BOB DYLAN. BRIAN WILSON. ELVIS COSTELLO. TOM Waits. Van Morrison. Nick Lowe. When soul giant Solomon Burke stepped back into the studio in February to record his first secular material in five years -- he's also a bishop in his House of God for All People's church -- these were just a few of the songwriters who contributed previously unreleased tunes to the project. Dan Penn (co-writer of the soul classics "Dark End of the Street," "I'm Your Puppet" and "Do Right Woman," among others), Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil (whose credits include "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling," "We Gotta Get Out of This Place" and "Walking in the Rain"), singer-songwriter Joe Henry (who produced the LP) and Pick Purnell also supplied songs for the album.
Entitled Don't Give Up on Me, Burke's disc is set for late July release on the Fat Possum label, home to bedrock bluesicians R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, T-Model Ford et al., and distributed by the L.A. punk indie Epitaph, which via its Anti imprint has successfully jump-started the careers of such towering musical icons as Merle Haggard and Waits. Witnessing Burke's Saturday-night soul revue followed by his Sunday-morning gospel service at last summer's Portland Blues Festival piqued Epitaph president Andy Kaulkin's interest, and -- after preliminary discussions on a shared plane ride home -- the deal was sealed within days.
Fresh from his critically acclaimed Scar album, Henry lobbied hard for the producer's chair: "I thought somewhere between The Band's Music From Big Pink and Sam Cooke's Nightbeat album was the place we ought to be sonically. We wanted to let Solomon's voice dictate where the band was going to go. And we all agreed we needed fresh material, so we solicited songs from people we knew were fans of Solomon Burke and could deliver something quickly, 'cause we wanted the album to come out this summer."
If you're not an active participant, most recording sessions are about as exciting as watching Astroturf grow. Not so in the case of Burke's February foray. This particular fly on the wall watches and listens as Henry, Burke, engineer S. Husky Hoskulds and their handpicked crew of young 'n' old, salt 'n' pepper sessionaires (pianist Dave Palmer, guitarist Chris Bruce, drummer Jay Bellerose, upright bassist Dave Piltch and blind organist Rudy Copeland -- a last-minute replacement for a suddenly ailing Billy Preston and a longtime member of Solomon's church) cut four songs from demo to finished track in eight hours.
Burke lends Dan Penn's soul-deep title tune his customary coffee-'n'-cream vocal treatment, tosses in an extra shovelful of throaty grit that transforms Tom Waits' wheezy "Diamond in Your Mind" into a woozy midnight service at a storefront church, and takes Brian Wilson's "Soul Searching" -- originally conceived as a showcase for his late brother Carl -- all the way from Malibu to Memphis, mischievously ad-libbing "I'm soul surfin'!" in the final fade, which causes the band to collapse in paroxysms of laughter.
Then Elvis Costello shows up, just in time to hear Burke and the band working their way though his guilt-soaked song for Solomon, "The Judgment." The tune's quirky structure is proving problematic. As a palpable sense of frustration builds, Costello observes that Burke "phrases much later than I do, so those holes created by that extra half-measure in there are much larger. D'ya mind if I go in there and sing it?"
And so he does, with the band falling perfectly into place behind him. "Now that's a good track," Burke enthuses. "I can sing to that!"
At a breakfast meeting several weeks later, Burke recalls the situation. "I was kind of overwhelmed by his presence, just totally flattered that he would take the time to come down and sit there for the hours that he stayed. There's a song I wrote back in the '60s called 'The Price' [which, legend has it, Burke improvised onstage 10 minutes after he'd been served with divorce papers], and if you listen to both songs, you'll understand that 'The Judgment' picks up where 'The Price' stopped.
"I look for the story in the song," Burke elaborates. "The story has to make sense to me -- to connect with my life. Because once you record a song, it becomes part of your life for the rest of your life. It's like adopting a child; it becomes part of your family." (The 67-year-old Burke famously has 21 children and 64 grandchildren. He arrives with one of the latter in tow this morning, explaining, "This way I get to use the diamond lane.")
Burke laughs, something he does often. Learning that I've spoken with his former producer Jerry Wexler earlier in the week, he asks, "Did he tell you he was a minister in my church? 'Cause if he didn't, I'll take his license."
As a matter of fact, the 86-year-old Wexler did, adding that despite his resolute atheism, he is "honored to be able to perform weddings, confirmations, the laying on of hands, and -- in a special request apropos of my heritage -- circumcisions in a walk-in facility."
Wexler -- who produced landmark sessions for Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfield and Bob Dylan -- often cites veteran Philadelphia DJ Jimmy Bishop's claim that the best soul singer in the world is "Solomon Burke with a borrowed band."
Burke laughs again, dismissing the honors as stemming from an early-'60s show he did for Bishop where most of his band was delayed by a car accident and he was forced to cobble together an impromptu outfit from the supporting acts' backing troupes. (Others suggest that such a situation prevents Burke from merely phoning in a performance or, conversely, "oversouling" the songs to mask any unfamiliarity with the material.)
HIS FORMIDABLE STRING OF '60s SMASHES ("Everybody Needs Somebody To Love," "Cry to Me," "Got To Get You Off of My Mind" and "Just Out of Reach," for openers) and recent election to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame notwithstanding, certain soul aficionados say that Burke has shown a predilection for placing non-musical concerns -- aside from his ministry, he's a licensed mortician who often augmented his performance income by selling fried-chicken sandwiches and lemonade to his fellow artists at prices that climbed as the tour bus wound its way farther from obliging restaurants -- ahead of his career. Others cite Burke's suavely cosmopolitan, endlessly versatile vocal style as being more subtle, more sophisticated, more adult than the mannered bouts of hysteria favored by many of his more celebrated contemporaries.
Burke modestly describes his voice as "a gift from God," noting that, aside from the religious music that surrounded him as a child, "The only other music I was allowed to hear was by the cowboys -- Gene Autry and Roy Rogers." (He breaks into a few bars of "Back in the Saddle Again," as if to explain why his first hit -- 1961's "Just Out of Reach" -- was a cover of a country song, recorded a year prior to Ray Charles' Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music.)
"But my grandmother also told me to listen to Perry Como, 'cause of how smooth he was, and Nat 'King' Cole, 'cause you could hear how he pronounced every word. Dean Martin, Al Hibbler" -- Burke mimics the latter's version of "Unchained Melody" -- "those so-called crooners were the guys I heard on the radio when I was growing up, so I took that and incorporated it into gospel, and they called it soul music."
A superb raconteur, Burke illustrates his stories with hilarious imitations (Joe Tex, Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding arguing about their preferences in luxury cars) that often resolve in punch lines. (His version of Bob Dylan's contribution to his new disc name-checks the song's composer -- twice.) He offers unsolicited career advice ("You should have a TV show! You should be a record producer! You should write a cookbook!") and exchanges culinary tips ("How many layers in your lasagna? I do seven. Make it in a turkey roasting pan"). Upon learning that his noir-jazz rendition of Joe Henry's "Flesh and Blood" is a personal highlight of the new LP, he remembers my tale of the first meal I cooked for my girlfriend. "Yeah, that's perfect for your Shrimp Diane."
Yeah, well, it's beautiful, timeless, classic music. There's gotta be an audience for that, right?