Phone interviews are always risky. Without the added bonus of facial expressions and appearance, it’s sometimes difficult for the interviewer and interviewee to truly get comfortable with each other. In the past, I’ve conversed with both the monotonic and the stimulating, the bored and the over-anxious, but nothing prepared me for my conversation with the King of Rock and Soul, Solomon Burke. I had heard he was a flamboyant character, but reserved my judgment. Beyond his ‘60s hits “Cry to Me,” “Down in the Valley,” “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love,” and others on a Best Of compilation, the only other bits of information I was aware of was that he had over 20 kids, was a bishop of his own church in Los Angeles and had a side practice as a mortician.
The reason for the renewed interest in the soul singer (beyond the intriguing bits about being a bishop, a mortician, and a father 20 times over) was that he had just released an album of new material on the hip indie label, Fat Possum, that has been getting rave reviews and much heralded national acclaim. Don’t Give Up On Me was produced by gifted songwriter Joe Henry (who incidentally is Madonna’s brother-in-law) and boasts songs from some of the greatest songwriters of our time, including Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson, Van Morrison, Elvis Costello, Tom Waits and others. Adding to the buzz is the fact that none of the songs have ever been released. They were either written specifically for the record, or just happened to be idly sitting around, waiting for a great like Solomon Burke, to dust them off. With all this fine fodder, I had painstakingly come up with 30 or so questions to drill Dr. (licensed mortician) Burke, and felt slightly anxious, but mostly prepared for the interview. What followed was one of the strangest interviews I’ve had.
Solomon Burke answered the phone in a voice I wasn’t expecting. I guess I expected a rougher, deeper timbre, but what I actually heard was an extremely melodious, smooth voice with heavy emphasis on diction. He greeted me warmly asking about the weather in New Orleans (raining), and about my family. It was actually the first time someone had actually asked about me personally during an interview, and I was taken aback. As we were still kind of feeling each other out, I launched into what I assumed he’d be most interested in talking about, his new album. It was here that Mr. Burke took the reins and galloped away.
When Solomon was first approached by Matthew Johnson of Fat Possum Records, he had trouble believing Fat Possum was a record company. “We wound up meeting in an airplane, he was sitting behind me. I thought he was with a football team. A couple weeks earlier I had been asked by a team called the Big Bears to invest [in their team], but my sons told me that the last thing I needed was to walk along the sidelines in a bear suit. So when this guy said he was with Fat Possum, I thought to myself, ‘Another football team? What is this, football year? I hope they’re not coming to Los Angeles!’”
Eventually, Burke realized that Fat Possum wanted him in the studio and not dressed as the mascot for a football team, but he wasn’t convinced. It was on the plane where Burke was proposed the idea of singing new songs from some of the best songwriters in the world. He was still skeptical but he thought he might as well give it a shot. When his first check came and cleared, he was much relieved. Still, he didn’t believe that Fat Possum would be able to get any major songwriters to submit material. “I said to myself, ‘Well, he’s got a year to do it. I bet he calls in eight to nine months to say he couldn’t find anyone but Wilson Pickett.’ So I called Wilson up warning him that some guy may call to write some songs for me, so please do it.”
Less than two months later, Johnson called telling him that the songs had arrived. “I came over to the office and the next thing I see is this guy coming out [of Fat Possum] with spiked hair, another guy had rings in his nose, one other one had pink hair. I immediately got back into my car, got on my cell phone and called him [Johnson] asking, ‘Who did you get to write these songs? If those are the writers, then I’m not really into that right now…’” Johnson assuaged his fears and brought out a big envelope stuffed with demo tapes. “He turns to me and tells me to pull out anyone I want, and what I pulled was Bob Dylan. I couldn’t believe it.” The wealth of music dispatched to Fat Possum when the call was sent out for material humbled Solomon. Without hesitation he told them to book the studio.
The sessions were done incredibly quickly. Burke requested that he hear the songs just one at a time. He wanted it to be as organic as possible, as honest and real as possible. At this point in the conversation, Burke started getting very animated. “It was a jam session. You know how they do it in New Orleans. Those great lounges where you never know just who might show up to play. That was what it was like.”
On the third day, Elvis Costello showed up at the studio wanting to hear how the song he had submitted, “The Judgment,” was coming. Burke, having never met Costello, became very nervous. He hadn’t even heard the song yet. “I was paranoid. I didn’t even know what his song was about. They gave me the sheet music and are about to play the tape when Elvis says in his thick British accent, ‘If you haven’t heard it yet my man, let me sing it for you.’ So he sat down on the bench beside me and sang it. He told me he had written the song after being inspired by my song ‘The Price’…so where ‘The Price’ ends ‘The Judgment’ begins.”
Prior to Don’t Give Up On Me, Burke hadn’t met any of the songwriters who gave their demos for the project. He was stunned at the response, and deeply honored. ‘‘I’m so thrilled that these great superstars even remember my name. I just hope that there’s a song on this album that will touch someone’s heart, give hope. The whole album is a message.” To hammer in his point, he describes giving his first copy of the new CD to his landlord and telling him to listen to the opening track, “Don’t Give Up On Me.” “I said to my landlord, ‘Now don’t give up on me, don’t give up on this 30 year mortgage.’” With this quip, he begins a chuckle which gained in momentum and was so incredibly infectious that for a good 20 seconds we both had to put the phone down and breathe deep. But soon after, the mood changed. Something in him clicked over and it was at this point in the interview where it ceased being an interview and became a sermon. There was no stopping Dr. Burke as he bolted into a virtuoso performance of spiritual exhortations.
