By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
"Now, Charles they classified as a blues singer, which he really isn't, you know. He's got that bluesy 'mmmoo ooooo' sound, but he's not sitting on a cotton bale out on the bayou singing that kind of thing - he's an excellent piano player, classically trained. His singing has got that bluesy tinge, but as a singer, it's the way he phrases. It's the same with Sinatra: two great singers who would be thinking jazz, and phrase that way."
By the time Solomon struck out on his own, it was the height of the R&B honking craze, kicked off by Paul Williams' "The Hucklebuck" in '49 and taken to frantic extremes by shrewd Los Angeles sax men Big Jay McNeely and Joe Houston. "At the time, they couldn't decide if they wanted you to play jazz or honk," he says. "A guy told me once, 'There are two types of ways to play saxophone: You can play intelligent or you can play ign'ant.' By intelligent he meant guys like Dexter Gordon, Don Byas. And then there's the ign'ant players, like Joe Houston and Jay McNeely. At the time I started out, there was no in-between; you had to be one or the other."
Solomon's unique ability to wed the entertaining fury of the "ign'ants" with the poise and articulation of the "intelligents" was captured perfectly on the 1953 Okeh single "But Officer," a wry musical look at police harassment; Quincy Jones hustled up the session, jazzman Gigi Gryce supplied spoken interjections ("But officer, that is my real name!" and "But Lucifer I mean officer . . ."), with Solomon's sax "speaking" the cop's part, an amazing demonstration of his horn style's almost conversational flexibility. While it was the only record ever released under his own name ("They pressed about three copies," he says, "and my mother bought 'em all!"), he remained an in-demand player for decades, one whose gift for spanning the far reaches of the sax spectrum served him very well.
In 1964, "Ike Turner called me up, so I went over to his house, and the Ali-Liston fight came on on the radio; we stopped the rehearsal to listen to the fight. Later on, Ike just said, 'You're hired, as far as I'm concerned.' Which was weird, because this wasn't even an audition, and I was always considered a jazz musician." He stayed with Ike and Tina until 1967, then rejoined in '72 and found himself smack-dab in the middle of one a of the most bizarre scenarios in R&B history, the night in Oakland when the Black Panthers, who had booked the show, stormed the stage and beat the hell out of Ike and his band.
"Ike didn't know it was a Panther thing, and the place was packed with all these desperate-looking guys, couldn't see their pupils through the shades, necks all bulging with veins, T-shirts all rolled up even though it was about 30 degrees below zero. Well, I can't reason like the Black Panthers, but they'd figured, get all the people to show up, pay Ike and then take the money back. Ike was clairvoyant enough to know somethin' wasn't right, and he always got his money before he started, just like Ray Charles, so he'd given the money to his secretary, who left for Los Angeles.
"The money, it was gone, and the Panthers decided to start kickin' butt. During the second show, they came up there onstage, and a scuffle broke out with one of the karate students - Ike had spent all this money teaching two or three guys in the band karate. Now, the piano player, Duane, was blind, and he heard all this commotion, and this cat is bumpin' off the walls, so I ran over and took him down offstage. The Panthers are up there kickin' butt, and we're observing from the side, and Duane'd say, 'Oh! What's that? Who got hit then?' And I'm doin' the Howard Cosell, like it was on the radio! But Ike's band got their asses kicked - and the ones that tried to use that 25-cent karate got it the worst!"
Solomon laughs at the memory, then adds, "I didn't find out until several years later that one of the Panther higher-ups knew me from somewhere and had told 'em, 'Don't bother that guy.'"
Clifford Solomon has led a thoroughly charmed life; in 1974 Ray Charles hired him and by '77 made him bandleader, a high-prestige position that he held for the next 10 years. In 1990, Charles Brown once again called on Solomon, who joined him just before Bonnie Raitt took Brown out for a national tour, considerably heating up the pianist's career and, happily, raising both his profile and his price. Brown and Solomon have remained together since, recording and performing some of the finest work of their respective careers. Brown's latest album, So Goes Love, in fact, features both Solomon and Teddy Edwards, a rare example of artistic continuity in a field more prone to tragedy and failure.
Hearing Solomon meander through one of his languid improvisatory stretches is among the greatest musical pleasures this town has ever offered. Typically, though, he feels much the same as he did when he first quit Lionel Hampton's orchestra way back when; even after decades of session work, he says, he can't name a record he's really proud of.
"I don't have a favorite, because I never have been satisfied - after listening to something, I always say, 'Well, I could've done it better than that!' So you're never satisfied. At least I'm not."