27 October 2010

Dwang me

stairsA quote often used as a lazy slur on music criticism is that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” As they used to say in journalism school, this is one cliche that should be avoided like the plague.

I have most often seen the quote attributed to Frank Zappa. Others given the credit include Laurie Anderson, William Burroughs, Elvis Costello and even Thelonious Monk. After extensive research, Alan Scott finds that the quip first emerged from the mouth of US satirist Martin Mull. Another blogger, Mike Johnston, sought and received confirmation from Mull himself.

Nimmos buildingWalking the streets researching New Zealand’s popular music, including the venues at which it was played, I have often thought my recent book is as much about architecture as music. Buildings such as those that housed the Peter Pan and Dixieland Point Chevalier may be long gone, but some still hold on grimly: the St James on Queen St, the original Dixieland on Queen (now Real Groovy Records), the Crystal Palace on Mt Eden Road. In Wellington, the former Nimmo’s Building (now housing Wholly Bagels) on Willis Street glowers at the kitsch 1980s neighbourhood bully, the Majestic Centre, that obliterated its former dancing partner, the Majestic Cabaret.

14 October 2010

Fix it in the mix

Alongside the 1988 Tex Pistol profile in Rip It Up was a story describing the production of a television jingle. At the time the Fairlight synthesiser was cutting-edge technology for sampling music. It enabled the sampling of real instruments, which could then be played using the piano keyboard. From memory, they cost around $150,000 NZD and could record 16 polyphonic voices, and a sample length of about two minutes. Its competitor the Emulator was cheaper and simpler, but its samples were only 30 seconds long. Ian Morris enjoyed making music for advertising – his showreel is here – it was the industry he found frustrating.

IMAGINE BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN driving across America … in a Honda Civic.” It’s 10pm at Wellington’s Soundtrax Studios, where Ian Morris aka Tex Pistol, Callie Blood and Jim Hall are producing a jingle for a skin cancer cream.

Hall is explaining why one idea – to use Springsteen’s ‘Cover Me’ – wouldn’t work. “Cover me? Springsteen never gets out of his car!”

Fairlight Hall is in the production seat for this job, while Morris engineers and operates the Fairlight synthesiser. Blood, who wrote the jingle, concentrates on the vocal which is being sung by Rikki Morris – of ‘Nobody Else’ fame – in his first commercial appearance. The session’s only been going an hour, but already Rikki’s vocal track is almost complete: squeaky pop over a backing that recalls Georgie Fame’s ‘Yeh Yeh’.

The 30-second jingle extolling the virtues of UV cream quickly becomes embedded in the consciousness, as Ian coaxes his brother through take after take: “Hold that G … make that hot hotter … one more time for Ringo.”

What’s really remarkable is the speed and competence of the work. Morris decides to double-track the vocal as an experiment. He slows down the tape, then Rikki adds another vocal at a lower pitch. At normal speed the jingle sounds as poppy as a Madonna single.

“What we really want,” grins Hall, “is someone blonde and unreasonably young – like Kylie Minogue. ‘I could be so sunburnt …’ ”

Main vocal complete, the musical magpies pick up guitars to work out some fills. Morris plays a line from Exile On Main Street’s ‘Shake Your Hips’, while Hall tries out familiar licks from With the Beatles.

Time for the backing vocals. In walk Annie Crummer and Barbara Griffin, moonlighting from the Holidaymakers’ album sessions taking place in Marmalade Studios next door. Hall plays the backing melodies on his guitar, and within half an hour Blood, Crummer and Griffin have oo’ed and ah’d three-part harmonies. Morris alters the parts of the final chord; the result echoes the famous dissonance that ends ‘She Loves You’.

Vocals down, it’s still only 11pm as the final touches are recorded. There’s some garbage in there, I think it’s the hi-hats,” says Hall. He wants some holes in the final mix, but proceeds to pack more into the jingle. “I think it needs some warm Georgie left hand,” he says, quickly working out a piano part and recording it. “Maybe a sax fill.” Hall works out a riff and records it. “Is that too much like the original?” he thinks aloud.

Meanwhile Morris is tapping away at the Fairlight, fine-tuning tracks already recorded, changing instruments at the flick of a switch from Hammond organ to Yamaha piano to church organ. He decides the opening is a bit limp, so quickly finds a metallic drum sound, works it into a fanfare … and the result booms out like the start of Hawaii Five-O.

