Don't Give Up On Me
An Old Soul's Welcome Return
One of the unexpected positive trends in the music business of the late 1990s was the return of long-neglected soul, gospel, and R&B singers. A talent who'd been completely off the radar for twenty years or more would generate a bit of buzz via the re-release of classic records. This sometimes became the prelude to a full comeback, complete with duets with current stars, ardent hosannas from critics, and tours. After a decade of recording for smallish labels, veteran gospel harmony specialists the Blind Boys of Alabama experienced a full-scale career revitalization, as did Howard Tate and others.
Just one hitch: In many cases the new recordings turned out to be pale echoes of what came before. Solomon Burke is one of the very few members of the old-timers' club whose late-innings work is as strong as the hits of his heyday. That's saying something, because Burke was part of the mighty soul roster at Atlantic Records in the 1960s. A dynamo of lived-through-it-all groans and subtle inflections, his delivery was authoritative, his vocals a study in beseeching urgency, whether he was making a plea ("Send Me Some Loving") or offering to comfort ("Cry to Me"). When the hits dried up for Burke in the 1970s, he didn't jump onto the oldies circuit. He returned to his ministry, opened a chain of mortuaries, and was very selective about his music work. This preserved his voice, as he noted in an interview during the launch of Don't Give Up on Me: "I was very fortunate. . .. I didn't have to do my 20 minutes on a revue every night, all that grueling travel. When it's time to sing, I feel like I can sound the way people expect me to sound."
Sure enough, Burke's voice is remarkably well preserved on Don't Give Up—the bass end is full, and his throaty high notes positively wail. It helps that he's not trying to re-create the whiplashing Atlantic sound: The songs here, written by such noted rockers and Burke disciples as Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Nick Lowe, and others, are reflective, truth-seeking processionals. The crown jewel is "Diamond in Your Mind," a lazy two-step written by Tom Waits and sung by Burke in his best Louis Armstrong style. As he looks back at the high time when "money was something that you throw from the back of trains," Burke urges his flock to remain focused on the positive, and sings in a way that makes that diamond seem like it's right there, within reach.
Released: 2002, Fat Possum/Anti
Key Tracks: "Diamond in Your Mind," "Stepchild," "Don't Give Up on Me," "Fast Train."
Catalog Choice: Home in Your Heart: The Best of Solomon Burke (which covers his great Atlantic output)
Next Stop: Otis Redding: Otis Blue
After That: James Carr: Anthology
Book Pages: 131–132