Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Solomon Burke, 1940 - 2010

Solomon Burke — boy preacher at age seven, gospel recording artist by 17, street corner beggar turned mortician by 20, and the crowned king of rock and soul by 21 — dead at 70. Solomon Burke — the man who sold ice water to his fellow artists on the tour bus, who took over the Apollo theater during a stand there and sold popcorn in the aisles, who interrupted recording sessions at Muscles Shoals to pray with young female supplicants, who told stories of old Southern women leaning out their windows to proffer fried chicken and sometimes also their daughters who wore no underthings and asked for a ride just to the main road — no longer walks the earth, though at well over 300 pounds of heavenly joy, for his last few years on earth he’d more gotten around by cane and wheel chair than walked. No matter. He leaves behind over 20 children and 90 grandchildren. His work will continue.

His voice will not. Burke was Jerry Wexler’s pick for the greatest of the soul singers, and it’s easy to understand why: He was certainly the most versatile. Otis Redding made raw emotion impossibly delicate; James Brown made pleading into celebration; Wilson Pickett packed swagger, sweat and sex into a 1,000 dances a second; Aretha was a force of nature. But they were utterly distinctive, unmistakably themselves. Burke had four different ways (at least) of approaching any one song: the raw pleading preacher; the seductive basso profundo (a Philly native, he’s a clear template for Jerry “The Iceman” Butler in this mode); the sneak-attack falsetto that disarmed women by approaching them in their own voice; and the smooth and mournful country crooner. It’s this last that scored Burke his first major hit, “Just Out of Reach (Of My Two Empty Arms),” which had already bombed for Patsy Cline and others when Burke took it to the top of the r&b and pop charts for Atlantic in 1961. His country songs weren’t soul-country; though they swung more than Nashville, they were straight country, right down the slip-piano style borrowed from Floyd Cramer. Burke went for clear diction on these cuts, no open-throat roar, and like Elvis at the start, he blurred racial distinction until it didn’t exist. So much so that he was once booked at a Klan rally.

Downloading some Solomon Burke from emusic yesterday, another racial distinction vanished. There are detailed recording credits on emusic, and thus did I find out that my favorite Burke cut, "Cry to Me," featured the great jazz pianist Hank Jones (played with everyone from Benny Goodman to Charlie Parker), as well as Bucky Pizzarelli, another jazz player, on guitar. The drummer, Gary Chester, was unknown to me. And the beat on this — a powerfully syncopated habenera with a bell-ringing pizzicato offbeat that hits like shot after shot of cold gin — is ridiculous, a wonder of polyglot hip shaking. Turns out Chester was born on the east coast of Sicily in 1925, and went on to become one of Manhattan's most in-demand studio drummers. That's him on "Spanish Harlem" and "Stand by Me," the Coasters' "Little Egypt" (greatest song about a stripper ever), and most of the great Dionne Warwick cuts. Did he play on the Archies' "Sugar Sugar" and Jim Croce's "Bad Bad Leroy Brown"? He did. (Thanks, Wikipedia!) He also kept time on the Lovin' Spoonful's "Do You Believe in Magic." And if you're hungering for more B.J. Thomas arcana, know this: The drummer on "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" is Gary Chester. And thus did a white man born in Italy come to bring a Spanish rhythmic influence to early rock and roll, as well as lay down a more mellow backbeat for some of the most ubiquitous '70s pop. Ain't that America?


  1. Excellent tribute, Joe! "Cry to Me" is probably best known to contemporary audiences from its appearance in "Dirty Dancing":


  2. Nobody puts Baby in the corner. They can, however, force her to speak Spanish.

    True story: I sat next to Jennifer and Joel Gray at a performance of Brecht's "The Rise of Arturo Ui" which starred Al Pacino and featured Tony Randall. She was indistinguishable from her father. Their relentless plastic surgery had turned them both into somewhat Semitic looking plums. (Tony Randall, btw, killed as the actor who instructs the gangster/dictator Arturo Ui in the art of public speaking.)