“I think I know a way to get bagpipes in there,” muses Hall, but three hours after they began, it’s all been completed: ‘Melanoma with Matt Bianco.’

11 October 2010

Like nobody else

The death of Ian Morris is a major shock for his family, friends and music people throughout New Zealand. Certainly there is nobody who taught me more about pop music. He had phenomenal ears, great taste, the talent to realise his ideas – and could be extremely opinionated and funny. This editorial speaks of how fondly he was regarded in his new home, Hawke’s Bay. This Rip It Up profile comes from the time of his Tex Pistol album Nobody Else, and I post it here to convey what went on in that eclectic musical mind.

A conversation with Ian was always an education: he could play any record and change your perception of it. In a perfect world, he would have been a brilliant teacher at one of the many “Schools of Rock” that now exist. At the very least, he would have been as quoted as Jim Dickinson. Instead, we have the records, and the writing at his website. There was a lot more to him than music, but to get an idea of his outlook, I especially recommend Rock’n’roll/Not rock’n’roll, 62 Expressions to Avoid in a Recording Studio and the musical samples from his boxes of demos and outtakes.

A two-part Musical Chairs doco on Ian Morris is available on the Radio New Zealand site, thanks to Liisa’s initiative and Rianz clearing the music rights. Part one goes from childhood to Cool Bananas; part two covers Tex, the Warratahs, ‘Mr Wolf’ and jingles.

This Gun’s for Hire

By Chris Bourke, Rip It Up, November 1988

Ian Morris on RIU 11 “I changed my name in search of fame to find the Midas touch,” sang Mott the Hoople, perhaps the greatest influence on all those young Dudes. It’s ironic that after a long and varied career in music, Ian Morris should receive most recognition for a busman’s holiday called Tex Pistol.

Now 31, he’s been an engineer (the classic Hello Sailor albums, plus lots worth forgetting), a producer (Cool Bananas, the Meemees album, and lots he wants to forget), and a band member (Th’ Dudes, Pink Flamingos, DD Smash). This month Nobody Else – his first solo album – comes out, still using that cowboy moniker.

“Ian Morris just doesn’t sound poppy enough,” he explains. His first solo project, a single called ‘Boot Up (Let X = Y)’ was done in 1983 using his nickname Jag Moritz. It disappeared without a trace. Morris’s next project was a cowboy epic, so a different name seemed appropriate. Tex Pistol. It had the same hokey flavour as the song, ‘The Ballad of Buckskin Bob’. When released on Pagan in ’86, it also disappeared. But Tex Pistol won the Most Promising Male Vocalist award.

Now happy to be stuck with Tex, ‘The Game is Love’ followed, and the rest is history. It shot to #1, reaching the top on the day when the shops ran out of stock. The follow-up ‘Nobody Else’ also made #1, once again only for a week: U2’s ‘Desire’ was an unstoppable juggernaut.

“Tex started off as a joke, a one-off cowboy thing, and it’s still very much an after-hours hobby,” says Morris. The separate persona suits the musician, whose day-job is now producing music for advertising. “I like Tex in that I can hide behind it. We get clients coming in, people I’ve known for years, saying ‘Who is Tex Pistol?’. They don’t realise it’s me, which is great.”

Morris has a take-it-or-leave-it attitude to success. He experienced our version of pop stardom in Th’ Dudes and DD Smash, and a lot of it wasn’t much fun. “I’ve toured the country a million times. So I don’t envy someone like Ardijah who’ve just put out a fantastic single – but what next? It’s a career move for them, but it’s not for me, which is the advantage I have.”

Nobody Else came about when Pagan’s Trevor Reekie suggested there was enough material for an album. “I thought, oh, that sounds like a bit of self-indulgent pleasure, I’ll have a go,” says Morris, “but in the end, I had to really force myself to go in to do it. Because working all day on a Farmer’s jingle, then having to go back at night to record 140 acoustic guitar parts for the album wasn’t a whole lot of fun. But I didn’t want it to drag on for years and years, I didn’t want it to become an audio Stranded in Paradise – eternally updating and revising.”

The result is a diverse work that, Morris thinks, conforms to the original meaning of album: a collection of songs. “Much as I love ‘Bad Medicine’ by Bon Jovi, all their songs have the same drum sound, the same guitar sound, the same vocal echo, the same overall concept. This doesn’t.”

