Solomon Burke: Make Do With What You Got
Label: Shout Factory
Sound/Style: Supersized rhythm & blues with seasoned, soulful vocals
By Steve Morley
(UMCom) -- Any simplistic classification of Solomon Burke’s sound is bound to fall short. It’s clearly steeped in classic R&B and soul, yet Burke fuses those elements – along with anything else that touches him – into something personal, pulsing and more inclusive than any single genre can encompass. So, when the legendary singer interprets the compositions of white musicians like Jagger and Richards, Robbie Robertson and Van Morrison, it sounds for all the world like their songs were created exclusively as fodder for the musical furnace that is Solomon Burke. This is the ultimate compliment for the aforementioned artists, all of whom started out striving to capture the elusive feel and emotional depth of African-American music – which is, not coincidentally, the active and essential ingredient in first generation rock and roll. Upon hearing Burke's Make Do With What You Got (the follow-up to his acclaimed 2002 comeback, Don't Give Up On Me) it isn't hard to picture preening superstars like Mick Jagger rendered prostrate, crying "I'm not worthy!" At a time when rock music has so completely engulfed western culture, it's instructive to hear a veteran black performer point back to the foundation upon which rock was fashioned. Even a die-hard rocker like yours truly can't deny the way Burke's masterful vocals and commanding presence all but indict rock and roll as a pale imitator guilty of diluting human emotion into junior-sized doses or inflating it with swaggering histrionics masquerading as passion and authority.
Burke, who preached in his parents' church and cut both religious and R&B sides before being groomed by Atlantic Records for the secular market in the 1960s, is one of the few living vocalists capable of coaxing gospel and blues to lie down together like lion and lamb. The ability to facilitate teamwork between those oft-estranged musical cousins without diminishing the character of either is a rare gift; not even the influential and far more successful vocalist Sam Cooke – a peer of Burke's – could fully integrate his spiritual and soulful sides, let alone reconcile these with his cosmopolitan pop persona, before his tragic and premature death. Burke's failure to find mainstream acceptance as an Atlantic artist may have been a belated blessing, leaving him unrestrained by commercial demands and free to dip into the American music pool at will. On the new disc, he maintains a bluesy soul sensibility on songs about love and loneliness, all while bringing a maturity that makes vulnerability a strength rather than a weakness. His own "After All These Years" celebrates a longtime love that is grounded and faithful, a subject not often heard in rock and pop, which typically idolize new romance and mourn, dismiss or disparage women and failed relationships.
As Ray Charles did on his Modern Sounds In Country And Western series, Burke convincingly mines a country-soul vein on Van Morrison's "At The Crossroads" and the record's closer, Hank Williams' "Wealth Won't Save Your Soul." Uncovering Hank Senior's blues roots, he transforms the song into a soul-drenched sermon about the deadly distraction of greed that also takes a swipe at the music industry's money myopia, adding the word "platinum" (as in album sales) to a line about the desire for silver and gold. He also comments on modern recording practices by more or less ignoring them, cutting live in the studio with a full band and capturing a stunning immediacy. With Make Do With What You Got, Burke vindicates by proxy the many great artists who were either exploited or left behind by a short-sighted record business. He'll likely get the last laugh – if not on the way to the bank, then at least on his way to the Grammies and the top of critics' 2005 best-of lists.
Steve Morley is a freelance music journalist living in College Grove, Tenn.
This review was developed by UMC.org, the official online ministry of the United Methodist Church.