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Once and Future King

Cult-hero soul singer Solomon Burke returns to claim his crown.

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Like his biblical namesake, Solomon Burke is a wise and happy man. It's only 7:45 a.m., but he's wide-awake and ready to talk, taking care of one of his 62 grandchildren. The music pioneer has a lot to be excited about -- his latest album, Don't Give Up on Me, has been heralded as a soul revelation, and Burke is about to embark on a series of tour dates supporting the album. It's been four decades since the King of Rock 'n' Soul debuted on the tiny Apollo label, 33 years since recording the seminal King Solomon for Atlantic, and five since he cut his last secular album. His voice, exultant and full of spirit, belies his age -- 62 this past May.

He's "The World's Greatest Soul Singer" -- at least, that's what the card attached to Don't Give Up on Me reads. It's a ballsy claim, yet Burke delivers. His voice -- that voice -- is an incredible instrument, sunny and light one moment, dark and reverberant the next. He can shift emphasis in a single note, laughing and loving before suddenly bringing his audience to tears. It's what soul music is all about -- and Burke is the master.

Like many of his peers, Burke learned to sing in church. His Philadelphia upbringing, however, was far from typical. Twelve years before his birth, his grandmother dreamt about baby Solomon and founded Solomon's Temple: The House of God for All People, certain of his imminent arrival. By age 7, Burke was delivering sermons at the church, and he spent his preteen years touring the East Coast as the Wonder Boy Preacher, saving souls for the House of God. "I love preaching," Burke says. "The preacher always gets his pick of the fried chicken at Sunday dinner -- and, boy, do I love those wings!"

Through performing, Burke saw "a new avenue to spread the gospel" -- secular music. He cut a handful of successful singles, "You Can Run (But You Can't Hide)" among them, but quickly became disillusioned with the seamy record business. Discouraged, he began a new career in the mid-'50s: mortician. "My aunt and uncle were in the funeral-home business, and they did very well," Burke recalls. Scoffing at the fear involved, he says merrily, "You don't have to be scared of dead people -- the live ones are who you have to worry about!" His next words are just as gleeful: "Isn't it wonderful that I eventually ended up on Epitaph Records?"

As you might expect, Burke's fortune involved living folks, not dead ones. From 1961 to '64, he recorded a series of hits for Atlantic Records, hitting again and again with "Just Out of Reach," "Cry to Me," and "If You Need Me." He reworked a string of country ballads -- including "Down in the Valley" and "He'll Have to Go" -- into soulful masterpieces and brought down the house with his own "The Price" and "Everybody Needs Somebody to Love."

But the years after were less fruitful, as Burke hopped from label to label and slowly slipped from the public eye, finally retreating to the spiritual world as a bishop in his church. He still had the voice -- it was "as smooth as silk, as capable of swelling to an impassioned, effortless crescendo, as likely to soar to a thrilling high note or drop to a confidential whisper," author Peter Guralnick noted in 1980 -- but his kingdom was largely dormant.

Then, in 2001, Epitaph head Andy Kaulkin had a vision. The punk-identified label is well known for releasing records from Rancid and the Offspring but had lately embarked on a series of reclamation projects, bringing both Merle Haggard and Tom Waits to new audiences. Kaulkin was blown away by Burke's talent and wanted a chance to reinvigorate the legendary career. At a preliminary meeting, Kaulkin proposed an album under Epitaph's blues- and roots-oriented Fat Possum imprint. Burke was initially nonplussed: "When I heard about Fat Possum," he says, "I thought they were a football team that wanted me to be their mascot. I thought, Well, I may be big, but Fat Possum? I didn't want to wear a 'possum suit! When I found out they were a record label, I was relieved."

Soon after, Burke met producer Joe Henry. "I loved him from the moment I first met him," Burke declares. "We were eating breakfast in a Jewish deli -- Andy and I were eating bagels and lox -- when Joe came in and ordered pork chops with gravy. I knew then that this guy had to produce my album."

The idea behind Don't Give Up on Me was ingenious: Songwriters Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson, Elvis Costello, Dan Penn, Tom Waits, Van Morrison, and Nick Lowe all contributed to the album, cut live at Hollywood's Sound Factory studio last February. The sessions lasted less than a week. "It was easy," Burke says with conviction, "like being handed a precious gift to unwrap. I never had freedom like that before, never had something come that easy. It was given to me."

"All the best songwriters in the world writing songs for me?" he recalls with disbelief. "You've gotta be kidding me." Burke worked their gifts with effortless tact, soaring through the Southern-inspired soul ballads of Penn, Lowe, and Morrison then unwinding the story-songs contributed by Dylan and Waits with equal grace. "You know," he says, "Elvis Costello and his wife wrote 'The Judgement' for me based on 'The Price.' Well, he came into the studio and asked if he could sing it for me." Burke pauses for a beat, setting up the story. "I thought, This little guy? Sing for me? Somebody get a camera! Then he opened his mouth, and it was beautiful. I'd never had anyone serenade me like that."

Burke winds up the interview with a recitation of the album's title track, written by Dan Penn. "If I fall short," he intones, "If I don't make the grade/If your expectations aren't met in me today/There's always tomorrow or tomorrow night/Hang in there, baby/Sooner or later, I know I'll get it right." Burke masterfully turns the words into a pledge from the King of Rock 'n' Soul himself. "Please don't give up on me," he begs, weighing each syllable emphatically. It's an imploring moment, an invitation, an invocation -- Solomon Burke is back.

Solomon Burke

Friday, October 11th, 10:30 p.m.

King Biscuit Blues Festival

Helena, Arkansas

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