Nobody Else is certainly a diverse display of Morris’s talents and tastes. He’s a fan of pure pop and productions expansive and sparse. The album’s got a sense of history and humour, and reflects his love of country and classic New Zealand songs. It shows a perfectionist with a commercial ear revelling in the craft of making music.

MORRIS’S RECORD COLLECTION is the best guide to where Tex comes from. He’s got boxes of singles, hundreds of 45s in shocking condition but alphabetical order: Abba’s ‘Mamma Mia’ right through to ... yes! The Zombies’ ‘She’s Not There’ and Zager and Evans’s ‘In the Year 2525’. But there are also Frank Ifield and Cliff Richard hits from his English childhood, and a New Zealand collection that goes from Ash Burton’s ‘Tea at Te Kuiti’ through the La De Das, Fourmyula and Space Waltz to Golden Harvest and the Features.

Ian Morris Hataitai 11Ian Morris, Akautangi Way, Hataitai, November 1988.

Mono copies of albums by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones are worn out from teenage years playing them at 16 rpm to learn off the lead breaks. Also from the ’60s, Georgie Fame and Gene Pitney. But the ’70s are of equal importance: Mott the Hoople, Alice Cooper, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop. More especially Elvis Costello and Todd Rundgren. Plus, the country section: Bob Wills, Gram Parsons, stacks of George Jones. All make an impact on Nobody Else.

Producers: Phil Spector, George Martin, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Mickie Most, Jimmy Miller, Tony Visconti, Chinn-Chapman, Richard Perry, Dave Edmunds, Guy Stevens, Nick Lowe. “All great pop songs have a colourful image. You get a picture in your mind’s eye. Think of some people, you get a very dark two-dimensional image of what they’re doing – all very serious. Think of Sgt Pepper, it’s a tapestry of sound. The songs were great, but it’s the sound of them that has so much character. Sonic painting.”

Pure Pop for Now People. Abba: “Brilliant songs, great melodies. The lyrics – who cares? Just the sound: ‘Ma Ma (chang chang) Waterloo!’ Great sound.” Tomorrow’s Hits Today. Current faves: “ ‘Drop the Boy’ by Bros and Bon Jovi’s ‘Bad Medicine’.”

What about cover versions, Yesterday’s Hits Today? 1988’s worst: Everything But the Girl’s ‘I Don’t Want to Talk About It’. “She [Tracey Thorn] has done it exactly the same, only she can’t sing.” And the Breakfast Club’s ‘Drive My Car’. “It’s always hard to do Beatles songs, to capture that feel. Think of the good ones: Elton John, Joe Cocker. Even Ray Charles couldn’t do ‘Yesterday’.

“In my first band, with Peter Urlich, we used to play Eastern Suburbs rugby clubs. Chillum. Peter thought of that. Jeans above the navel and curly hair. We used to play rugby dos, farmers’ daughter’s weddings. Stones’ songs. Chuck Berry, Creedence. Lots of rock’n’roll, but no Beatles. It’s like people doing Dave Dobbyn songs. Only Dave can do them.

“The day the term singer-songwriter was termed was a dark day for music … People forgot that music is entertainment – above all else.”

“People frown on doing covers. I have endless discussions with Trevor. He loves originals. I’m chuffed ‘Nobody Else’ is an original too. But look at Ella Fitzgerald. In those days, Cole Porter would write a song then everyone would have a bash at doing it. There are no definitive versions – maybe Frank Sinatra’s version – but everyone had a bash.”

Ken Avery, who composed ‘Tea at Te Kuiti’ and many other novelty songs in the ’50s, bemoaned the effect of the Beatles: suddenly you were dead as a songwriter unless you could perform as well. Although Morris co-wrote Th’ Dudes songs and half of Nobody Else, he agrees. “The day the term singer-songwriter was termed was a dark day for music. All of a sudden you had no credibility unless you were moaning about your own particular problems. People forgot that music is entertainment – above all else.

“I listen to Paul Kelly and think it’d be great to write an album of fantastically honest Ian Morris songs. I could, but it would be a heap of old toss. I’m more into interpreting things.”

What about the witty references to the past: ‘Sweet Dreams’ strings, ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ percussion, ‘Respect’ BVs, ‘Here There and Everywhere’ and ‘Honky Tonk Woman’ chord changes? “There’s two things happening there. A couple of the songs are pastiche, in the truest sense of the word: sending it up and adoring it at the same time. That’s ‘I Don’t Know What Came Over Me’, which is wearing a bit thin, but what the heck. Also any musician is only the sum of his or her influences and their interpretation of them. That’s why Rikki’s song (‘Nobody Else’) is pretty Beatles-ish. And country music is mongrel music – there’s no musical form that hasn’t influenced country. It’s part of the way music evolves, people say, ‘Ooh, that’s great, let’s do this with it.’ The steals are obvious. Rappers are the biggest thieves, and so boring. They probably think country’s boring.”

