How Solomon Burke Got to Nashville

Few artists can attest to recording an album in eight days but Solomon Burke is unlike other artists. He's not just the "King of Rock and Soul", he's also a singer who's still learning how to perfect his craft, with a passion that fuels boundless creativity.

The headline of an August 2002 feature in the Los Angeles Times declared Solomon Burke "The Lost Soul Man" (11 Aug 02). While bordering on hyperbolic -- Burke was not lost, per se -- the headline alluded to how Burke's immense talent and body of work was sorely overlooked by the music industry. Though he was crowned the "King of Rock and Soul" in the 1960s, Burke was not positioned as a crossover artist, which hindered long-term commercial success. Forty years after Burke's first charted hit, "Just Out of Reach", the industry finally recognized Burke and once they did, the adulation flowed freely: an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (2001), a Grammy for Don’t Give Up On Me(2002), and a Grammy nomination for its follow-up,Make Do With What You Got(2005). (The former album, produced by Joe Henry, featured songs written especially for Burke by devotees such as Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, and Elvis Costello.) Perhaps the greatest personal triumph for Solomon Burke, though, is his new album, Nashville. He proudly states, "Here I am able now after 45 years to do a country CD. I’m hoping that it will be accepted… throughout the world, that I'll get an opportunity to sing these songs and not sing them as a 'secret message' but just as songs within my repertoire that are a part of my life." Melding the production talent of Buddy Miller, high-profile guest vocalists like Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris, the cream of Nashville's finest musicians, and, of course, the incomparable voice of the "King" himself, Nashville is a look inside the blessed soul of Solomon Burke. A few weeks after the album's stateside release, Burke spoke with me about Nashville -- the record, the place, and the state of mind.

The journey to Nashville began in 1960 when Burke signed with Atlantic Records, home to Ray Charles, Ruth Brown, and LaVern Baker. At the time, Atlantic was the top rhythm and blues label in the world, but Burke took exception to the "rhythm and blues" moniker and did not hesitate to make his sentiments known. "They were a little upset with me because we [sic] didn't want to sing rhythm and blues, per se, and be classified as a rhythm and blues artist, because of my religious convictions." Burke suggested "soul" as an alternate classification to "rhythm and blues". On the first sides Burke recorded for Atlantic, his technique suggested more country than soul, much to the amusement of label executive Jerry Wexler. Burke recalls about the recording session for "Just Out of Reach", "Tommy Dowd sat there as one of the engineers and said, 'Solomon, just sing. They're laughing but don't pay any attention to them'". As a reward for staying true to his artistry, "Just Out of Reach" landed Burke in Top Ten of the R&B charts in 1961.

Though Burke was a consistent presence on the R&B charts throughout the 1960s, effortlessly churning out hits like "Cry to Me", "If You Need Me", "Tonight's the Night", and "Got to Get You Off My Mind", he yearned to sing the country music that stirred his soul as a young boy who watched westerns. Rigid musical categories have long defined black artists so, with very few exceptions, the door to country music was effectively closed for artists like Solomon Burke. Charley Pride is one of the only black artists to completely embody country music and thus served as an inspiration to Burke for this project. "I admire Charley Pride, who all of his life had the opportunity to be surrounded with just country music," Burke shares. "It's just natural for him. I'm sure he knows James Brown but he would know Hank Williams better. He would know Patsy Cline better than he would know Etta James. When you're surrounded all your life with a certain sound of music, it gets easier for you to express it," Burke explains. After years of performing his R&B hits in small venues around the world, Burke could barely contain "the country inside of me".

