Please Mr. Postman
I never quite got over finding a note from Solomon Burke in my morning mail. It was electronic mail at that. But this was no hoax, here were good wishes on the occasion of birth of my twin boys from a man who had seemed, until quite recently, like an unattainable name on a record jacket.
We first met in 2002, during the sessions for the “Don’t Give Up On Me” album, for which I had written a song called “The Judgment”.
I’d expected only to be a witness at the studio but one peculiar phrase in the song seemed to be tripping everyone up, so the producer, Joe Henry, called me to the microphone to illustrate how vocal line was supposed to fall.
I’ll let you imagine how intimidating it was to “illustrate” singing to Solomon Burke with him sitting three feet away in the vocal booth.
Solomon soon made the song his very own. His enthusiasm and his dreams were expansive. By the end of the evening, he was hatching a plan to book the Royal Albert Hall and stage “The Judgment” as an opera.
And so it was that we became occasional correspondents.
His notes always arrived out of the blue, filled with love and kindness and questions about our young sons, to whom he appointed himself an honorary uncle, one of the lesser known titles that he wore, along with the “King of Rock and Soul”.
Then the subject of love and children were things on which he spoke with considerable authority.
When I first heard one of his indelible Atlantic sides on a compilation album many years ago, I could not have imagined ever meeting such a man. Photographs revealed an outlandish presence in ermine-trimmed robes and crown, while his records were dominated by a staggeringly beautiful voice.
It is true that after a while he was not always best served by writers and producers and could drift from public view but then advocates like the writer, Peter Guralnick were able to portray the greater complexities of his character; the anarchic humour in his showmanship and his still untapped musical promise.
Solomon would therefore be “re-discovered” on several occasions although he’d never been lost in the first place.
He astounded those who had never heard him before with a command over the audience that drew on his experience in the ministry. Regardless of the material, sheer beauty of his voice could be quite overwhelming.
I will not pretend to have known anything unique about Solomon other than that which is obvious to ears and eyes but feel blessed to have known him at all.
His last dispatch was just this summer. I found myself closing a European tour at a jazz festival outside Lisbon, the night before Solomon was appearing and was disappointed that I would his miss show.
Then a note arrived. Solomon was looking for me. I called the number provided and we talked for good while. These are notes that I’m going to miss and words that I will always remember.
In the last days, I’ve located the picture of us backstage on the one occasion I found myself on a bill with Solomon Burke. In fact it turned out to be like something that happens only in a dream.
The night was a salute to Sam Cooke organized by the Roll And Roll Hall Of Fame in Cleveland. Among the people on the bill were William Bell, The Manhattans, Cissy Houston and my old pal Peter Wolf. I was handed the unenviable task of performing between Solomon and Aretha Franklin.
I speculated that the organizers wanted to avoid the possibility of any old rivalries. Nevertheless, when I was shown the running order my blood ran cold.
“I have to follow Solomon Burke? Are you drunk?”
When the moment of truth arrived, Solomon sat, resplendent on his throne. He spoke about his friendship with Sam Cooke and how he had handed a torch to Solomon…
“And tonight, I am handing it to my son!”
The vocal was very ably delivered but Solomon didn’t utter another sound. He was making all manner of dramatic gestures in the background but not singing one note. I wondered if he might have a cold or some other reason for holding back but at that moment it felt like a bullet dodged.
I’d chosen two lesser-known songs from the Sam Cooke catalogue, reasoning that I had a better chance of not making a fool of myself, if fewer people had Sam’s voice in their head.
The producers then prevailed on me also perform, “Bring It On Home” but as this was in two-part harmony with Otis Clay, I knew together we could set the scene for the Queen Of Soul without too much disgrace.
Aretha passed over “You Send Me” and that other Sam Cooke classics she had covered for her short set but sang very beautifully. It was only during her last scheduled number of the evening that the entire bill was summoned backstage for participation in an unrehearsed finale.
As Aretha’s ovation subsided and she returned to her dressing room, Solomon was once again revealed and the band stuck up “A Change Is Gonna Come”
This time he did sing.
The cast assembled in the wings and a plan quickly hatched that we would join Solomon in the final choruses. Otis Clay and I happened to be wearing matching evening dress, so were detailed to lead the impromptu procession.
We had no sooner been given the signal to enter than strong hands yanked us back into the shadows by collar of our tuxedo jackets.
Somebody said, “Look!”
Aretha had apparently heard the finale start up and wasn’t going to let anyone else steal the show. She sailed out from the wings along the lip of the stage, without her shoes, Peter Wolf acting as her trainbearer and suddenly the two finest singers of their generation were trading lines on “A Change Is Gonna Come”
A tap on the shoulder came again. It was our cue to join the fray.
A voice said, “Are you crazy? I’m not going out there”.
It might have been me.
It might have been any of us.
I don’t know how many times Aretha and Solomon sang round the song before we were eventually pushed out into the spotlight.
By this time, Aretha was really wailing and Solomon had tears rolling down his cheeks, declaiming, “Bring the boys home” like a preacher, reworking the song as plea for sanity during the never-ending war.
Unlike so many things today, none of these scenes seem to have been caught on camera. They live in the memories of those present.
Like the great performances that Solomon gave, when the eyes of the larger audiences were turned elsewhere and the songs that he recorded that are still to be re-discovered, they are, in the words of his first big hit, “Just Out Of Reach”.
Perhaps some mysteries just work out that way but here’s a little backstage memento from that night; Solomon, Wolf and I sending birthday greetings to a mutual friend.