“Producers have to rehearse the band, chop songs around, throw things out, say to the bass player, ‘You’re useless – fuck off.’ ”

Working in the ad industry, is he torn by the way jingles exploit great music? “No, not at all. I always end up thinking about the geezer who wrote the song. I don’t think I’d ever let ‘My Old Friend’ become a beer ad. It’s my choice. Maybe if I needed the money. But if Bobby Womack really wants $5000 from Brut for ‘It’s All Over Now’, it’s up to him. Mick and Keith won’t let any of their songs be used – they don’t want $10,000 from New Zealand.” It’s when the remakes are badly done and the client tries to shove his chemical formula for soap powder into the lyrics that he takes offense.

Production is a mis-used term, says Morris. “On my passport, it says ‘audio producer’ because it’s such a broad term. I do engineering, write songs, produce, make audio.” George Martin was the first producer to be an influence, Alan Parsons the first engineer. ‘When I started at Stebbing’s, ‘Year of the Cat’ was the studio song. Walk into a new studio and you’d put on Al Stewart to check the monitors.

“But Parsons was more a good engineer than a producer. That’s where people get confused, they mistake a sparkly bright sound as good production. Paul Streekstra [at Auckland’s Harlequin studio] used to get great sound, much better than me. But producers have to rehearse the band, chop songs around, throw things out, say to the bass player, ‘You’re useless – fuck off.’ They’ve got to talk to the record company. There’s a lot more to it than meets the eye. And a lot of psychology. Every performer has a quality curve: you’ve got to be aware of when they’re not getting any better.”

The next producer Morris followed was Guy Stevens, who did Mott the Hoople and later the Clash’s London Calling. “His production was the antithesis of George Martin in that he got the band completely pissed and speeding out of their tits. If you put on London Calling the bass drum is a flabby, horrible sound, but it just jumps out at you. A fantastic alive sound that captures the band in all its dimensions. After I heard Guy Stevens, I produced a record by the Furys, which I love. It’s terrible, sounds awful but it’s got a great band sound. Which harks back to guys like Sam Phillips. He just got people to turn on a really great performance.”

HOW DID Morris become a producer? Leaving school, he answered an advertisement in the New Zealand Herald: Engineer Wanted. He became the “bum boy” at Stebbing’s Studios, the Abbey Road of Herne Bay. “It was like growing up in the BBC, because they did everything perfectly. It was a great way to learn, because once you know the ground rules you can break them.”

His awareness of pop production was sharpened during the late ’70s when he engineered, with Rob Aickin producing, some classic moments in local rock: albums by Hello Sailor and Th’ Dudes, ‘I Need Your Love’ by Golden Harvest. “I got a lot of my commercial ear from Rob. He wasn’t really a musician, he just recognised a good blend of sound. A great snare drum, good sounding vocal and a good hook was all he was after. But after I left Stebbing’s he carried on and did a couple of things I thought were terrible. They had a great snare drum, good hook, good sounding vocal, but really crappy songs. You do need a good song.”

Special moments: Golden Harvest. “They were pure pop, the songs were written as three-minute singles. Verse chorus hook – your classic pop song.”

Hello Sailor. “We tried to mould the songs into singles: ‘Gutter Black’, ‘Blue Lady’. We double-tracked the guitars, the saxes, cut things out of the middle. But they weren’t three-minute singles. They’re classic New Zealand songs, but not classic pop songs like ‘Tiger Feet’ by Mud [1974], which is. ‘Blue Lady’ isn’t.”

Still, people always ask about that ‘Gutter Black’ drum sound. “I’d just heard Low by David Bowie, where the snare drum is put through a harmoniser on every track. We didn’t have a harmoniser but we had a mechanical flanger. So I put a mic down the end of this huge studio, played the snare through some big speakers at the other end, then put it through the flanger. It’s just a big drum sound. It was an experimental time.”

“I realised that not only had I put the kitchen sink in there, I’d put the blender and the electric knife in as well.”

