When Epitaph Records' Andy Kaulkin first approached Solomon Burke about being part of the Fat Possum family--the Mississippi label home to blues guitarists R.L. Burnside and T-Model Ford--the soul singer thought he was being recruited to don an animal suit and entertain at athletic events. He had just been asked to sponsor The Fat Bears, a kids' football team, and double as a mascot. "Every time he would say something to me, he would say, 'Hi, I'm Andy with Fat Possum.' And I would say, 'Aw, Jesus--save me Jesus.' When I seen him coming in the airport, my son says 'Here comes the Fat Possum guy. What do we tell him?' 'Tell him I don't have a card, get his card,'" Burke says he replied. "Maybe I'm not fat enough for the possum they're looking for anyway."
Kaulkin had another idea in mind. He wanted Burke to record an album of songs written for him by the country's top songwriters. After seeing the carton of tapes from singers including Van Morrison, Dylan and Elvis Costello, Burke agreed, but on his own terms.
He told Kaulkin to pick the songs, the studio and the time, and he would turn in the project in three days. Furthermore, he didn't want to hear the songs until the day he cut them. "I don't want to know the songs," Burke told him. "Just as you received it, I want to be blown away every time I look at one. And that's the way we did it--live."
The album, 2002's Don't Give Up On Me, is the best work Burke has done since he ruled the soul charts in the '60s with hits like "Cry to Me," "Just Out of Reach," "If You Need Me," "Got to Get You Off My Mind" and "Goodbye Baby (Baby Goodbye.." It also won Burke a Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album.
On the third day of recording it, he says, Elvis Costello walked into the studio. "And people are running around--'Elvis is here! Elvis is here!' I said, 'Oh my God, these people done cracked up.' 'Cause I had my candles burning in the studio, there was a real spiritual atmosphere going, you know. And I thought it had affected 'em. We've called up the spirits."
It was the real Costello, who after hearing that Burke had not heard the song meant for him, instructed producer Joe Henry not to play it for him. At first Burke though Costello wanted to take back the song, but instead Costello simply wanted to show Burke how he envisioned the piece. "He sat down on the stool next to me and he sung the song."
The guests that got Burke the most excited were not only corporeal, they brought along sustenance. "We had the Five Blind Boys. They walk in the day after their Grammy. And they come in with CHICKEN! They come in with 100 pieces of fried chicken, man, 100 pieces! 50 pieces in each box! Six sweet potato pies, lemonade, cornbread, talkin' about 'Let's get this song on, man!' There was some serious singing there man, chicken grease all over the microphone, biscuits scattered everywhere."
Burke has been crossing back and forth between the secular and the celestial world for decades. In addition to his duties as Bishop of the Church of God for all People, which was founded by his grandmother and claims a membership of over 40,000, Burke divides his time today between ministering to his flock and administering his unique soulful elixir. He also runs some secular enterprises as well including funeral parlors and a limo service, and supplies theaters and stadiums with his own brand of fast food--Soul Dogs and Soul Corn.
He was recently inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame, an honor he says he's grateful for, but is not sure fits him. "I'm not really a rock 'n' roller. I'd love to be, but what an honor to be a part of that." Told that a lot of people believe that he is indeed a big part of rock 'n' roll as well as soul, he says modestly, "It's just part of my life, you know. And gosh, when you think about rock 'n' roll, you think about Bill Haley and the Comets, or Doug Clark and the Hot Nuts, and you think about all them great guys and Chuck Berry and Little Richard, that was rock 'n' roll, man. Fats Domino--we were doin' it back in those days."
Although the album is secular, Burke says there's an underlying gospel message. "I really send the message out to everybody because not only don't give up on me, but it's a message saying don't give up on yourself. A lot of people are going through a lot of things right now in life. People are suffering from AIDS, cancers, all kinds of heart trouble, overweight, all kinds of things. Saying, don't give up. Hold on. And whatever you do," Burke adds for those who might think his time has past, "don't give up on me."
Solomon Burke is the Friday headliner of the Bull Durham Blues Festival, which begins Thursday, Sept. 9, at 7:30 p.m. at St. Joseph's Performance Hall at Hayti Heritage Center with Kenny Neal & Billy Branch, and Waymon Meeks. The bill on Friday, Sept. 10, from 6 p.m.-midnight at the Historic Durham Athletic Park, 428 Morris St., includes Otis Clay, Chris Ardoin & Double Clutchin', Ana Popovic and Bobby Hinton & Shades of Blue. Isaac Hayes headlines the Saturday, Sept. 11 show, which also runs from 6 p.m.-midnight at the park and includes Magic Slim & the Teardrops, Michael Burks, EG Knight, and Mel Melton & The Wicked Mojos. Go to www.hayti.org/blues/index.asp for details.