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Solomon Burke goes Nashville

By Jeffrey B. Remz, October 2006

The common path in recent years seemingly is for country artists to go pop, diluting the traditional country sound. But now could a reverse migration be going on with other genres going country?

After all, Bon Jovi topped the country song charts a few months ago with the pop-sounding "Who Says You Can't Go Home?"

And now one of the greatest soul singers ever, Solomon Burke, just released "Nashville," (Shout! Factory) an album comprised of country songs by some of the edgier country/roots artists with help from folks with a ton of street cred like Buddy Miller, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, Patty Loveless and Patty Griffin.

So after a career filled with rhythm and blues and membership in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2001, why did Burke want to record an album in Nashville called "Nash-ville?

"Because it's where my heart has been for years," says a very friendly Burke from his home in the Los Angeles area.

"I'm very serious about this," says Burke, who intends to tour behind the disc. "It's not a fluke. It's a serious country record. It's 45 years of making in my heart."

Burke was born March 21, 1940 in Philadelphia. By the age of seven, Burke sermonized not only to those attending his family's church, but also to those who tuned in to regular broadcasts on WDAS.

His grandmother, Eleanor Moore, who raised him, was a big influence. "My grandmother was a great seer, a great spiritualist. She'd sit us down on Saturday. 'You've done your chores. You've done everything you're supposed to do. You got to sit down and listen to music, and listen to it, and enjoy it.'"

"My grandmother was into classical music and into gospel," he says. "Her roots was gospel. We had a very famous cousin who was a great singer and actor... Paul Robeson."

"My grandmother was a stickler about diction and pronunciation. She said, 'listen to how Gene Autry pronounces the words.'"

Burke goes on to clearly state the words "I'm back in the saddle again where a friend is a friend" from Autry's most famous song as proof. "You're getting the picture in your mind from saying each word, each syllable."

"We loved music. Church was based on the sound of the trombone, bass, drums, electric guitars, pianos and organs. This is something we breathed in the soul of heart and mind. That was the rhythm of our life."

"I lost my grandmother when I was 14 years old. That was just devastating to me...Seventy-two hours after her passing, my life was beginning. Everything she predicted to me is happening as we speak."

"She predicted everything (that) would happen in my life - my family, I'd travel the world, I'd sing songs that no one expected me to sing. The whole history of my life is in this great prophesy. She was a great woman of God. She was a seer, a believer."

Burke first recorded for Apollo Records in 1954, doing gospel and R&B while also going to school for mortuary science. (Some family members still are in the business). In 1954, he scored a million seller with 1954's "Christmas Presents from Heaven."

A few singles on the Singular label landed Burke a deal with Atlantic Records.

He ended up recording "Just Out of Reach (Of My Two Open Arms")," which had been cut by several country acts including Faron Young and Patsy Cline, but never made much of a dent.

That was until Burke got his voice on it. The song became a big hit in 1961 on the R&B charts and making the top 40 of the pop charts.

"By the grace of God, it took a year. There was no format for a black artist in America doing country music - no station that had a program listening for it. And Gene Autry who owned Four Star Music (publishers) gave us a call and said 'Don't worry about it. We're going to get this record on...We're going to do something with this record.' A couple of friends called (Atlantic Records Producer Jerry Wexler and said 'hold onto this record. Don't give up on it.' Next thing we know, we had four or five big stations playing it. It was a big foot in the door for me. It was a pioneering experience that was just overjoying."

In a way, Burke opened the door, albeit slimly, for other minority artists. "What a beautiful thing after that for have Ray Charles to come along a year later and do one of the greatest albums in the history of American country music ("Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music") and then Charley Pride and all the great black artists do country music." (Today, the best known is probably Cowboy Troy, and he doesn't exactly have a lot in common with Pride or Burke)

He did not stop delving into country with the one song because he recorded about five more.

But while Burke enjoyed doing country, label honchos seemed to think the artist had gone astray. "At that time, Jerry Wexler, said, 'Stop. That's it. No more. We're not a country label man. Say hello to (R&B singer) Don Covay. Let's do some R&B man."

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