Especially for Th’ Dudes, whose second album particularly shows an eclectic blend of influences. “It was great, being able to work with your own stuff like that, but it was very hierarchical: Dave and I at the top, then Peter, then the rhythm section, Bruce and Lez. But it was very much Dave and my ideas in the end.

“Our strengths? Probably what they are now – Dave writes some great lyrics and great songs and I put them together, sonically. On those days we were throwing the extraneous in. We’d think, ‘Oh that’s a great lick, we’ll have to use that.’ So it ended up being a real porridge. Far too many things going on. But there’s some good stuff there.”

Post Dudes, Morris and Dobbyn (“Mordobb”) honed their craft on ‘Lipstick Power’, Dobbyn’s first solo single. “It’s such a weird song. It’s pure Dave. About four or five bits of songs pieced together. Like modular homes, you just join ’em together. For the B-side [the Isley Brothers’ ‘Behind the Painted Smile’] we were trying to capture the early Diana Ross sounds, the handclaps like the Supremes, so we put on our metal-tipped shoes, went into the studio, banged on some boards and went clap clap clap.”

In the early ’80s, Morris became Auckland’s producer-about-town, working with countless local bands: Naked Spots Dance, Tin Syndrome, Shadowfax, Gurlz. And the Meemees album, If This is Paradise … I’ll Take the Bag. “It was a very transitional album for them. So their next single, ‘Stars in My Eyes’, which I didn’t do, was their most critically acclaimed, because they’d done the album. It was funny because we’d gone into the studio to record a single, but they were just so bad I sent them home to rehearse for two weeks. But they had very simple songs, and it was a great exercise to take these very simple songs and throw these hooks into them. But then again that’s a very porridgy album.

“I realised that not only had I put the kitchen sink in there, I’d put the blender and the electric knife in as well. Then I started listening to Frank Sinatra and Nelson Riddle, and it became apparent it was the arrangement that mattered. I think that culminated in ‘The Game of Love’ because that was a very sparse arrangement, there’s not one note that shouldn’t be there. The tendency when recording is to say, ‘It’s still not right, what should I add to make it better?’ Now I think, ‘What should I get rid of?’ ”

Apart from the Furys, the project has fondest memories of is recording the Taihape band Daggy and the Dickheads in 1982. He often joined them on stage and covers two of their songs on Nobody Else.

“We just hit it off. It was just the honesty, and it was an occasion where the spirit in the studio actually came out on the vinyl. The Dickheads reminded me of those days of playing at the Eastern Suburbs Rugby Club, when we just got up and played Chuck Berry and had a real good time ... and they’re huge characters.”

Ian Morris and Al Hunter CB 1989 Ian Morris as Tex Pistol, with
Al Hunter, January 1989

Another thing Nobody Else inherits from country music is its air of mateship. The title track is written and sung by Morris’s younger brother Rikki, an ex-Crocodile. There’s a Steve Earle-ish cover of the Warratahs’ ‘Hands of My Heart’ on which vocalist Barry Saunders appears. John Mayall’s ‘Sitting in the Rain’ was a hit for the Underdogs, the band of Auckland jingle writer Murray Grindlay. ‘Buckskin Bob’ (by fellow Dude Lez White) and ‘Winter’ were both in the Dickheads’ repertoire. Morris’s ‘My Old Friend’ features a duet with the Dickheads’ Mark Kennedy, and his ‘W11 to Whanarua Bay’ is a rock’n’roll romp about a reunion.

The most satisfying thing about the album? “Getting it finished. And I think Rikki is going to be huge. I think part of the problem with Rikki is that I was his brother. It’s probably taken me a while to stand back from his work and look at him objectively. I always like his songs; years ago we were going to do something together. Maybe one of his songs will be the next single. Who can say what Rikki would have done if he hadn’t been my brother? He may never have recorded anything. So I guess I’ve both helped and hindered him.”

What next for Tex? “Because it’s not a career move, it’s a hard one. Sometimes I think I might just drop Tex and concentrate on Rikki, because he’s a songwriter, or rather more consistent and prolific than me.”

AFTER YEARS working in the backroom, or the backline of a band, Morris says the response to Tex is heartening. “Oh yeah, it’s a buzz. But the biggest buzz is that people on the street like it. You can get all the awards and all the good reviews in the world, but it means shit if the people on the street don’t like it. That meant a lot to me with ‘Game of Love’ and [‘Nobody Else’] so much to Rikki – he played a lunchtime concert at a school in Otara and the kids just went wild! That’s the great part of it. Getting a good review, sure it bolsters the ego, but in an unsatisfying egotistical way, where you think you’re doing a Great Work, which is a load of crap. But when some kid down the road likes it, it’s a real heart-warming boost. You don’t think, Wow, I’m great – you just wonder at it.

