Catching Up With... Solomon Burke
With his last several albums—from 2002’s soulful Don’t Give Up On Me to the rocked-up Make Do With What You Got and 2006’s countrified Nashville—Solomon Burke has helped secure his legend, proving himself as a relevant artist, even into his late 60s. The King of Rock and Soul’s brand-new record, Like A Fire, features the songs and playing of Eric Clapton, Keb’ Mo’, and a pair of Burke’s younger admirers, Ben Harper and Jesse Harris. The laidback, stripped-down record deals with the complex issues the world faces today in the only way former preacher Burke knows how—with thoughtfulness, humor, grace, love and the soulful power of his versatile voice. Paste recently had a chance to speak with this legendary artist, who was at home in L.A.
Solomon Burke: Good morning!
Paste: How you doin’, sir?
Burke: Oh, great, so good to hear your voice. Where are you, Steve?
Paste: I’m at the Paste office in Atlanta, Georgia.
Burke: Atlanta, Georgia. How’s the weather down there this morning? I know it’s crazy in Alabama right now.
Paste: It’s kinda rainy, but there are no storms just yet.
Burke: I was looking at a tornado just a few seconds ago, coming through Mississippi.
Paste: Yeah, they’ve been having a bad time—we’ve had a lot of tornadoes this year.
Burke: You know, God’s tryin’ to tell us something, huh? All the things that are going on in the world, just on top of one another.
Paste: With Myanmar and the earthquake in China, I can’t even really get my head around it all, you know?
Burke: Every day you wake up and you say, ‘Is this the news? Or is this the generations of Revelations?’
Paste: [laughs] That crosses my mind a lot.
Burke: So how’s your family, everybody well?
Paste: Everybody is well, man, how ’bout you?
Burke: Well, I’m blessed. I’m blessed. Great weekend, y’know. Got a lot of calls from kids and grandkids, even had a couple kids say, “Happy Mother’s Day!” [laughs] ... All right, let’s leave it there [laughs]. If they could just remember Father’s Day. [laughs again - Burke loves to laugh, and make others laugh]. Look, I have 89 grandchildren, so...
Paste: You kidding me?
Burke: No, I’m serious. When I get a call from them, half the time I don’t know who I’m talking to.
Paste: Do you actually remember them?
Burke: My problem is, there’s a couple with the same names. So then I say, ‘Now, what state are you in?’ and they say, ‘You know, our grandfather’s so senile, he doesn’t even know what country we’re in!’ [laughs] But it’s wonderful, man, it’s wonderful, it’s like a fire.
Paste: So, speaking of that record you just did...
Burke: Did I throw that in there good?
Paste: Yeah, that was good, man, you’re great at the segue. I can tell you’ve been doing this for a little while.
Burke: I always got the manager coming in here, goin’ ‘Stop telling jokes! They don’t wanna hear your jokes!’ But it’s good to laugh, y’know? You gotta work all day and deal with life every day and all the situations of life on a piece of paper and a computer, you need to stop and laugh for a minute. You need to smile, somebody needs to be happy for a minute. Just going on the daily schedule of life, which we should be grateful for, but we need to have some joy in it sometimes. ... So what are we doing here today? I haven’t been to Atlanta in a long time, which is crazy.
Paste: Are you hitting the road pretty hard these days?
Burke: Are you kidding? I leave Friday to start our tour. I don’t even know where the heck I’m going. Oh, Detroit! And then our European tour begins, and we come back in August, so if you get a chance to look on my website, you will see I’m tryin’ to get air miles. ... See, you have to keep bein’ out there. You gotta get out there and let people see you and hear you to keep it going, I mean, that’s the secret—don’t stop ’til you reach the top. And make sure the top’s a looong way up.
Paste: You’ve been touring and recording for so long; you’ve been doing this for decades—what’s different for you today as opposed to when you started out?
Burke: I been doing this so long the Trailways bus company went out of business and Greyhound no longer puts the dog on the side of the bus ’cause they don’t want people to think it’s a hip-hop bus! [Laughs] Kids think it’s Snoop Doggy Dogg’s bus going down the street! [Laughs again, heartily] So now when you see the buses, it’s all beautiful designs. You know, it’s been since 1954 I started recording and it’s been a beautiful beginning of life, and the adventures of life just revolving and revolving into a great circle, and the idea is to keep making it a journey and not just a trip, and that’s what we try to do. I’m no longer making CDs or DVDs—I put it together as packages and units that we’re doing to combine and make one great message of love and peace and contentment, and some type of signal that sends out the word of love, and you have to have that, you have to have a unit that expresses what it is and what it’s about. You have to have a meaning for it, not just make a record, y’know?