The seeds for Burke to finally record a country album were planted at the Americana Music Awards in 2005. He and celebrated musician Buddy Miller both performed at the awards ceremony in Nashville at the Ryman Theater, "the mother church of country music". Each expressed an interest in working with the other and through the efforts of Shawn Amos, VP of A&R at Shout! Factory (Burke's label), Miller and Burke reviewed well over 100 songs at Burke's home in Los Angeles. Once a set of songs was agreed upon, Burke drove to Miller's house in Nashville for the recording session. The opening song on Nashville,"That's How I Got to Memphis", is a parallel story for Burke's odyssey to Nashville. With an air of wonderment enveloping his deep voice, as if still absorbing the experience, Burke recalls, "The blessing was that the Lord allowed me to drive from California so that I could go through Memphis, so I could get the feeling of 'That's How I Got to Memphis', so I could see the signs 'Memphis: 40 miles', 'Memphis: 20 miles.' It was a big difference from the first time I went to Memphis on a Greyhound bus! This time going to Memphis, I was going to Nashville to make this record and that's what gave me the inspiration to call this record 'Nashville'." Ostensibly, Burke sings about a woman -- "If you love somebody enough / You'll go wherever your heart wants to go / That's how I got to Memphis" -- but the lyrics also reflect Burke's visceral love of country music and the sojourn to Nashville.

Once Burke arrived at Miller's home in Nashville, recording the entire album took all of eight days, thanks in part to Miller's impeccable selection of musicians. Burke recounts, "Buddy Miller put together a collage of the best musicians and writers and then said, 'The surprise will be five of country music's royalty -- divas, the queens of country -- to sing with you.'" Contrasting with the rich tones of Burke's baritone on Nashville are none other than Dolly Parton, Patty Griffin, Emmylou Harris, Patty Loveless, and Gillian Welch. Harris and Loveless duetted with Burke on "We're Gonna Hold On" and "You're the Kind of Trouble", respectively, while Parton, Griffin, and Welch each lent their voices and one of their own compositions to the album. A mutual admiration between Burke and his duet partners solidified in those eight days. What did he learn from the "Queens of Country"? "Patience, tolerance, how to listen, how to learn, how not to just jump up and sing. In Nashville, it was 'Hold it -- listen -- are you ready? -- got it? -- hold on -- let's do it -- now'. It was actually like putting the horse to the cart and teaching a horse how to trot and how to run and how to win." Any naysayers who doubted Burke's ability to sing bonafide country music would be silenced by his performance with Parton on "Tomorrow is Forever". His voice intertwines flawlessly with Parton's, sounding perfectly at home beside Al Perkins' pedal steel guitar.

Though rooted in country, Nashville is a mixture of tones and moods. It's in moments like Patty Griffin's "Up to the Mountain" and Gillian Welch's "Valley of Tears" that Burke unveils universality in the lyrics, linking the humanity between himself, the composer, and the listener. Burke is captivating as he explains why "Up to the Mountain", in particular, resonates so strongly with him:

You go back to the '60s and the '50s and you watch the world change. You watch us climb up the hill 'til we reach the mountaintop. Some of us never reach the mountaintop. Some of us are still climbing. We've reached over the humps and the bumps and the lumps and the puddles in the roads with integration and segregation ... We've reached over those things now. We're going a little further. It's no longer 'Oh, the fear of the Ku Klux Klan, the fear of the NAACP, the fear of the black man or the blue man or the green man or the brown man'. It's the fear of terrorism. It's no longer the guy with the mask. It's the food that's being destroyed. It's the water that's being destroyed. It's the ocean that's being destroyed. It's the atmosphere.

Testimonials like these underscore the depth to which Burke explores the lyrics and illustrate why Nashville is such a compelling listening experience. Each song is like a portrait of the artist and the lyrics serve as vibrant brushstrokes.

Burke equates the experience of recording Nashville to being a student at the "University of Country Music". He cites the respect musicians have for one another as a distinguishing factor between Nashville and other music centers in the U.S. He observes, "They're really working together because everybody that's ... making this music is trying to make sure that the other person's music gets over too! Nobody's selfish. Nobody's saying, 'Don't do this song, do my song!' That's something that you don't find around the world. It was just a beautiful experience, something that I wish to be shared openly." Looking through the booklet photos that accompany Nashville, one senses a tactile camaraderie between Burke and the musicians, a kinship that is also reflected in the music.

Few artists can attest to recording an album in eight days but Solomon Burke is unlike other artists. He's not just the "King of Rock and Soul", he's also a singer who's still learning how to perfect his craft, with a passion that fuels boundless creativity. Burke says, "I'm hoping and praying that others will get a chance to listen to this record and give me a chance to prove that I can try to do something different." Anyone who spends time with Nashville hears the heart of Solomon Burke singing country music and, by extension, is touched by the presence of his ever-blessed soul.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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