Since 1984, when Jeff Lynne, Paul McCartney and Dave Edmunds helped The Everly Brothers launch their comeback with the album EB ’84, a certain kind of record has been a fixture on the pop landscape.
The formula is familiar: An older performer tries to get back on the charts by relying on younger admirers to contribute singing, picking, songwriting and—most importantly—celebrity to a project. The result is not exactly a tribute album, since the artists being honored are lead vocalists on every cut. Let’s just call it a “tributee album.”
The form has had a few commercial successes (Santana’s multi-platinum 1999 album Supernatural) and the occasional artistic triumph (Ralph Stanley’s 1998 Clinch Mountain Country). For the most part, though, tributee albums have been much the same as tribute albums: modestly selling releases that are a hit-and-miss mix of moods, sounds and quality. If the duet partners seem tentative, it’s because they’ve just encountered the material, as well as each other. If the albums vary wildly from track to track, it’s because the backing musicians often fluctuate as much as the guest stars.
With the possible exceptions of Ralph Stanley and Willie Nelson, no one has leaned on the tributee-album concept more than Solomon Burke. Since he jumpstarted his dormant career with 2002’s Mi>Don’t Give Up on Me (featuring new songs by Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits and Elvis Costello), the King of Soul has recorded 2006’s Nashville (guest vocals by Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and Gillian Welch) and this year’s Like a Fire (guest songwriting and performing by Ben Harper, Keb’ Mo’ and Jesse Harris).
Burke has learned the number-one lesson of tributee albums (and tribute albums, too): If you’re going to change vocalists, keep the band the same. For those of us who enjoy the sustained mood of a 40-minute album, as opposed to the fleeting feeling of a downloaded track, this is crucial. Nashville held together because producer Buddy Miller’s crackerjack
alt.country band was on every track, and Like a Fire coheres because producer/drummer Steve Jordan (Keith Richards, John Scofield) anchors every cut with a lean, tight trio that also includes ex-Carole King guitarist Danny Kortchmar and ex-Canned Heat bassist Larry Taylor.
Like Burke, Jordan grew up on the R&B circuit, so this time the lyrics accommodate themselves to the groove, not the other way around. Even at age 72 (some sources have him born in 1940, but he was actually born in 1936), Burke possesses one of the deepest, thickest baritones in pop music, and it thrives when it’s tied to a pulse as funky as the one Jordan created for “Ain’t That Something.” This tune, which sports disposable lyrics but an irresistible hook, is one of several that resurrects the glories of Memphis/Muscle Shoals soul music, when the beat relied on inventive syncopation rather than industrial onslaught.
Lesson number two of tributee albums is that it’s not enough to pair a special singer with a solid band; you need to have the right material. And that’s where Like a Fire falls prey to inconsistency. Ben Harper wrote “A Minute To Rest and a Second To Pray” and sings on it, and this overwrought, overstated stab at profundity is as leaden as much of Harper’s output. The two songs contributed by Jesse Harris, who wrote the Grammy-winning “Don’t Know Why” for Norah Jones, are more relaxed but sound more like the B sides of Burke’s old singles rather the A sides.
Eric Clapton, a big Burke fan, doesn’t appear on the album, but he does contribute two unrecorded songs: the title track he wrote himself and “Thank You,” which he co-wrote with Burke. The former is pretty generic, but the latter resembles those terrific country-blues ragtime numbers that Mississippi John Hurt used to sing. Kortchmar plays the sparkling acoustic-guitar figure and Burke glides through the enchanting melody, growing so giddy that he adds a preacherly recitation and a Louis Armstrong impersonation.
Of course, that’s what has always distinguished Burke from his fellow soul legends—an absolute refusal to take himself too seriously. He’s unafraid of humor; unafraid of being unhip (he concludes the album with Doris Day’s 1954 hit, “If I Give My Heart To You”) and unafraid of melodrama. And with “We Don’t Need It,” Keb’ Mo’ has given Burke one of his greatest story songs. With a weary despair, the rotund baritone sings of sitting in his car in the driveway, wondering how he’s going to tell his family he’s lost his job.
But when his wife offers to pawn
her grandmother’s silver, and when his
son offers to hand over his lawn-mowing
money, declaring, “We don’t need it,” Burke’s voice gradually shakes off its weariness, thickens in tone and sharpens in
attack until he trumpets, “We’re gonna make it.” Corny? Sure. Thrilling? You bet.
Keb’ Mo’s detailed lyrics make the tale too real to resist, and Burke’s narrative instincts—winking at the melodrama even as he milks it for all it’s worth—make it a pleasure to swallow. Almost as effective is “The Fall” (co-written by Jordan, Kortchmar and lyricist Meegan Voss), a similar story about the singer visiting his old home, now an abandoned wreck.
That’s the ironic thing about tributee albums. It’s the big names like Clapton and Harper who bring young listeners close enough to hear an old-timer like Burke. But often it’s the smaller names such as Jordan and Keb’ Mo’ who spark the legend to new triumphs. A fair trade off.