Paste: Over the years, you’ve come to be known as a skilled interpreter of people’s songs...
Paste:...so speaking to all these things you were just talking about, that sort of philosophy and attitude—does that inform the songs you choose to record? Are you looking for some of these things to decide whether you want to sing it; what do you look for in a song?
Burke: I’m looking for that special, special, special message of the times, and I’m looking for the times of the future because we don’t know the day or the hour, we just don’t know. We have no idea what’s going to happen. But if we read and study what life has been about, then we understand that it’s a circle, and we have to come back to the circle. Everything is based upon mathematics and time. And God is time and mathematics, he’s love, and we look at love and it’s a complete letter, it’s four letters that mean so much to us, and we all need that, we all have to have it, in some kinda way. We’ve got to send that message out and keep sending it out to take away all the negativity and hate and confusion because, if not, the world is just gonna walk away from us. Our children need so much attention, love needs to be put back into the homes. You know, it needs to be taught not just in the schools, but in the homes and the schools so that our children are more respectful. Education is so important ... these are things we need to think about. There’s a saying, ‘Charity begins at home and spreads abroad.’ We need to take care of home. This is the greatest country in the world? It should be all of that and some more, in every way. We shouldn’t have to have a section of a city where people are poor and destitute and hungry and on the street, without food and without clothing. There’s no way that floods should not be taken care of by our people—we have engineers and people that do that. I sit and watch TV sometimes and I watch these shows where they, ‘BUILD A HOUSE IN SEVEN DAYS!’ Why don’t we have 50 companies like that? Building 50 houses in seven days? You know, I think it’s so great when it’s happening on TV, but there’s so many other hearts out there that need to be mended. And so many homes that are lost and destroyed.
Paste: I was just in New Orleans this weekend, and it’s still a mess. It’s unbelievable.
Burke: It’s heartbreaking. And then what happens—God’s sending a message, ‘OK, you’re not cleaning up this? Here’s another mess for you to clean up!’ And there’s lives that are being lost, families that are being destroyed. There’s something we’re not doing that we’re supposed to be doing. We’re not coming together and helping each other like we should. And it’s about the Red Cross and the Salvation Army and all these people who are helping, and Feed The Children, which I think is a great program, but we need to feed each other; we need to strengthen each other. Can you imagine people marching on a town, rebuilding a city within a month? If we all got together, if we released our soldiers from battle, and had our engineers come into these cities and towns—this is what entertainers should be talking about. This is the voice that we should be crying out for.
Paste: Do you feel that Like a Fire speaks to this in any way?
Burke: I think it’s a beginning; you have to keep pushing it out piece by piece. Have you been to a party and the hors d’oeuvres just keep coming? And you say, ‘The hors d’oeuvres are so good, man, I don’t wanna eat all those hors d’oeuvres ’cause I don’t know what they’re gonna have for dinner.’ You gotta keep doing that, you gotta keep setting out those great hors d’oeuvres so when the dinner comes you can really enjoy it, or you’ll be so full on the hors d’oeuvres, you’ll realize, ‘This was the greatest party I’ve ever been to.’ And we have to make this the greatest country in the whole world 10 times 10 times 10. But we gotta do it in unity and harmony with one another, we gotta start with our kids, our families, our homes—and the music is the only healer that gets through all the barriers. There’s no discrimination in music. Just separation of thought and taste. But it still gets through, doesn’t it? It still makes its way onto an iPod or Myface or MySpace or whatever—internet. It still gets through. It’s still there. I mean, you’re able to listen to something and say ‘I like it’ or ‘I don’t like it,’ and that’s wonderful, that’s exciting. And I’m preachin’. I’m supposed to be talking about the record. ... It’s important that we communicate with these songs, it’s important now, especially for me. I’m not out there making a record for people to jump up and down and do a new dance and have 16 dancers shakin’ it. I’m out there to try to put a song in your heart where you whistle and you hum, and when you feel good, you sing that song, or when you’re riding along in your car and you say, ‘Man, let me put on some music to keep awake or to relax me, or I had a stressed day, let me deal with this, put this on my iPod, I’m gettin’ on a plane and I need to relax, I’m going down the highway or I’m coming home and I don’t wanna watch the same news on TV, I wanna hear something that soothes me, soothes my soul.’
