Interview: Solomon Burke

King Solomon Mines a New Lease on Life

After a few relatively lean years, the Japan Blues & Soul Carnival has landed a big fish again in the person of Solomon Burke, a soul legend of the 1960s who is currently enjoying an incredible late-career renaissance, while serving as an inspiration to everybody from Mick Jagger to Joss Stone.

The three-city, four-date event also represents Burke's first trip to Japan. Perhaps one reason for his tardiness in getting here is his sheer bulk. The 70-year-old self-styled "King of Rock & Soul" is a big man, rumored to weigh in at around 190 kg. He has difficulty walking and prefers to perform on stage from the comfort of a large red velvet throne.

When contacted by The Japan Times, he was in good spirits and full of enthusiasm about the trip east.

"I'm on a seafood diet — I try not to see all the food that I can eat," he jokes over the phone from his home in Los Angeles, before stressing how important this tour is to him. "I'm so anxious to get there to perform as many of our old hits and other recordings that we've done in the past and to see exactly what the people would like to hear from me. I'm asking people that they go on our website and let us know what songs they'd like to hear."

The songs likely to crop up from this straw poll will include some of the early country-influenced soul standards with which Burke first made his name, like Just Out Of Reach (Of My Two Open Arms) and Down in the Valley, which he also wrote, and which was later covered by fellow soul titan Otis Redding. The song was also a request favorite at a concert for members of the Ku Klux Klan that Burke found himself booked to play in his early days, when a lot of people didn't realize he was Black.

This drives home the point that Burke is one of the last few "soul survivors" from that golden period of music. Asked what powered the soul revolution, he is unable to provide concrete answers, seeing "soul" as a kind of universal constant that assumes many forms, not all of them musical. But, when he talks about the way soul and R n' B musicians were toured across the country in the 1960s in large group tours under the aegis of promoter Henry Wynn's SuperSonic Attractions, he grants an insight into what made so many great performers develop all at once.

"On our show throughout America and Canada, we traveled with Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson and Lloyd Price on one tour for over two years," he recalls, mentioning other tours with Joe Tex, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding and Ray Charles. "This is the greatness of America back in those days, when you had so many huge stars all on one package, on one tour."

So, was it a case of learning by watching other performers and competing against them night after night?

"Oh absolutely," he replies. "I saw the genius in their styles and their technique. Ray Charles was a mastermind within himself. I think his strength came from within, the feeling that he felt with every song that he sang, his ability to arrange it and to turn it around the way he wanted it, to give you a feeling that you paid attention. During Drown in My Own Tears you realize that he was drowning in his own tears. When he said he had a woman way across town who was good to him, you felt good about that."

But although the great soul singers of the day competed and copied each other, Burke was set apart by a singing style that relied on its clarity, gravity and country-influenced stoicism to convey emotion, rather than the overcooked histrionics occasionally indulged in by other soul men. This has also ensured that his voice has aged better over the years, as signified by his remarkable comeback following the 2002 release of his Grammy Award-winning album Don't Give Up On Me.

Since then, it's been a case of Burke working and performing with a galaxy of other greats, including on-stage performances with Jerry Lee Lewis and the Rolling Stones, and guest spots by country legends Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton on his 2006 album Nashville. His most recent album Nothing's Impossible, released earlier this year, brought him firmly back into soul territory by pairing him with legendary Memphis soul producer Willie Mitchell, who died shortly afterward.

With an energy belying his bulk and age, Burke continues to embrace new projects and challenges. Next up is a collaboration with Celtic soul legend Van Morrison.

"Van has been one of my angels," Burke enthuses. "We've done several things with him. We're getting ready to do The Lord's Will, a live album later this year. I'm keeping my fingers crossed on that. A lot of good things we're doing. We're also doing something with Joss Stone. It's gonna be an exciting year and we're starting it off in Japan. That's what makes it more exciting."

Japan Times
21st May, 2010
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