In Dream Boogie, Peter Guralnick's fantastic biography of soul music innovator Sam Cooke, very few people come off completely well. Cooke, for all his genius and generosity was an avid womanizer with a boundless ego. Sometime tour-mate Johnny "Guitar" Watson often slagged off touring because pimping paid better. Little Richard, well, the less said of his freaky-deaky exploits the better for us all. Better to think of him as the king of "R&B uptempo! R&B uptempo! WOOOOOOOO!" than as a tortured soul with poor impulse control and a Bible whose margins he filled with scrawled records of his sins.
One of the only figures in the entire book who seems like someone you'd trust with your house keys is soul-gospel-blues singer, "The King of Rock & Soul," Solomon Burke. A religious man (he was preaching from the age of twelve) he (according to Guralnick) was more famous for cooking up fried chicken for his tour mates than for any epic feats of sin and dissipation.
Burke was one of the yeomen of the early soul period. He racked up a number of hits and a great deal of respect among his peers in the late 1950s and 1960s as a performer and singer of gospel-country-soul-blues rave-ups and confessions, but he never quite cracked the upper reaches of the pop charts. Although his career never reached the critical mass of a James Brown or a Ray Charles, he continued releasing albums throughout the '60s, '70s, and '80s, and also returned to his roots as a minister. And although his popularity waned over time, his albums remained, if not inspired or inspiring, refreshingly free of self-parody or outright desperation.
A few years ago, Burke signed with the good people at Fat Possum Records, one of the keepers of the true flame of the deep blues, and released what turned out to be a comeback album, 2002's Don't Give Up On Me. For that project, Burke was paired with young indie rock producer Joe Henry, who (yes, just like Rick Rubin did with Johnny Cash) sat Burke down in a comfortable chair with a batch of songs by top-notch writers, and made sure that Burke's own church organist was sitting in on the sessions to boot. The result was a landmark career revival, as good as any of Johnny Cash's comeback records, Loretta Lynn's comeback record, or that of any other formerly neglected rootsy legend you might care to name.
Burke's latest album is Nashville, a collection of country songs, reinterpreted in his own style.
But I need to interrupt these proceedings to talk a little about what that means, "country." What is "country?" One answer is, "it's what's on the country charts," but I don't mostly like that answer. What's on the charts is crap. Another answer is "anything that Hank wrote." That's a pretty good answer, but limiting. Another answer, according to Solomon Burke himself in an interview I did with him recently is, "[T]his whole thing about country music and soul music and gospel music just wears me out. The truth is that for me, these are all separating categories that do a disservice to music. Because if you go back and listen to my work through the years, you will see that regardless of the category, it all comes down to a message of love."