Paste: Do you feel like when you were younger, back in the ’50s and ’60s when you were recording, I mean, obviously people think about different things at different periods of their lives; were these things always on your mind, or is it more as you’ve matured and gone through life? When you were younger, were you, ‘Hey, I just wanna make a fun song for people to dance to?’
Burke: Well, I thought in the earlier years that it was important for me, being a minister, starting from the ministry as a child, I’m always interested in making music with a message, but the message has to be stronger and has to last longer. I mean, we’ve made songs about “You Can Make It If You Try,” “Goodbye Baby Goodbye,” “The Price,” “If You Need Me,” “Cry To Me,” “Down In The valley,” “Everybody Needs Somebody.” I’ve recorded songs like “What Am I Living For,” “When I Lost My Baby I Almost Lost My Mind”—I seen so many people go half crazy because they were in love, to me that makes sense, you know? “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” And you just go on and on—“Got To Get You Off My Mind.” You think of all these songs, “Don’t Give Up On Me”—to me, these are messages that just constantly have to be set down so people know that there’s support and that there’s somebody standing by and that you’re not alone. You’re not alone. The pain that you’re going through, the confusion that you’re going through. And it’s important to know that you’re not alone, and this is what happens to a lot of our young people—they feel they’re alone, they’re by themselves, and they get into drugs, they get into things that they can’t control. And not just our young people, the older ones, too. Heartbreak, pain, suffering, loneliness is a waste of time. That’s what it says in “Cry to Me”: “Nothing sadder than a glass of wine alone.” And all of these little blips to go out are messages of comfort, and that’s what I’ve been trying to do all these years. And try to make the #1 record, the record that’s the one in your heart and mind, somewhere.
Paste: For the new record, you chose one of the Clapton songs for the title. What was it about the title Like A Fire that felt right to you?
Burke: Just to burn a little fire in your heart. To let people know you’re alive, you’re well, there’s a fire burning down inside there, just the spark needs to be lit. Everybody has the fire in there. You need to just turn the flame up, or turn it down, but you gotta get it right where it should be, where you’re comfortable, where you’re warm enough, where you’re cool enough, it’s like a fire, burnin’ in your heart. Can you control it? Can you console it? Can you feel it? Look at the songs on this album. ... “A Second to Pray?” These songs are designed for people to get something out of it. “The Fall,” “We Don’t Need It—I love that song, the Keb’ Mo’ song. And the Ben Harper song [“A Second to Pray”] is so right on, is so right on for the moment and times, it’s scary.
Paste: With the guests on this record—were they people you had wanted to work with, or did producer Steve Jordan tip you off that maybe these would be good people to work with?
Burke: You know, Shawn Amos, who is one of the executives over at the record company [Shout! Factory], is a very dear friend of mine. His dad and I go all the way back to the ’60s, when his dad was the agent for myself and Sam Cooke. He was the first black agent for the William Morris Agency, and we drove Wally [Amos] crazy, callin’ him all hours of the night, tellin’ him ‘we’re in Mississippi, we’re in Alabama, bus broke down, send money!’ So he went into the cookie business. [Laughs] It was the greatest thing in the world that happened! He got out of dealing with these two nuts out there on the road! [Laughs]
Paste: You guys sent him into the cookie business?
