SOUL MAN Keeping the music alive
Being a legend isn't enough for Solomon Burke.
By RANDY LEWIS
LOS ANGELES TIMES
LOS ANGELES -- Anyone coming into the presence of King Solomon ought to be armed with this bit of wisdom: Prepare to take your shoes off and set a spell.
Sitting on a gilt, bejeweled, red velvet-accented throne in the living room of his two-story home in L.A.'s San Fernando Valley, Solomon Burke, the man dubbed "the king of rock 'n' soul" in the 1960s, exudes an aura that's part beneficent monarch, part folksy Jed Clampett.
He really does require visitors to remove their shoes and leave them in the hallway before moving into the living room, but it's not a move to put callers on the defensive. Once the shoes are doffed, he quickly offers a warm handshake and a gentle bear hug, putting even strangers in their socks immediately at ease despite his commanding presence.
Burke, 64, is hoping to throw that bear-like frame of his around music fans once again with his forthcoming album, "Make Do With What You Got," the follow-up to his 2002 career-revitalizing collection, "Don't Give Up on Me."
That album found the greatly underappreciated singer in superb voice more than four decades after first hitting the charts with "Just Out of Reach (Of My Two Open Arms)" and "Cry to Me." More important, he had songs equal to that voice by such stellar writers (and fans) as Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, Van Morrison, Tom Waits, Brian Wilson and Nick Lowe.
Punk and soul?
The new album, due March 1, figures to only add to the accolades he's been showered with since making "Don't Give Up on Me." The latter album was the result of an unlikely deal with Anti-/Fat Possum, an offshoot of the punk label Epitaph -- a serendipitous association given Burke's ancillary careers as an ordained minister and a mortician. All the pieces fell into place, with singer-songwriter Joe Henry producing the stripped-down sessions.
Andy Kaulkin, president of Anti-, says he hoped the one-album deal would lead to new interest in Burke and help him find another label that could afford the kind of big-budget record that was beyond Anti-'s limited resources.
A few months after "Don't Give Up On Me" came out, Burke got a call from Richard Foos, owner of the new retro-oriented label Shout! Factory, who was interested in pairing Burke with musician-producer Don Was. Burke loved the idea.
Was brought in a Muscle Shoals-style horn section that Henry had purposely avoided, giving the songs added punch and a stronger link to the classic '60s soul Burke helped pioneer.
"He's really the last of the great soul men," Foos says. "Even though we totally appreciated his last album, I didn't think it was a real soul album. It was more of a singer-songwriter album, a concept album with Solomon Burke as the star, not Solomon Burke doing a '60s-style soul album. That's what we wanted."
And that's largely what they got.
The outpouring of material from friends in high places that preceded "Don't Give Up on Me" just snowballed after its release. Songwriters eager to hear their words coming from Burke's elegantly soft, urgently gritty voice offered more songs for consideration, resulting in more numbers from Dylan and Morrison as well as from the Rolling Stones (who aped Burke in their earliest recordings), Robbie Robertson, Coco Montoya and Dr. John.
It closes with Hank Williams' country spiritual "Wealth Won't Save Your Soul":
You can treasure your wealth
Your diamonds and your gold
But my friends it won't save
Your poor wicked soul
It's a fitting finale, because you get the sense listening to Burke that two key themes of his life are the quest for spiritual knowledge and the need for material security.
He's generated income from other business interests over the years, and he's had a calling other than music fulfilled in his role as a minister in the House of God for All People church, an organization started by his grandmother.
His extensive family -- 23 children, 74 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren -- also keeps him plenty busy, and thankful.
Amid the material on the new album is "After All These Years," which Burke started four years ago with his friend Eddie Towns and decided to finish for this album:
You mean the world to me
After all these years, my baby
All the things that we've been through
The good times, the bad times, the sad times
You're still the dream come true for me
"A lot of times in life, we fail to tell the people who mean the most to us what we really feel about them -- 'I really love you' or 'I miss you' -- or we don't say it often enough, or in the right tone of voice," Burke says, his voice dropping to a near-whisper.
He's clearly talking about a spouse, a parent, a child or a close friend.
But as he sings it on the album, it's hard not to think he's thinking about his lifelong companion: his music.