“You live in such an isolated community. That was always the problem when I was producing so many bands. I just couldn’t make them see. I’d say, ‘Let’s leave that bit out of the song, it’ll work better.’ They’d say, ‘No, my girlfriend really likes that bit. And that’s why they’re making that record: for their girlfriend or for themselves to have a piece of vinyl with their name on it. It’s a complete waste of time. As Willie Nelson says, ‘You can’t make a record if you ain’t got nothin’ to say.’

“I obviously didn’t make ‘The Game of Love’ for myself. But don’t ask me why I make records. I don’t like to think about it: the answer’s probably fairly insecure.”

Rock’n’roll’s a loser’s game

It mesmerises and I can’t explain

The reasons for the sights and sounds

The grease paint still sticks to my face

So what the hell? I can’t erase

The rock’n’roll feeling from my mind.

– Mott the Hoople, ‘Ballad of Mott’

Chalkie in the Upper Mids

Ian Morris as engineer or producer: some selections (a list in progress)

Th’ Dudes: ‘Walking in Light’, ‘Bliss’, ‘Right First Time’

Al Hunter: ‘Blue Skies Waiting for Me’ (with Jim Hall)

Southside of Bombay: ‘What’s the Time Mr Wolf?’

Hello Sailor: ‘Disco’s Dead’ (with Rob Aickin)

Dave Dobbyn: ‘Behind the Painted Smile’, ‘Just Add Water’, ‘Feel Someone Else’s Pain’

DD Smash: ‘Devil You Know’, ‘Guilty’

Warratahs: ‘Tightrope’

Warratahs: ‘Akautangi Way’

Daggy & the Dickheads: 'Winter’

Tex Pistol: ‘Ballad of Buckskin Bob’, ‘Boot Hill Drag’, ‘Winter’, ‘My Old Friend’

Jukebox Jury

Ian Morris: the singles collection (to be continued)

George Jones: ‘She Thinks I Still Care’, ‘Good Year for the Roses’

Leon Russell (as Hank Wilson): ‘Rollin’ in My Sweet Baby’s Arms

Frank Sinatra: ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’, ‘I Get a Kick Out of You’

Paul McCartney and Wings: ‘Silly Love Songs

Abba: ‘Waterloo

Mud: ‘Tiger Feet

Dr John: ‘Let’s Make a Better World’

Elvis Presley: ‘Suspicious Minds

Elvis Costello: ‘Baby It’s You’ (with Nick Lowe)

Ella Fitzgerald: ‘Don’t Fence Me In

Jerry Lee Lewis: ‘39 and Holding’, ‘Over the Rainbow

Keith West: ‘Excerpt from a Teenage Opera’ (aka "Grocer Jack")

King Solomon

Solomon Burke, RIP – an interview from 2002.

Solomon in red When Solomon Burke makes an entrance, it’s obvious that royalty has arrived. I once witnessed the self-proclaimed King of Rock’n’Soul take the stage. It was just a few blocks from Chicago’s Chess Studios, on the fabled Michigan Avenue. Solomon was resplendent in an ecclesiastical purple cloak with gold trimmings. A crown sat atop his pompadour, but eclipsing it all was his massive scarlet suit, which needed a volume control of its own.

Solomon Burke is a giant, in all respects, as testified by the hits he rattled through that night: ‘Everybody Needs Somebody to Love’, ‘Cry to Me’ (both covered by the Stones), ‘If You Need Me’, ‘Just Out of Reach’ … he came across like an affable, hammy Don Corleone, making an offer no one could refuse: he was the Godfather of Groove.

Nearly 15 years later, I’m wondering what to call him in a conversation about his just-released Don’t Give Up On Me. Given his royal status, perhaps it should be Your Highness? “You can call me anything you want,” he says, “except James Brown and Bobby Womack.” Solomon then chuckles at his own joke; his laugh is slow and a little wheezy, but has all the hearty warmth of his legendary voice. Jerry Wexler described it as “an instrument of exquisite sensitivity”, but Solomon is also legendary for being a preacher, a bishop in the House of God for All People, a licensed mortician fond of Six Feet Under, the father of 21 children and an entrepreneur with notorious cheek.

