How Classic Rhythm and Blues Has Become Vital Once Again
It’s hard to imagine any music fan remembering the Christmas of 2006 as a completely enjoyable one after word slowly spread that day of the death of James Brown. Two years prior to that it was Ray Charles, and it seemed that the passing of these two monumental figures might ultimately close the book on the soul music they jointly helped create. Yet, 2007 in many ways has been the year of soul, with the mainstream breakthroughs of artists like Amy Winehouse and Corinne Bailey Rae, but also because many past legends of the genre, such as Solomon Burke, Bettye LaVette, Mavis Staples, Al Green, Irma Thomas, and Sharon Jones, have all recently made some of the best music of their careers, and in the process, turned on a whole new generation.Of course, soul has never completely gone away, as die-hard fans around the world have tirelessly searched out and reissued treasure troves of long-forgotten 45s, or periodically revived the careers of semi-retired artists on a small scale with European tours. But the current deluge of incredible new material has in large part been the result of a handful of key players in the music business wanting nothing more than to hear these still-powerful voices presented in the most natural environment possible. Ironically, with hardly any emphasis placed on making a "hit record,” this approach has also led to many of these artists making money from their music for the first time in their lives.
The person at the heart of much of this story is Andy Kaulkin, president of Anti Records, the offshoot of punk label Epitaph that first gained attention by releasing Tom Waits’ latter-day masterpiece, Mule Variations, in 1999. From there Kaulkin appeared to have creative carte blanche, making such unexpected signings as Merle Haggard, and forming a short-lived partnership with Fat Possum Records, home to the late R.L. Burnside and other contemporary Mississippi bluesmen. In 2001, Kaulkin set his sights on signing Solomon Burke who, like Haggard, had been steadily marginalized into an undervalued cult figure since his heyday on the charts in the 1960s with songs like "Cry To Me,” and "Everybody Needs Somebody To Love.” Sensing another opportunity to rectify this situation, Kaulkin personally made Burke an offer at a show in Portland, Oregon. "He said, ‘Let’s make a deal,’ and I thought I was on a TV show,” says Burke, the jovial father of 21 kids and grandfather to 87 more. "I made a bunch of crazy demands, like having a two-page contract and ten days to make the record, and he said, ‘You got it.’ The next day we met for lunch and he gave me the contract and a cheque. The label did exactly what it said it would do, and I ended up with my first and only Grammy, and my first real royalty cheque after being in the business for five decades. Isn’t that amazing?”
Yet despite the rejuvenation that came after the release of Don’t Give Up On Me, Burke was unsure about the creative direction the label initially wanted to take. Many L.A.-based producers were considered, among them Joe Henry, a name more commonly familiar to alt-country fans for his own landmark albums such as Short Man’s Room. However, beginning with 1996’s Trampoline, Henry began taking advantage of what the studio could offer his work, through the encouragement of his friend, famed producer T-Bone Burnett. Still, Henry was completely taken aback when asked if he could record Burke. "It was like someone asking, ‘Would you sleep with Marilyn Monroe if you were certain your wife would never find out?’ I said, ‘Of course, but what’s the gag?’” Henry says. "To be honest, I wasn’t even sure [Burke] was still alive, but I was a fan. But as the conversation progressed, I realised I was in no way the front-runner for the gig, so I kind of mouthed off about the kind of record I thought it should be. That led to more conversations, and somehow [Andy] decided that he had a better shot at making a unique record with Solomon if he didn’t follow a more typical path. So I found myself in that chair. I won’t say it was an easy experience, but it was a fantastic experience.”
Henry explains that the only real bones of contention with Burke stemmed from how stripped-down the studio set-up was. The producer says his main goal was to get away from any cliches by putting nearly all the focus on the singer, as well as utilizing current material. "Being that acoustic-oriented didn’t hit any of the touchstones for him that great soul music was historically,” Henry says. "I didn’t want all the accoutrements, like when he’d walk into Atlantic’s studios and there’d be eight horn players; those can be very powerful ingredients, but that’s not what makes it soulful. My point to him was that it’s about his voice, so anything we do is going to be soul music. His thing was so heavy that no matter what I did, he would overpower it with just his voice and charisma, so he eventually got it that the more stripped we made it, the bolder it would be. When we cut the title song, it was the second one we did on the first day, and when it started off with just the acoustic guitar and his voice, that’s all I really needed.”
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