Solomon Burke: King of Blues and Soul

Solomon Burke
King of Blues and Soul
Fuel 2000

This reissue will probably slip by unnoticed simply because it will be assumed to be yet another re-packaging of Solomon Burke’s 1960s back catalogue. In fact, it is a second chance to get an earful of a really solid blues album. For this CD revives the very tasty Soul of the Blues set (Black Top 1993), with the added bonus of about half of a live gig (Live at the House of Blues, 1994). If vintage sounding rhythm and blues, played properly and featuring a vocalist second to none appeals to you — and why should it not — then give this a try.

Solomon Burke mixed up rock ‘n’ roll, gospel and country to become one of the key soul men in the genre’s formative period. His rhythm and blues credentials were always known to be in impeccable order but how able he would prove at handling a fairly straight blues set could only be guessed at — until he made this remarkable recording. At the time, 30 years past his “peak”, it seemed a rather humble project. Get Burke down to New Orleans and give him a few standards to play with — OK for die-hard fans but just one more date for a star whose public profile had long since diminished. That the resulting performances transcend the limits of those modest ambitions is due to a number of key ingredients which should serve as an object lesson for those putting together an album that re-visits the musical past.

Firstly make sure the musicians are from the top drawer and have a feeling for the material. New Orleans is a good place to try this as R&B (old style) still has a life in that city. If this record does nothing else it should raise the profile of such unsung heroes as guitarists Clarence Holliman and Sam Mayfield or the lately departed organist Sammy Berfect. In contrast to many sessions of this nature, the players are completely at ease, being absolutely steeped in both the basics and the nuances of the form. They are constantly inventive but do not over-power the material with extended solos, as has been too often the case with recent all-star sessions. This is a perfect, selfless in-house band in the grand tradition. There is not a single riff, chorus or accompanying phrase that jars or lacks authenticity.

Secondly, choose material that shows off the singer’s strengths. Burke has a voice to kill for with certain distinguishing characteristics. It is immensely powerful and is equally suited to out and out stompers and emotion-drenched ballads. That is essentially how this record breaks down, with the slower tunes given slightly more space, deservedly so as it turns out. An unpredictable factor is how much relish and personal flavour the artist will bring to the studio. On the evidence here the big man was genuinely fired by the occasion and sings with an urgency and authority that can hardly be faulted. This is, thankfully, not one of those exercises where the legend just goes through the motions. Burke pulls not a single punch.

Nearly all the songs are taken from the early 1950s, the golden age of rhythm and blues. The tunes tackled here were first recorded by the likes of Roy Brown,Big Maybelle, Percy Mayfield, Little Walter, T-Bone Walker, Johnny Ace, Little Willie John and Guitar Slim. That is a daunting list but the versions here are valid in their own right and, if it is not heresy to say it, are quite often every bit as good as the originals. Burke is given ample room to stamp his (ample) personality on each tune and does so with considerable force.

Don’t be put off by the fact that the album opens with the overly recorded “Good Rockin’ Tonight”. It works. Burke gives such an exuberant rendition that he makes the song momentarily his, vying joyously with the horn section to drive home the simple message. Think Joe Turner with a gospel inflection and that is Solomon in his uptempo mode. Roy Brown would be proud of him. Turner himself actually gets a direct nod when “Crawdad Hole” is given similar treatment later on. These are the best of the faster cuts. The reading of Walker’s “Street Walking Woman” is rather lacking in character and could be any of a number of vocalists.Fortunately, for most of the album you are in absolutely no doubt that Solomon is in the house.

A good example is a stunning and refreshingly different take on the Willie Dixon classic “My Babe”. Though it shares the harmonica sound of Little Walter’s definitive version, the song is treated here in jump blues style and gets low-down and earthy in the best fashion. At the real slow blues end of the scale, Guitar Slim’s “Sufferin’ Mind” and “Along About Midnight” plus Sonny Boy Williamson’s “No Night’s By Myself” are all handled adroitly. These are deep, deep tunes and get a suitably weighty treatment. Here a blues shouter’s full throated delivery is allied to the more soulful Bobby Bland-B.B. King style with stirring results.

But there is better yet to come. Burke’s claim to fame was his blending of various musical idioms so it should be no surprise that the songs of the period that were already starting to do that should hold a special appeal to him. There are a trio of these and they are given the full, no-holds-barred treatment. Blues purists will find these “over the top” but they will be wrong to dismiss either the lush arrangements or the richness of sentiment the singer achieves. Check out the New Orleans flavour of “Candy”, the haunting organ-work on “Letter from My Darling” and the respectful accompaniment to Johnny Ace’s era-defining “Pledging My Love”. But most of all check out that voice. This is soulfulness in all its unashamed, heartfelt glory and if you think it is corny then this is the wrong genre for you.

As for the extract from the concert, it is good enough but is really a greatest hits medley and you would be better advised to seek out the actual older product. You do get a sense of the presence and vocal range of a man whose stage shows are unique and often overwhelming. There is intensity enough, though, in the studio set. As it is matched by great control and precision in the presentation and delivery of the songs, the sum total is an album whose peaks have been rarely matched by this singular and historically important singer. Well done to Fuel 2000 for rescuing this gem. Don’t let it be ignored twice.