“The messages on this album are real!” exclaimed Burke, “God has blessed me at the age of 62. I’ve been on the trail.” He then starts rattling off spirited one-liners sounding like an impassioned motivational speaker, and midway through I realize he’s using the song titles of his newest album as the basis for his preaching. “You ‘Always Got to Keep a Diamond in Your Mind’ [Tom Waits] and remember there’s ‘Another Side of the Coin’ [Nick Lowe], we’re all just ‘Flesh and Blood’ [Joe Henry]. This album is so deep! I thought for the cover they’d just show a picture of a big well.”
I still had about 28 questions left for the big man, so I moved on to the subject of his church and being a bishop. Solomon Burke has been preaching since he was seven-years-old, a pastor since he was 12. Speaking of his early days getting started, Burke gets nostalgic, “All I know is that after I got that first sermon down, I got two pieces of chicken. I thought, ‘Instead of just one drumstick, I can have a wing?’ Back in those days, the pastor always had a choice of what piece of chicken he wanted.” Questioned about his own church, the Miracle Theater in Inglewood, California, Burke’s tone became hushed and I had to turn up the volume on the speaker phone. “You walk into my church, and you walk into something fantastic, something real, not traditionally organized, but true…You know that when you walk into that building, that you’re expecting a miracle, you’re expecting God to do something spectacular in your life…It’s not about what you wear, or bringing your money, it’s about you.”
Being the cynical, sarcastic journalist that I am, talk like this would usually turn me right off, and I’d dismiss the words as religious babble. But from the mouth of soul legend Solomon Burke, I found myself drinking it all in. Now, don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t about to make a spiritual conversion, but I was thoroughly engaged. Maybe sensing this, Burke began picking up the momentum, gaining in speed, and volume. “God has done it for me, and he’ll do it for you…It’s when you believe, that you receive, but it’s only when you doubt that you do without. Don’t make me start preaching now!”
This was quite a riveting performance. He was in what I assume other preachers call “the zone,” and all hopes of a normal interview were over. He continued in this manner for some time until I finally got another word in. I wanted to know if it was hard to make the transition from preaching to singing popular music, knowing that many in the sacred world view the move to secular music as turning one’s back an the church. It was the opposite for Burke. “There was no transition. When you’re talking about love, you’re talking about God. God is love. [My message] has always been the message of love. You know, ‘Everybody Needs Somebody to Love.’ You don’t have to go ‘Down in the Valley’, the valley so law. C’mon girl, ‘Cry to Me!’” He was dropping his song titles again, and he did it in such a way that it fit into his explanations and conversation. The belief and faith he had in the power of his songs was truly a wonder. Forget those trendy coffee table survival guides, and cheesy self-help manuals. It seems all one would ever need is a copy of The Very Best of Solomon Burke.
It is not just his songs that Burke believes have the power to heal. He started listing songs and performers that move him. He gets misty speaking of his old friend Otis Redding, “‘These Arms of Mine’…I cried when I first heard that. That burning! He was singing about his wife!” Another artist whose impact on Burke was tremendous was New Orleans’ own Allen Toussaint. “Allen is one of the most underestimated producers and songwriters of all time. He’s like the Godfather of music. Whenever I come to New Orleans, the first thing I do is run over to Allen’s.” Keeping with the New Orleans theme, I squeezed in a question about the records he did for Black Top (owned by Hammond and the late Nauman Scott), and he became quiet again. “Yes, Nauman. We lost a dear, dear friend.” Not one to dwell on sadness, Burke then launched into a story about making a record with Nauman and Hammond Scott. After the record was done, Burke had called Nauman up asking for his check, which was overdue. “He [Nauman] said to me, ‘Hey man, you wouldn’t believe it. I was at a wedding, and I had your check in my [prosthetic] leg. Somebody took my damn leg. I haven’t been able to find my leg in four days!’” At this remembrance, Solomon burst into another fit of laughter that lasted long enough for me to wonder if something had gone horribly wrong, that maybe he had begun choking or having some kind of seizure. Finally he calmed down and exhaled deeply, “Those guys were so good that you couldn’t even get mad at them.”
Without provocation, Dr. Burke began testifying again. This time around he’s talking about how blessed he’s been. In 2000, Burke was asked to sing for the Pope at the Vatican for the Family Jubilee. “From that moment, the seven blessings that the Pope gave me, miracles have been happening in my life. I was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I’d been waiting ten years. Now this album comes out. This is the work of God, not man! Who in the world would think I’d have a hit record on a Fat Possum? Fat pig, big gorilla, who cares, it’s working!” I can tell that Dr. Burke is beginning now to wind down. We’ve been talking for close to an hour and he’s worked up quite a sweat. I wonder if he lays the spiritual theme on as heavy with all journalists, or if he sensed that he had his work cut out for him with me. I hadn’t even asked one-third of the questions I had prepared, but really couldn’t complain. It’s not often you think you’re spending an hour on an interview and get liturgical lessons. Stories of his mortician practice would have to be shelved for another time. He closes the conversation, of course, with a spiritual message. “Millions of light years ago, God decided you and I would talk this morning, and who knows what will came of it, only He can tell. I send my blessings to you. Please send all my love and blessings to everyone in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Shreveport…the whole state.”
So there you have it. The Bishop, the King of Rock and Soul, Solomon Burke has blessed the whole state. Bring on the miracles.