Solomon Burke, c1968A few months back, Burke took a phone call from someone wanting him to join Fat Possum. Having just been asked to join the Big Bears, he thought it was a football team looking for a mascot – and money. Instead it was the manager of the hip blues label, offering to record Solomon singing tunes especially written for him by some fans; people with names like Dan Penn, Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, Van Morrison and Tom Waits.

Burke was a little dubious, but agreed to meet the intended producer Joe Henry (Scar) at a Jewish deli in LA. “They have the best lox and eggs and bagels you could ever find … I’m thinking, Lord God, this guy is kinda young, can he handle it?” Then Henry ordered hash browns smothered in onions, scrambled eggs with lots of cheese. “The waitress asks, ‘What kind of cheese?’ Joe says, ‘Cheddar cheese, American cheese, whatever – and I want two pork chops fried crispie – with a side order of gravy.’ And I’m thinking, This is our producer! This is the man! He is the man!”

Henry was born in North Carolina so he could talk Southern culture with Burke: ham, grits and biscuits. And musically they clicked as well; in only four days Henry captured a greasy Southern soul sound. He knew what he wanted – “something between The Band’s Music from Big Pink and Sam Cooke’s Nightbeat” – and when Billy Preston couldn’t make the gig, he crucially augmented the young band with an organist from Burke’s church.

“Brother Rudy Copeland is 29 years old, blind but a great player with a fantastic sense of humour. He came in and made the whole session. A beautiful situation. I said just follow me babe, do what we do in church.

“If the organist feels you, they can project that spiritual reality type of feeling with whatever you do. If you’re singing …” – and here Solomon starts serenading ‘Ole Man River’ down the phone – “the organ swells and it’s like strings and flugelhorns working together all on one chord.”

Solomon Burke, Tom Dowd, Jerry Wexler, 1968Solomon Burke at the microphone with Atlantic’s Arif Mardin, Tom Dowd and Jerry Wexler, c1965

Solomon thanks the Lord, with good reason. “I’m so proud I was chosen to make this record,” he says, but the feeling was shared. Elvis Costello wasn’t satisfied with just posting in his apocalyptic art ballad ‘The Judgment’, he had to drop by the session. “He didn’t say anything to the engineers, he just came into the studio where I was and said, ‘Hi, I’m Elvis’. Everyone else was running round saying ‘Elvis is here! Elvis is here!’ I thought, these people have cracked up. I thought maybe they were seeing a reincarnation of Elvis Presley. Then with that great accent of his, he says, ‘Hi my name is Elvis Costello – did you do my song yet?’ ”

Solomon hadn’t even heard it – “For a minute it was, hold it, the guy might take the song back” – but Costello sat down and sang it for him. “I’m sitting there getting a free concert from Elvis Costello. I’m thinking, give me a camera, someone take a picture quick.” Costello described how he’d written it: with his wife, he’d taken a line from Burke’s ‘The Price’, from 1964. He said, “It’s our favourite song – ‘where the price ends, the judgment begins’. And bam! It was, Give me the song!”

Burke doesn’t have any problems combining his work in the church with his work on stage. “They’re all one. It’s all God’s music – depends on how you proclaim it and name it and how you deliver it. And I try to deliver every one of these things with a message: a song of love, a song of happiness, a song of joy. And the secret of the ministry is to preach good news: that’s the gospel, and every one of these songs has a good-news message.” As the Tom Waits song suggests, just keep a diamond in your mind. “That’s a great song. Don’t think small of yourself, think big: something that’s not going to wear out, that you can put a price on. Put a diamond in your mind; keep your diamond in your mind.”

Burke oozes sincerity – as a televangelist, he’d be bigger than Telethon – and so he should. He’s been a preacher since he first took to the pulpit in his family church at the age of seven. At 12 he was broadcasting his “radio ministry” regularly. It’s no wonder that the title song brought along by his old friend Dan Penn especially touched a chord. “For him to come up with that song was a mindblower! Because it not only says, don’t give up on me. It also says, don’t give up on you. We all fall short, we all have bad days, nobody’s perfect, but there’s always tomorrow. And as long as you believe there’s a tomorrow, there’ll be a tomorrow.”

Once again it’s time for Solomon Burke to swap his cassock for a cape and switch the altar to a stage. He thanks the Lord for his good fortune – and the rest of us can only add, Amen.

First published in Real Groove, July 2002.