Nightly Song
Musings on Songs that Strike a Chord Tonight

Don’t Give Up on Me by Solomon Burke

Performed by Solomon Burke. Witten by Dan Penn, Carson Whitsett and Hoy Lindsey. You can listen to the studio version here and a good live version here. You can buy the song on iTunes here and the album of the same name from iTunes here.

The big man passed on Monday morning while en route to a concert in Amsterdam. My 17-year-old son just walked in and asked if Solomon Burke died why it’s not big news, why aren’t the flags at half-mast. He suggests a train like Lincoln’s carrying the body around the country. We would all do well to mark his passing by listening to the music and inspiration of the King of Rock ‘n Soul.

My son only knows the greatness of the songs. Not the meandering career, the early gospel songs, the early 60’s disks with Atlantic records, the wanderings for nearly three decades until the audience caught up with this King of Soul and his release of Don’t Give Up on Me where he covers songs written by Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson, Van Morrison and others.  

As much a myth as he is a man, Burke’s biography tells of how his grandmother – Mother Moore – foresaw her grandson’s birth and established a church – Solomon’s Temple – several years before his birth. Like many myths, Burke’s origins are hard to pin down. He claims to have been born upstairs from a church or even in the church, his first wails mingling in perfect unison with the choir. He was born in 1936, 1938, or 1940; take a choice.

Fact. Fiction. Parables. Life lessons. They all merge as a single, true stream flowing through his voice. The man who reportedly told Jerry Wexler he would not sing R & B since he was an ordained preacher, so he covered country songs: “Just Out Of Reach (Of My Two Empty Arms)” became his first R&B hit in 1961. In a reality that proved true for much of Burke’s career, Ray Charles followed his lead crossing from soul to county and it was Ray Charles who found great success on the charts, not Burke.

Throughout the early 60’s and the early days of Atlantic Records, Burke churned out R&B hits, though a crossover hit eluded him and even his R&B success failed to bring him a number one hit. Not that others didn’t notice his performance. Jerry Wexler, who produced his share of great singers, called Burke, “The greatest soul singer of all time.” Soon after the release of “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” in 1964, the Stones did a cover on which it’s clear that Mick spent many hours learning Burke’s phrasing. (Check out this more recent video of the Stones and Burke together complete with some Stones commentary on Burke’s presence).  

As the 60’s drew to a close, many soul singers (Al Green, Aretha, etc.) found great success, while Solomon Burke found himself wandering a musical wasteland. He drifted across labels and spent time raising his children (he ultimately fathered 21 children) and preaching his gospel of love. From time to time, his presence bubbled up as it did when his song “Cry to Me” appeared in the movie Dirty Dancing.

In the past decade, Solomon Burke, bishop, reverend, preacher, singer, magnificent presence, found a new audience. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted him in 2001. He recorded blues, soul, country and a mix of it all done solo or in big name duets. He went into the studio guided by the likes of Buddy Miller and Willie Mitchell. The album Don’t Give Up on Me kick started this phase and is full of covers that capture Burke at his best – mixing singing and preaching – his voice smooth, at times intimate, calling you closer as he whispers in your ear, at times powerfully proclaiming great joy to all who hear. The recording won the Grammy for Best Blues Album in 2003.

On stage, he created a vast presence – his weight easily sailed north of 400 pounds. He sat in an oversized red throne with a gold-leaf frame, opened his great mouth and unleashed a stream of smooth singing punctuated with passages of spoken word preaching and wails and cries that made him sweat and tremble. His grandmother taught him to enunciate and even in his later years, every word rings true, every line takes on meaning.

The song “Don’t Give Up on Me” starts with a quiet intensity, a voice the leans in with an urgency that what he has to say is of the upmost importance. He is man confident in his humility, strong in his faith:

If I fall short
If I don’t make the grade
If you’re expectations aren’t met in me today
There’s always tomorrow, or tomorrow night
Hang in there, baby
Sooner or later I know I’ll get it right

And when he begs for more time, when he begs for one more chance, when he pledges that his time, this time he will make it right, who can refuse him. It is not the words alone, but the singing, stretching, pushing, hoping:

I know It’s late
But wait please, please, please, please, please
Don’t give up on me
Promise, will you promise me,
Will you promise me
Please don’t give up on me
We can make it if we try
I’m going to hold on, hold on with me

He’s a man who can make you believe. RIP Solomon Burke.

You can check out more at the website for Solomon Burke and you can read a great profile of Burke by David Cantwell as No Depression website. Peter Guralnik devotes a chapter in his book, Sweet Soul Music to Solomon Burke and it is well worth tracking that down.

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