Don't Give Up on Solomon Burke!

Recorded live in the studio in four days, this collaborative effort produced by singer/songwriter Joe Henry attempts to revive the career of one of the great, though under-appreciated ‘60s soul singers, who has spent the past few decades in church and in relative pop-music obscurity. Back in the 1960’s in the heyday of soul, Burke, who has always straddled the secular/sanctified line, had a series of big hits on Atlantic, including “Cry to Me,” and “Everybody Needs Somebody To Love,” (co-written by Burke and producer Bert Berns) both of which were covered by The Rolling Stones.

In the mid ‘80’s Burke issued two well-received LPs on the Rounder label co-produced by Burke and my old friend Scott Billington, now president of the label. Burke’s forte is balladry, and producer Henry puts the still vibrant and powerful belter in charge of mostly slow, smoldering tunes contributed by familiar to mainstream rocker artists including Van Morrison, Nick Lowe, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello and Brian Wilson. Also contributing is the classic Bill Building duo of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil (with Brenda Russell).

Backed by a guitar/bass/drums/keyboard quartet augmented by Burke’s church organist Rudy Copeland, female background singers, and some special guest stars like sax great Bennie Wallace, Daniel Lanois and The Blind Boys of Alabama, Burke delivers passion and intimacy punctuated by bursts of raw, pure emotional honesty, the likes of which are rarely heard in contemporary music.

The opener and album title track co-written by Dan Penn (“Dark End of the Street”), Carson Whitsett, and Hoy Lindsey sets the tone for the eleven song set. It’s a plea for forgiveness and understanding that allows Burke to unleash his full arsenal of physical and emotional weaponry both to the subject of the tune, and to the listener as a career statement. The 63 year old singer’s vocal prowess remains undiminished, particularly his supple upper reach.

Intimate, uncluttered arrangements and fine A&R work combine to provide Burke with an almost ideal setting for his powerful, yet subtle and restrained story telling. The result is an album as satisfying as the ones Mighty Sam McClain cut for the AudioQuest label a few years ago.

Musical highlights include the catchy Brian Wilson/Andy Paley collaboration “Soul Searchin,’” Nick Lowe’s “The Other Side of the Coin,” and the Mann/Weil/Russell penned “None of Us Are Free” featuring The Five Blind Boys of Alabama. I don’t know who Pick Purnell is, but his gospel drenched album closer, “Sit This One Out,” is a stunning tune reminiscent of Blind Faith’s “Presence of the Lord.”

While Solomon Burke is pigeonholed as a “soul singer,” these songs and this setting present him in a more acoustic, more relaxed, folk rock-like setting than one normally associates with “soul music.” Considering the four short days it took to record the album live in the studio, and the eclectic mix of tunes, Burke’s ability to absorb them and deliver personal, fully realized interpretations is impressive.

In an era of bright and hard sonic “modernism,” the recording here is positively fireside warm. It’s almost too warm and “thick” in places, with the drums overly damped and the cymbals sounding honey-covered. Burke’s voice, though, is intimately and naturally captured, and that’s most important. Some of the tunes sound over-equalized and bass heavy, but the bottom end reach of your system will greatly affect what you hear at home.

The LP label wisely decided to spread the 11 tunes over 2 180 gram discs, resulting in maximum cleanliness and minimum tracking and sibilance problems. I did not get a chance to hear the CD edition, but given the high quality pressings and outstanding gatefold packaging, plus the warm, intimate sound, the LP edition is highly recommended. I first encountered the LP edition at a record store in Hamburg, Germany, and when I contacted the American distributor (associated with the 4 Men With Beards label), he told me the record had been a strong seller and was essentially sold out. That doesn’t mean you can’t find it at retail. It just means the pipeline is empty. So, in the words of another great soul singer, Howard Tate, get it while you can!