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
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."