Solomon Burke, RIP


Soul great Solomon Burke died at a Netherlands airport over the weekend. Burke is one of my favorite vocalists, so I'm going to indulge in a bit of appreciation.

Depending on whom you believe, Burke was either 70, 72, 74. Given his 400+ pound frame, that he lived that long is something of a blessing. Good for us that he did. Thanks to a late-in-life career resurrection, Burke has over the last decade released three of the best soul albums in a generation. I'll also argue that he had the best voice in American popular music, and it only improved with age. Burke's weight gave his characteristic timbre more heft and depth, while age added a warm, weathered texture you don't hear in the more polished sound from earlier in his career. His last five albums (with one more posthumous release on the way this month) showcase his incredible range, and an artist with with an innate ability to phrase and inflect to animate the words he's singing. He was kind of a Sinatra of soul (not that he didn't have enough nicknames, many of them self-bestowed) in that like Sinatra, Burke wasn't merely a great technical singer, he was also a master interpreter.

Signed to Apollo records in his teens (a great story in itself), Burke got his start in the music business with a series of country recordings (his first record was a Pasty Cline song), eventually moving on to gospel, blues, jazz, and of course soul. He embodied Americana music as well as anyone else I can think of, in part because he made great records in all of its component styles (save, as far as I know, for bluegrass). Here's Burke's first big hit, "Cry to Me", released in 1962.

After a series of minor hits, Burke followed the now-cliched plight of the 60s R&B vocalist. He was exploited by managers and labels, toured endlessly, and found himself in financial straits after unknowingly signing away the rights to many of his songs. But the cliches stopped there. Burke never bottomed out. Instead . . . he started businesses. He sold concessions at his own shows, eventually expanding to prepare and sell meals to other touring black musicians barred from eating at segregated restaurants in the south. He'd later run a drugstore, and eventually own and run several California mortuaries. He was also ordained as a minister in the 1970s, and also preached part-time for much of the rest of his life. He lingered on the fringes of the R&B charts for most his career, but continued recording, starting businesses, preaching, . . . and propagating. The man died with 21 children, and 90 grandchildren.

Burke's resurgence began in 2001 when he signed singer/songwriter Joe Henry to produce his next album. A fan of Burke since childhood, Henry recruited music titans like Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Nick Lowe, Brian Wilson, and Elvis Costello to write songs tailored for Burke. The result was the 2002 release Don't Give Up On Me, which I'd submit is the best soul album of the last 25 years. Henry's spare production gave Burke wide latitude to interpret the words of rock's greatest songwriters, material much more suited to his rich voice than the Lieber and Stoller-style puppy love songs he'd recorded for the better part of his career. Burke recorded the entire album without rehearsal. He showed up at the studio, sat down with the band, and churned out a Grammy-winning album. No Depression called it an "almost entirely seat-of-the-pants improvisation." It's a stunning collaboration.

From that album, here's "Fast Train," a Van Morrison-penned song that fans of The Wire will recognize from the montage that ended Season Three.

Burke's next great album, Nashville, returned him to the old-school country that launched his career. The 2006 release is a collection of country standards (and a few new songs) produced by Buddy Miller, and features Burke with backing vocals from country icons like Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, and Patti Griffin. A neo-soul singer recording a modern album of country standards sounds at first like a tough sell. But Nashville worked. The styles converge rather beautifully. Here's Burke and Welch performing "Valley of Tears" at a concert at Nashville's Belcourt Theater to celebrate the album's release.

I only saw Burke perform live once, in 2003 at The Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia. He was an ostentatious, almost cartoonish showman. He performed all his shows as you see him above, in three-piece suits, under hot lights, dabbing his brow with silk hankerchiefs, even as his weight ballooned and his health deteriorated. He sang from a giant wooden throne, sometimes holding a scepter, and managed to turn the mere act of standing up, which he only did a couple times per night, into an emotional statement that brought the audience to its feet. Between songs he'd sermonize, hand out roses to women in the audience, give lovemaking tips, and boast of his copious offspring. He closed his shows by inviting the women in the audience on-stage to dance behind him. But it was hard to be put off because of that damned voice. It's still probably best vocal performance I've ever heard in person.

Burke didn't have the name recognition of Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, or Jackie Wilson, but he outsang them all. Probably more important for his own place in music history, he outlived them all, which allowed him to collaborate with the likes of Henry and Miller to turn out some remarkable work toward the end of his life.

Given that this is a libertarian forum, I'll close with "None of Us Are Free," a moving, modern-day civil rights anthem from Don't Give Up on Me, featuring Burke and the Blind Boys of Alabama.

Rest in peace.