Rock ‘n’ Soul : Solomon Burke (#44)

Solomon Burke | Rock ‘n’ Soul (November 1964)
Atlantic
(USA)
Rhythm and Blues – 34:06

“I want to be a soul singer.”

History can be cruel. It is littered with stories of men and women who should be remembered with pride for their achievements; they should be the names which fall off the tip of the tongue. Instead, throughout the story of mankind, those who have pushed back the boundaries and helped to move things forward are easily forgotten. It can be as simple as being in the right place at the right time – or, in the case of Solomon Burke, singing the right song. Because, while his contemporaries such as Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding and Sam Cooke have achieved the status of icons, Burke has always missed out. Yet, the King of Rock ‘n’ Soul is widely held to be one of the most influential singers in the genre; he just never found that killer song which would sear his image on the public consciousness. His impact is seen as vitally important to modern music – it’s just that nobody realises it.

King Solomon produced a strange hybrid of music. He was uneasy with the labeling of his style as ‘rhythm and blues’, believing that it implied a dirtiness to the songs which he insisted wasn’t there. Instead he was happy to coin the phrase ‘rock ‘n’ soul’ – and give himself a title which reflected it – in order to reflect the sound he felt he produced. Burke claimed that there was a strong link between rock music and soul music which he wanted his songs to show. In reality, there is as much a mix of gospel (unsurprisingly given his time as a TV evangelist), blues and even classic 1940s numbers which permeate through the tracks, making it hard to pin down where he wants to place himself. If Rock ‘n’ Soul was a statement of who Burke was, it delivers a mixed message.

There is a gentle sensuousness to the songs that sounds almost old fashioned; it is easy to hear any number of other singers as you listen to the songs. It may be that is a reflection as much on Burke’s own influence as much as how much he took from others, but it makes the whole sound derivative to a modern ear. That’s not to say that it is a terrible piece of work; rather it gives an air of having been done before. Things begin with Goodbye Baby (Baby Goodbye), a wonderful song with some truly fabulous backing on guitar. You can hear the strength and passion on Burke’s voice. Perhaps, as we have seen elsewhere, the backing vocals do not help to age it well; they sound as if they belong to a different record. It is probably my biggest complaint about the album; it would sound so much better if it was just to rely on the power of Burke’s own voice. There is no denying that his vocals are tremendous and he shows real range in his ability. There are times – and the opener is a prime example – when he brings out the preacher inside of him, giving extra resonance to the lyrics.

The second track, Cry To Me, follows in the style of other soul singers; it says something that it was actually covered by The Rolling Stones – these songs can easily fit into either rock or soul stylings. It is credit to Burke that he keeps them balanced between the two (even if there is a slight leaning towards soul over rock). There is more wonderful guitar playing in Won’t You Give Him (One More Chance), but it is another song which feels let down by the backing vocals which sound completely out-of-keeping with the overall feel. It undercuts the mood created by the instrumentation and the sound of Solomon’s voice, giving it less emotional impact. His cover of the Wilson Pickett penned If You Need Me shows he was every bit as talented as his contemporaries, only adding to the sense that he was unfortunate to never find a song which would give him the wider recognition. His version of Hard Ain’t It Hard – originally by Woody Guthrie – comes close, but even that fails to reach the heights it probably could have achieved.

The whole album feels as if it never quite reaches the potential that it deserves. Solomon Burke is a talented singer who had the right passion to his gifted voice; it is a strange quirk that he was never able to capitalise on it. Rock ‘n’ Soul goes some way towards suggesting why: he never recorded any songs which became synonymous with his voice alone. Just Out of Reach sounds like it belongs a completely different album (more Andy Williams than soul), and while other numbers like You Can’t Love Them All and album closer He’ll Have To Go are more in keeping, there are times when you can imagine someone like Elvis Presley or Tom Jones recording more definitive versions (even though they never did). It is a shame that artists weren’t always given the work which showed off their full potential, particularly in the early 1960s. Solomon Burke may be the forgotten soul star of the decade, but Rock ‘n’ Soul is not album that proves it should be otherwise. Instead, it reveals the best description of the man himself – one which never lives up to the legend it wants to be.

If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to Rock ‘n Soul here:

 

Next time: A Girl Called Dusty by Dusty Springfield

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