deeper soul,” he says of Henry (who also happens to be Madonna’s brother in-law - another thing Burke did not know about him until after the recording), “and he orders just scrambled eggs, hash browns and two fried pork chops with gravy on the side. This is a soulful guy! I said anybody who eats pork chops with gravy for breakfast is my kind a guy. It was the beginning of a great relationship right there. Plus he’s from North Carolina originally, which gives him a foundation of what my music was all about, and he was interested enough to go back and research and really listen to my first recordings.”

Amongst the highlights of the new album is the appearance of the Blind Boys Of Alabama, who achieved huge acclaim last year for their own album Spirit of the Century, which shares a similar approach to Don’t Give Up On Me by taking contemporary songs and converting them, so to speak, to a gospel framework.

“The Blind Boys came into the studio, the day after their Grammy,” recalls Burke. They were still hyper. They walked in with six sweet potato pies and a hundred pieces of fried chicken for everybody. It was like a picnic party in the studio. Within the hour we had recorded ‘None Of Us Are Free’. We still had chicken lips! You know, they are so phenomenal.”

Similarly, Elvis Costello – whose co-write on ‘The Judgement’, an answer to an old Burke song titled ‘The Price’, is one of the album’s many highlights – also made it to the studio.

“In comes a guy called Elvis Costello,” says Burke. “In living colour and he said, ‘Hi, I just came by to hear the song. I said, we haven’t done it yet and he says, don’t play the tape, let me sing it for you. He really sat there in the booth with me and sang that song to me word for word, lyric for lyric that was written by him and his wife. We just went in and recorded it just point blank without putting any production around it.”

As for Bob Dylan’s song ‘Stepchild’, Burke is not so certain of the writer’s response.

“I think he is my stepchild,” he says and guffaws heartily. “I think he got a little mad with me, he hasn’t spoken to me since, I hope he’s not angry because I say, ‘old Bob Dylan’, and he’s ten years younger than me!”

While Burke is worried that radio might not accept the album – though it sounds like a certainty to win at least one Grammy next year - he seems delighted simply for the opportunity to record.

“I’m very proud of this accomplishment,” he says, “I’m very excited about it.”

© ABC 2002


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