Review Summary: King Solomon's biggest hit, a collection of songs written by some of his most well known fans, takes it's place as one of the greatest soul/blues albums I've heard.
Solomon Burke, or King Solomon as he's often called, has had quite the career. While his character is understandable; a gentle giant with an outstanding voice, his career has been far from predictable. While his voice is and always was outstanding, Solomon sort of struggled to find his place in the late 50s/early 60s. While the Burke material I favour is in the traditional soul/R&B genre, he was also a pretty decent country artist. Herein rests the whole enigma of Solomon Burke. He began as a preacher, had his own gospel radio show. Years later, he had his first hit, a cover of the country tune Just Out Of Reach of My Open Arms
. A hit with critics and admired by his peers, Burke never really broke through on the charts. King Solomon was never really on top, but he remained persistent and proud. Since his debut release in 1962, Solomon has released well over twenty albums.
The enigma of Solomon stretches further than the idea that he can be king without ever having been on top. Solomon had several country hits, and this resulted in him making a daring (and possibly stupid) move. In the 1960s, Solomon and his band, all of whom are/were black, performed for 30,000 hooded KKK members. What's even more surprising is that not only did he make it out unscathed; he actually had the crowd singing along. Solomon Burke, a very large, very black man, managed to get thirty thousand white-supremacists to put their insane hatred aside and just have a good time.
The most recent addition to his interesting career, is his 2002 album Don't Give Up On Me
. Quite possibly his most successful album, Don't Give Up On Me
is sort of odd because none of the songs were written by Solomon. The album, a cry to not forget all he's done (and he's done a lot), is made up of 11 songs written by some of the most famous songwriters of the last few decades. These are not covers, either, these songs were written especially for the King.
If you've ever wondered what Van Morrison, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello and Bob Dylan all have in common and I'm sure you have, the answer is Solomon Burke. Each and every artist mentioned is a fan of King Solomon, and if you haven't figured it out, they all contributed to this outstanding album. It goes to show the respect I previously mentioned; while never as much of a chart topper as say, Otis Redding, Solomon's peers knew he was more than deserving of it. And so, when you consider his career, it's no surprise that his most successful album would come at the aid of a bunch of big names. The album doesn't ride off the success of the songwriters, however, that's simply a main attraction, which I think is the intention. While the songs are all very well written, the passion and power in Solomon's voice is what truly carries this album above and beyond. This was surely no accident. While obviously, big names like Bob Dylan can bring new fans to the album; their lyrics don't make or break the album, Solomon Does.
The album, as I said, is not successful because of the big names behind it. This is Solomon Burke pouring his heart out, so take the title literally. And this is the man's gift; though his earlier material (excluding his country work) was typically more layered and featured an array of backup vocals and bombastic melodies, Solomon's always managed to, at least vocally, sound organic. This album does not re-create his former sound, however. The album takes a much more subdued approach, and for the better. The sounds on the album, typically laid back soul with a nice bluesy touch, allows Solomon to belt it out. It's not to say his voice is overwhelming, however, as while he may have the ability to exhort an undeniable amount of power from his voice, much of the vocals are typically mellow. My previous claim of his older stylings and the sheer audacity of backup vocals come into play, well, never on this album. While the Brian Wilson penned Soul Searchin'
features excellent backup vocals on the chorus, they always take a backseat to the king.
The album is not without it's sheer of depth. None of Us Are Free
, featuring the Blind Boys of Alabama (musically, not lyrically), begins with a churchy organ (played by Solomon's church organ player) until an acoustic blues guitar kicks in with a precise, yet simple drum beat. The real clincher for this song is when the harmonized chorus kicks in; the aged voices of both Solomon and the Blind Boys chanting "none of us are free" speak back to the gospel sounds of civil-war era slave-workers, which of course is due in part to the blind Gospel legends. It's really quite haunting (in a good way, if that makes sense). While I'm on the topic, the haunting atmosphere is not limited to None of Us Are Free
, thanks in part to the raw production and, on a lighter note, Rudy Copeland's organ playing.
To go over every track is unnecessary, as this album must be taken on as a whole. The sheer emotion --or soul if you will-- found in Solomon's voice is something you can't fake. And here lies the previously noted enigma; Solomon's earlier work was a typical pop-soul affair, yet it never really managed to bring him to a new level. Don't Give Up On Me
is passive, slow and fairly simple, yet the album has finally given him much of the credit he deserved nearly forty years ago. Still, on the whole, Solomon is probably always going to be limited to his underdog status, but never can that change the fact that he is and always will be King Solomon. For anyone who claims to be a fan of soul, blues, or just plain heartfelt music, this album can't go unnoticed. Do yourself a favour and hail to the King.
In 2003, this album won the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Blues Album.