Friday, October 15, 2010

News and Notes

This week, Friday Blues Fix covers a lot of ground in a short time, starting with a tribute to a true musical pioneer whose influence was felt on mulitple genres.

Solomon Burke, the King of Rock N' Soul, passed away this past weekend in an Amsterdam airport at age 70.  Though you may not have heard of Burke, soul music would not be where it is today without him.  Burke influenced countless soul singers throughout the 60's, including Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, James Brown, Joe Tex, and many others, including the Rolling Stones, who covered a pair of Burke's songs during their early years.

Though he started out as a preacher, recording gospel sides for Apollo in the 50's, he eventually moved toward secular music upon signing with Atlantic Records in the early 60's.  His sides for Atlantic mixed gospel and country influences with soul on hits like "Just Out of Reach," "Got To Get You Off My Mind," "If You Need Me," "Everybody Needs Somebody To Love" (later recorded by Wilson Pickett), and probably his best known song, "Cry To Me," which was a hit in the 60's and also in the late 80's, when it became an integral part of the movie, and soundtrack to, Dirty Dancing.  All of these songs have been collected in The Very Best of Solomon Burke.

Though Burke had a magnificent voice with range most singers would kill for (Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler called Burke, "the greatest soul singer of all time."), he never achieved the crossover success of many of his contemporaries, like Pickett, Otis Redding, and Aretha Franklin.  Most of his songs did well on the R&B charts, but barely scratched the pop charts.  He jumped around to various record labels in the 70's, before settling in for a time with Rounder Records out of Massachusetts, where he recorded two incredible albums, 1984's Soul Alive!.....a masterful performance that captured perfectly the fervor of his live shows, down to the frantic screaming of the women members of the audience, and 1986's A Change Is Gonna Come, a great modern recording which showed that King Solomon was as much a force of nature in the mid 80's as he was in the mid 60's.  Here's the opening cut from A Change Is Gonna Come, "Love Buys Love," written by the great Paul Kelly.


He was also a major player in Peter Guralnick's Sweet Soul MusicTHE book of Southern soul music.  If you haven't read this book and you enjoy soul music, you really must add it to your reading list.  While the book covers many other soul pioneers, such as Ray Charles, James Brown, Wilson Pickett, James Carr, Al Green, and Otis Redding, Solomon Burke is the star of the book, pure and simple, and the exposure led to a resurgence in his popularity.

He also recorded a couple of early 90's discs for Black Top Records that were well-received, but the turn of the century saw him at his most prolific, as he recorded several critically acclaimed albums, including Don't Give Up On Me for Fat Possum in 2002, Nashville (a country/soul disc) in 2006, and his final release from earlier this year, Nothing's ImpossibleIronically the last recording produced by the legendary Willie Mitchell turned out to be the last recording from Solomon Burke.

We'll bid the King of Rock N' Soul farewell with this fantastic cut from his latest, "Dreams," which features the best of Burke's singing and testifying, along with Mitchell's classic Memphis soul production values (love those horns and gurgly keyboard)....then a clip from the early part of the decade from the British show, Tops of The Pops, with Burke performing "Everybody Needs Somebody To Love."

There have been some very nice tributes to Solomon Burke on various blogs, including one from Dick Waterman.  Mr. Waterman is one of the few non-performers to be inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame and he's had a fascinating career.  He started promoting concerts featuring blues performers in his native Massachusetts in the early 60's and later formed Avalon Productions, a booking agency that represented blues artists.  He ended up representing artists like Skip James, Son House, Junior Wells, Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup, Lightnin' Hopkins, B. B. King, and many others.  He even played a big role in the beginning of Bonnie Raitt's career.  After many of the artists he represented passed away, he did his best to make sure that their estates were taken care of and their heirs were provided for.

Over the years, Waterman had taken thousands of photographs of the various musicians he represented or saw performing at various settings.  In the 80's, he started a second career publishing his pictures.  In addition to blues artists, he has photographed many rock, jazz, folk, zydeco, and country artists.  Many of these pictures can be seen on his site, but he collected a hundred or so of them a few years ago into a book called Between Midnight and Day: The Last Unpublished Blues Archive

If you're a longtime blues fan, you're already familiar with Waterman's work, whether you know it or not.  Many of the iconic photos you've seen, either on album covers or in magazines or on blogs, were taken by Mr. Waterman himself.  You'll see several in this book that fall into that category, but there are also some little-seen ones that will get your attention as well.

Mississippi John Hurt (photo by Dick Waterman)
In addition to the photos, Waterman includes a few anecdotes about each artist featured.  These range from hilarious (Robert Lockwood Jr., Mance Lipscomb, and Mississippi Fred McDowell) to poignant (McDowell, Robert Pete Williams, and Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup), sometimes in the same story.  He pulls no punches either with his personal feelings for some artists (Luther Allison and Bukka White), but at the same time, he's very honest about his own flaws.  I picked this book up last year during my visit to the B. B. King Museum in Indianola and read it from cover to cover the first night.  It is essential reading for any blues fan, so check it out.

Son House (photo by Dick Waterman)
Son House was one of the artists that Waterman represented after House's "rediscovery" in the 60's.  Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters were both influenced by this dynamic artist during his heyday in the 1930's, as he performed in the Mississippi Delta alongside the likes of Charley Patton, Willie Brown, and later, Johnson.  His recordings, for Paramount in the 30's and for the Library of Congress in the early 40's are awe-inspiring.  Son House played and sang the blues like a man possessed, particularly on the six sides he recorded for Paramount. 

Listen to House's Library of Congress recording of "Walking Blues" below and take in the atmosphere of the session with the give and take between House and the other artists (Fiddlin' Joe Martin on mandolin, Leroy Williams on harmonica, and Willie Brown on second guitar) and the sound of steam locomotives passing through in the background.  Though this song is sometimes credited to Robert Johnson, House actually recorded it during his 1931 session with Paramount, but it was never released and a test acetate wasn't found until years later. 

House was a morose sort.....he wavered between playing the blues and becoming a Baptist preacher for years.  He battled constantly with the more gregarious Patton during their time performing together, but he slowed down quite a bit after Patton's death in 1934 and left the blues behind completely in the early 40's, and ended up working with the railroad in Rochester, New York, while various blues scholars beat the bushes trying to find out what happened to him. 

When he was rediscovered in the mid 60's, he hadn't played a guitar in years and literally had to be retaught to play like Son House (by Al Wilson of Canned Heat).  Soon, he began playing at various festivals and was even recording again.  While he had lost some of his guitar playing skill over time, that fierce passion was still present and his performances were just as impressive as they had been 25 - 30 years earlier.  Eventually, he developed health problems and retired in 1976.  He died in 1988.  I think Cub Koda said it best......"Son House was the Blues."

"Death Letter Blues" was the first song I ever heard by Son House and it was proof enough for me that he was the real deal.  Check out this performance from the mid 60's.

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