The wisdom of Solomon
“I’m so happy to be here tonight, so glad to be in your wonderful city, and I have a little message for you. I want to tell every woman and every man here tonight that’s ever needed someone to love, that’s ever had somebody to love them, that’s ever had somebody to understand them, that’s ever had someone to need their love all the time — someone that’s with them when they’re up, somebody that’s with them when they’re down. If you had yourself somebody like this, you’d better hold on to them. Let me tell you something: sometimes you get what you want, and you lose what you had. There’s a song I sing, and I believe if everybody could sing this song, we could save the whole world. Listen to me…”
Solomon Burke, of course, not on stage or in church but in a New York studio in 1964, urged on by the exhortations of his backing singers — probably including Dee Dee Warwick and Cissy Houston — as he recreated the vibe of a live performance, expertly mixing the sacred and the secular. I loved that record so much that when I was in a band, in 1964-65, I used to carry a copy of the 45 to gigs, persuading the DJ to play it immediately before we went on.
“Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” comes in the middle of the 79 tracks making up a new 3-CD compilation called The King of Rock ‘n’ Soul: The Atlantic Recordings (1962-1968) and feels very much like its centrepiece. Around it are arrayed the many recordings in which, assisted by the producers Bert Berns and Jerry Wexler and the arrangers Garry Sherman, Phil Medley, Gene Page and Bert Keyes, Burke achieved a sublime combination of gospel, R&B, Latin and country music.
Has any soul singer ever covered a country song more exquisitely than Solomon’s take on Jim Reeves’s “He’ll Have to Go”? Has anyone ever made a more powerful use of gospel cadences in pop music than “Goodbye Baby (Baby Goodbye)”? Has anybody made a funnier and more irresistible sub-two-minute teenage dance-craze record than “Stupidity”? Didn’t Burke, with the spoken intros to “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” and “The Price”, pave the way for Isaac Hayes’s monologues and the arrival of rap?
Apart from his wonderfully warm, rich and flexible voice, the records are distinguished by arrangements that feature Berns’s signature use of Spanish guitars and Latin rhythms and the playing of great session men: guitarists including Al Shackman and Eric Gale are given room to interpolate little blues fills, the baritone saxophone of Heywood Henry anchors the reeds, the drummers include Panama Francis, Gary Chester, Bobby Donaldson and Herbie Lovelle, there is the piano of the great Paul Griffin, the stand-up bassists include Joe Benjamin and Leonard Gaskin. Jazz musicians earning the rent, most of them, but contributing to something that today sounds like a wonderfully natural way to make music.
The set opens with three pre-Atlantic sides and concludes with an album session produced by Tom Dowd at Chips Moman’s American Studios in Memphis in 1968, including the classic version of Billy Taylor’s “I Wish I Knew (How It Would Feel to Be Free)”, one of the anthems of the civil rights era. The last of those tracks, a lovely treatment of Ivory Joe Hunter’s “Since I Met You Baby”, also appears on The Soul of the Memphis Boys, a compilation of recordings made at American in the late ’60s by singers including James Carr, Ben E. King, Oscar Toney Jr, James & Bobby Purify and Arthur Alexander.
My favourites are Joe Tex’s glorious version of “Funny (How Time Slips Away)”, Ella Washington’s “He Called Me Baby” (nearly the equal of Candi Staton’s later version), Lattimore Brown’s “Every Day I Have to Cry Some”, Bobby Marchan’s wonderfully smug “Someone to Take Your Place” and Roy Hamilton’s dramatic “100 Years”. There are also the hits: the Box Tops’ “Cry Like a Baby” (with the great Reggie Young playing Danelectro electric sitar), Elvis’s “Kentucky Rain” and Dusty’s “So Much Love”, actually a B-side, taken from the Dusty in Memphis sessions. The collection provides a great soundtrack to Roben Jones’s Memphis Boys, a thorough history of Moman’s studio, the musicians who plied their trade there — Young, the pianists Bobby Emmons and Bobby Wood, the bassist Tommy Cogbill and the drummer Gene Chrisman — and the many memorable sessions that took place in the former North Memphis grocery store.
Unlike the rhythm sections on Solomon Burke’s New York sessions, these were not jazz musicians. They were country boys, and it’s interesting to compare the results. Approaching similar material, both groups found their own pocket. The Memphis musicians are so comfortable with what they’re doing that you hardly notice them. The New York players use their chops in a slightly more assertive way that gives the music an extra edge. Those Burke sessions were something special at the time, and sound even better today.
Solomon went on to make more great records before his death in 2010. Soul Alive!, two hours of music recorded at a Washington DC club in 1981 with a band including the guitarist Marc Ribot, is one of the great live albums. Don’t Give Up on Me, a studio album produced in 2002 by Joe Henry, with the ace team of David Piltch on bass and Jay Bellerose on drums, has an elegiac beauty.
Unlike some of his contemporaries, such as Marvin Gaye, James Brown and Curtis Mayfield, Solomon Burke never updated his approach. He stayed with what he did, and he did it perhaps better than anyone.
* Solomon Burke’s The King of Rock ‘n’ Soul is on SoulMusic Records. The Soul of the Memphis Boys is on the Ace label. Soul Alive! is on Rouder Records. Don’t Give Up on Me is on Fat Possum. Roben Jones’s Memphis Boys was published by the University Press of Mississippi in 2010.