Burke: He went into the cookie business—Famous Amos cookies. So now, later on in life, you know, here is his son, who used to be this little kid out there with his dad giving away cookies on Sunset, and he’s now the executive of your record company. How great is that?! How wonderful is that?! So there’s a connection there between him and I that’s so strong and so powerful, it’s like family. ... We’re all like family up here. So it’s the opportunity I’ve had to do CDs and projects that I wanted to do, and they’ve allowed me to be able to gather all these great people—to write songs and for me to express myself with their songs. And I’m sitting back, you know, and I’ve got a wealth of songs that I’ve written myself, and I’m just holding back because I wanna try to get out all the word of what the young people are saying, what the different writers are saying. I know what I’m saying, my story’s not gonna change. I’m still gonna be preaching love and unity and togetherness and all that other stuff. There’s another message there that can be said another way, and if I can get it with Ben Harper or Keb’ Mo’ or Jesse Harris, that’s what I wanna do. That’s why we brought Steve Jordan on board. I figured hey, I’ve done it this way, let’s do it this way, let’s try it. The last CD I did, Nashville... I love that album. I loved it so much until I said, ‘I wanna do another one, but that would show how greedy I am!’ [Laughs]
Paste: I mean, how could you not want to work with all those singers and songwriters again? [Gillian Welch, Emmylou Harris, Buddy Miller, Patty Griffin, Dolly Parton, Patty Loveless, etc.]
Burke: Oh my God, man, lemme tell you it was so great! There must be 100 songs that I had on the chart that I didn’t do, that I wanted to do. I wanted to do things with Willie Nelson—there was so much more that I’d love to do in the future, if the Lord’s willin’. But getting on to dealing with Eric [Clapton], [he said], ‘I got a great song for you.’ So this starts a new trend, starts a new CD. [We] bring Steve Jordan on board, who says, ‘No horns, we’re just gonna go in and do rhythm, and keep the beat going and we’re just gonna do something different,’ and I’m saying, ‘OK, let’s try it!’ And here we are. And Eric comes back and he says ‘I got another song but I can’t finish it, so I’m gonna send it to you, you finish it.’ [Laughs] I said, ‘Thank you!’ [Laughs again]
Paste: And there’s the name of the song [“Thank You”].
Burke: ‘Thank you, thank you so much!’ And then, in the end, when we finished the whole thing, I’m just sittin’ there and Shawn says to me, ‘You know, my dad was talking to me about your album, and I told him what you were doing’ and [his dad] said, ‘It’s so great, maybe you should do some of the old stuff,’ and I say ‘You know, there’s one song that always stays in my heart and my mind,’ and so I says, ‘Can you get a piano player?’ And he says, “What do you wanna do?” and I says, “Just get a piano player up here for about 30 minutes”—for “If I Give My Heart to You.” And Steve says, “What do you want me to do?’ And I says, ‘Just hit on the bass drum, don’t even play drums, just hit the kick every now and then.’
Paste: Just give it a little emphasis here and there.
Burke: It’s that old sound, in a piano bar that just 20 people are in, and you’re playing the piano and singing a song—don’t even perfect it. I don’t want to do the best take in the world. I want to do it like I’m in the bar and I want to go home.
Paste: Last call!
Burke: Last call, baby! [Laughs]
Paste: It does have that kinda smoky kinda piano bar vibe.
Burke: Yeah, and that’s the magic that I wanted to capture, and I hope I did that. It’s fun talking to you. ...
Paste: It’s great to talk to you, too!
Burke:...’cause you don’t get a chance to talk! [laughs]
Paste: [Laughs] Man, you almost got me launching into my girl troubles when you started talking about how we need songs to comfort us.
Burke: We do! We all need that. C’mon, let me go back and plug it: Everybody needs somebody. I don’t care what it is or who you are, there comes a time when you just need to know that there’s somebody you can lean on. And you can’t always go to people who are close to you. Sometimes you just need that secret friend, that secret memory, that secret thought, that special moment where you can just release the pressures of the world around you and be free. ’Cause that’s what life is about—being free, being happy. Happiness is worth it. One minute of happiness is worth a million dollars in time. And never, never let it go. Once you find it, keep it, hold onto it, enjoy it. Be the happy guy that lights that fire!
Paste: So had you worked with Eric Clapton in the past?
Burke: Yes. Jools Holland and I, we hook up whenever I get to England. I’m over there recording and singing and writing, he’ll call Eric and if Eric’s home he’ll come over with the guitar and we’ll get in the studio and do some things, and that’s what’s so exciting. We’ve done several things on the road together, he was at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with me, y’know, and he says, ‘No, I’m playing with Solomon.’ I mean, how heavy is that?! And then the Ahmet Ertegun tribute in New York, just a lot of great things.
Paste: How did y’all meet?
Burke: Just, out there on the road, it’s, ‘Hi, man, love you, love your work, like what you do’—that’s the way to do it. You know, you have a message, you have a song, you share it. And we need to do more of that.