Royal Blues

Solomon Burke, the King of Rock 'n' Soul, headlines the Sarasota Bluesfest

Legendary soul singer Solomon Burke has some unusual requirements in his contract rider. Chief among them: a throne. The man known as the King of Rock 'n' Soul requires regal trappings on stage. "I hope it's going to be there for me," he says. "It costs too much to bring my own throne around the world ... And it can't be no two orange crates, either."

With this, Burke lets out one of many hearty guffaws.

"Tell 'em Santa Claus is not workin' that weekend."

Blues Festival producer Barbara Strauss knows about the rider, and she knows St. Nick's schedule as well. She actually has a throne in storage that she used a couple years ago for a holiday event. It needs some work, so she's spiffing it up and relining the felt. Strauss is doing the job herself. "I like dumb stuff," she says. "It helps me keep from stressing about the bigger picture."

She's met the throne's width specs — 70 centimeters (about 28 inches) — with an inch to spare. That's a lot of sitting space. The throne will have to accommodate a guy who tips the scales at around 400 pounds. Solomon Burke is a big man with a big voice. Actually, his voice is more than just big. It's expressive, sensitive, powerful, delicate, mesmerizing. His range goes from a rumble to a siren. He has a masterful command of vocal dynamics — when to draw the listener in with a hush, when to let loose with a belt — and an uncanny way of finding the emotional core of a lyric.

Burke, 63, never crossed over to a mainstream audience like Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Sam & Dave and his other mates from the Stax/Volt/Atlantic stable. Of the 26 songs he placed on the Billboard singles chart from 1961-1975, 1965's "Got to Get You Off My Mind" ranked highest at No. 22.

Then again, none of his former labelmates made a late-career album as brilliant as Don't Give Up on Me, which was released last year on the small blues label Fat Possum (owned by indie punk imprint Epitaph) and made it onto scads of year-end critics' lists. (The album was hands-down my favorite of '02.)

The disc has sold an improbable 110,000 copies in the U.S., and roughly a quarter-million worldwide.

Don't Give Up on Me has sparked a career resurgence for a man who'd all but vanished from the pop landscape. In the last couple of decades, Burke has recorded mostly gospel music for tiny labels. He's also been a mortician and an herbal doctor, and he's the minister of a 400-member congregation of the nondenominational House of God for All People in Inglewood, Calif.

The singer is quick to give credit to his record company for his current upswing. "It was more than a comeback," he says. "That word's minute compared to the greatness and volume of what those people [at the label] did. We've rebuilt a foundation, restructured it. It now has steel beams in it. It's stronger in the States, and my strength in Europe in incredible."

The catalyst for Burke's musical rebirth was Epitaph president Andy Kaulkin, who hatched a plan to recruit some of the pop world's most renowned songwriters to contribute material that they either wrote expressly for Burke or that was previously unissued.

He scored a serious coup. Without too much coaxing, Kaulkin received songs from Bob Dylan, whose "Stepchild" dated back to 1978 but had never been recorded, Tom Waits, Van Morrison, Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, Brian Wilson and Dan Penn, a storied R&B tunesmith responsible for several of Burke's 1960s hits.

Another song contributor was Joe Henry, an underheralded solo artist. Kaulkin tapped him to produce the project. Henry's tack was to go lean and mean, with a small studio band laying down the tracks live.

Kaulkin offered Burke tapes of the songs before the sessions. "I said 'no no no, tell me when we gonna record and I'll meet you in the studio,'" the singer recounts. "I wanted it to be like Christmas, like a gift. I wanted to do it right there, to make it as natural and real as possible."

Costello showed up during one session and, surprised at first that Burke had not even heard "The Judgment," sat down and sang it for him on the spot. Burke nailed the song in two takes.

At another point, a line in Waits' "Diamond in Your Mind" troubled Burke. "It talked about a woman who never prayed," the singer explains. "I said, 'That's impossible. All she been through? She prayed.' They were like, 'You can't change a Tom Waits song.' I said, 'Call Mr. Waits, get him on the phone.' He said, 'Change it, baby. Change it, baby.'"

The Don't Give Up on Me sessions took just four days in all. Although Burke had no hand in writing the songs, they coalesced into a theme that has deepened his appreciation of the disc over time. "This album keeps on giving and giving," he says. "It's a healing album. People suffer from all types of problems and situations in life. But don't give up on yourself. 'Don't give up on me, I'm not givin' up on you.' Every one of those songs has a message of hope."

Eric Snider can be reached at 813-248-8888 ext. 114 or [email protected].