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Black in the Saddle

Photo by Beth Hertzhaft

“Ever since I was a kid, I was at home, ‘lookin’ at the radio,’ ” says Solomon Burke with a laugh, recalling the early days of his musical education. “My grandmother made sure we listened to two hours of music a week — the Top 40, Perry Como, Dean Martin and Gene Autry, who I just loved as a kid. He’d come on the radio singing, ‘I’m back in the saddle again,’ and my grandmother would always say, ‘Listen to the pronunciation, listen to the diction — you hear every word clearly. Listen to that.’ ” Solomon pauses, then adds warmly, “Those were magic times.”


One doesn’t readily connect Gene Autry with Solomon Burke, but in 1962, the Singing Cowboy personally brought the King of Rock & Soul to Los Angeles and promoted airplay for the Burke recording “Just Out of Reach (of My Two Arms).” (Not coincidentally, Autry collected publishing coin for the song.) It’s just one of the many unlikely alliances that have marked this sovereign’s extraordinary reign, which has seen sales of 17 million albums and induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.


With the arrival of his latest recording, Make Do With What You Got, Solomon Burke extends his monarchy into even further domains. The disc is a craftily calculated follow-up to 2002’s Grammy-winning Don’t Give Up on Me, which led Burke into the 21st century’s media spot with significant profile-raising success. Where that album melded rock & roll songwriting with classic soul arrangements, the new set takes a more rocked-up road, using just a small combo: a rhythm section, keys and guitar, the axwork delivered with acutely funky heft by — don’t laugh, cuz the muther can really play — Ray Parker Jr. Make Do seems aimed at the Stones fans who’ve seen Burke opening for their heroes, more than at riders on the recent soul-revival train.



Without prompting, Burke launches into a characteristically effusive barrage of praise for all involved, from the label prexy (“for giving me this marvelous opportunity”) to producer Don Was (“and he turned off his cell phone for the entire time we were recording!”). Though Make Do was recorded in five days flat, Burke wasn’t rushing the job; the way he elevates and expands each song, whether provided by Dr. John, Bob Dylan, Robbie Robertson or Van Morrison, is fascinating. Several tracks are particularly skull-denting, notably the knockdown grind-rock of CoCo Montoya’s “I Need Your Love in My Life” and a balefully cautionary performance of Hank Williams Sr.’s “Wealth Won’t Save Your Soul.”


Easy to take apart yet impossible to put back together, Burke’s persona, on the new record, as always, keeps coming up as a contradiction — consummate artist versus sweet-talking hustler. It’s said that in Burke’s heyday, his road-show food concessions always got a price bump commensurate with the remoteness of the venue. No harm, though: A musical evening of life-changing quality was dispensed along with the pricey sandwich.


Burke’s paradox embodies both Saturday night and Sunday morning; somehow he’s managed to abide in heaven while serving his time in pop music’s grubby hell.




Born in 1940 into a Philadelphia family of bounteous spirituality and canny marketing ability, Burke was already holding forth at age 7 as the ermine-trimmed, crown-sporting Wonder Boy Preacher to his own congregation at Solomon’s Temple; he became a bishop at 12. He has no misgivings about this demanding theological path: “It always got me the chicken leg at the table!”


Recording from the age of 14, Burke amassed a trove of masterpieces at Atlantic Records by the time he was 25. It can be argued that he was the prime architect of a new music, refining R&B to such a level that a whole new name was needed: soul. How’d he do it?


“I had to keep a certain level of consciousness and awareness every time I sang a song or opened my mouth. I did it by first constantly believing in what I was doing and constantly keeping myself in order — I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I demand respect, and I give that respect to others. Number two, I did it by taking whatever song there was and adding my feelings, adding the inner soul to that song, adding something that’s not there. It’s wonderful to feel that, and that’s me.”


Burke also exhibited an original sense of visuals. While the rhythm & blues tradition of stage-property showmanship has created some powerful images — James Brown shrugging off the robe, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins emerging from a coffin — the vision of Solomon Burke holding court from an elaborate gilded throne is one of the all-time toppers. Surrounded by a dozen musical courtiers, his prodigious frame draped in double-breasted splendor, Burke gives throat with a stunning power that embraces his dramatically conflicting roles: strongman as shaman, entertainer as revelator.


Extremes are the norm for Burke: father of 21, licensed mortician, country-music fan. “I always threw a little country in there, yeah. We were the first black artists to ever have a country record on Atlantic, back in the ’60s. That was ‘Just Out of Reach,’ and my next hit with Atlantic was [the bluegrass standard] ‘Got To Travel On,’ and then [the Jim Reeves smash] ‘He’ll Have To Go.’ It was a heavy thing, and from that came all the Ray Charles country, and came Charley Pride, and so many other great country songs by black artists.”


In the studio cutting songs newly written for him by rock big shots like Van Morrison; onstage with his bastard progeny the Rolling Stones; witnessing before his congregation; turning on the charm for a permanent square like David Letterman — Burke never falters. He completely dominates the moment, ruling over secular-commercial culture even as he exudes the profound spirituality that has driven him since childhood. Faith and family remain ineluctably bound together, a nourishing formula long since postulated yet never forgotten.


On that subject, Burke is guileless and direct. “My grandmother was born a prophetess and born a great seer, and she was and still is my influence. Her words have never faded — they become stronger. Everything that she predicted in my lifetime has come true and is still coming true to this day. I’m living that prophecy.”




SOLOMON BURKE | Make Do With What You Got (Shout Factory)


SOLOMON BURKE will give a special guest performance Tues. April 19, as part of a celebration of the life of singer Shirlee Amos. (Shawn Amos headlines.) 8 p.m. The Mint. 6010 West Pico Blvd. Los Angeles, CA.


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