Monday, October 11, 2010

Solomon Burke

Legendary soul and R&B vocalist Solomon Burke passed away Sunday at age 70, while en route to a performance in Amsterdam.

Burke was born in Philadelphia in 1940, in a room over a church founded by his grandmother; allegedly, she had foreseen Burke's birth in a dream. The church would be a key influence throughout his career. The day he was born, he was ordained a bishop, and by age 7 he was preaching sermons. At age 12 he had a radio ministry on Philadelphia station WHAT, and in his teens Burke made his first gospel recordings. He toured the East Coast as a gospel performer, but the crooked dealings that were standard practice in the music industry in the 50's soured him from becoming a full-time professional, and he returned to Philadelphia to study embalming.

Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic Records noted Burke's gospel recordings, though, and in 1960 invited the singer to New York to cut some R&B sides. According to Burke, Wexler was frustrated by his insistence that he was not a R&B singer, and his penchant for sermonizing while singing. Wexler hit upon the idea of giving Burke country-and-western songs to sing - a novel idea for a black artist in 1960 - yet became irritated as Burke brought his preaching style to the C&W material as well. Eventually, Ahmet Ertegun basically told Wexler to leave the young vocalist alone to do his thing. From those sessions, "Just Out Of Reach (Of My Two Open Arms)", which had been a hit for Patsy Cline, became Solomon Burke's first R&B hit.

Burke would continue to work with Wexler and Bert Berns through most of the 60's, and they would produce a substantial run of hits. He had a rich voice that could give a warm and tender flavor to ballads, and an impeccable sense of swing that propelled up-tempo numbers like "Everybody Needs Somebody To Love" and "Got To Get You Off My Mind", two of his biggest hits. Burke's recordings continued to retain the flavor of the church, and the sermons that had frustrated Wexler turned into lengthy intros to his songs. A large, imposing man, Burke dominated the stage with his presence, and was dubbed "King Solomon" by his fans. He played his regal persona to the hilt, arriving on stage in velvet robes, a scepter, and a crown, preceded by midgets who scattered rose petals across the stage. Burke's charisma and talent made him one of the 60's most popular soul performers. He was not as well known with white audiences, although The Rolling Stones covered "Cry To Me" and "Everybody Needs Somebody To Love" during their early days. Top 40 programmers likely thought that Burke's music carried too many traces of gospel for AM radio consumption; his biggest pop hit, "Got To Get You Off My Mind", only reached #22 in the Billboard charts.

Burke left Atlantic in 1968 to record for a series of smaller labels, and although continuing to be an active performer on the R&B circuit, his star slowly faded as the 70's progressed. He also kept busy in a number of other activities, maintaining his presence in the ministry and owning a Los Angeles funeral parlor. His music's legacy would spread to Hollywood in the 80's - "Everybody Needs Somebody To Love" was featured in The Blues Brothers, and Patrick Swayze sang "Cry To Me" in a scene of Dirty Dancing.

During the last decade, Burke enjoyed a musical comeback. He was inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame in 2001, and the next year won his only Grammy for his album Don't Give Up On Me. He maintained an active touring schedule, and his performances were as grandiose as ever. With his weight having ballooned to 500 pounds, Burke now sang while seated in a throne. In 2006, he returned to country music with Nashville, featuring performances with Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, Patty Griffin, Gillian Welch and Patty Loveless. Remaining active to the end, he was on his way to The Netherlands for a show with De Dijk when he passed away. Solomon Burke is survived by 21 children and 90 grandchildren.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Farm Aid at 25

Bob Dylan and Tom Petty at the first Farm Aid concert.

Farm Aid officially turns 25 this weekend, with this year's show held in Milwaukee. Founders Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp and Neil Young once again head up an all-star lineup helping to raise money for American farmers. I was there for that first show, held September 22, 1985 in Champaign, Illinois. With over 100 acts performing that day, it was easily the most diverse lineup I ever witnessed in concert.

The inspiration for Farm Aid came from remarks made by Bob Dylan at the successful Live Aid concert held earlier that summer. "I hope", Dylan said, that some of the money that's raised for the people in Africa, maybe they could just take a little bit of it, maybe … one or two million … to pay the mortgages on some of the farms." Willie Nelson felt that this was a fine idea. Soon, along with John Mellencamp, Nelson organized farmers to travel to Washington to testify before Congress about their struggles. In addition, with Neil Young, they began to put together a benefit concert intended to provide assistance to struggling American farmers. They named their benefit Farm Aid, and billed it as "A Concert For America".

They chose the University of Illinois' Memorial Stadium as the site for their show, and enlisted Chicago promoter Ron Stern to oversee the logistics. Arriving in Champaign, Stern quickly learned that the home of the Fighting Illini was ill-equipped to be a music venue: “There was only 100-amp [mains] service at the stadium; not nearly enough to power a whole stage show and a dressing room/backstage complex,” he recalls. Also, a way had to be devised for getting the myriad of acts on and off stage efficiently without delaying the show. Stern brought in $50,000 worth of generators and negotiated with the power company for additional electrical capacity. To keep the show moving, a manually-operated rotating stage was built. Divided in half, while one act performed for the audience, the next act set up their gear on the half behind the curtains.

The diverse roster of performers for Farm Aid I was a spectacular array of country, rock, and blues artists rarely matched on any stage before or since. Twenty-five years on, a lot of memories of that day are a bit fuzzy, but for sheer variety and quality, I've never experienced another day of music quite like it. The show began in a steady drizzle, but by afternoon the skies had cleared, and over 75,000 of us enjoyed a fine Midwestern autumn evening. Country kingpins like Alabama, Vince Gill and Kenny Rogers appeared on the bill with legends such as Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn and George Jones. Acoustic performers like Joni Mitchell and John Denver were featured during the day; after dark rockers like Foreigner and Huey Lewis took the stage. John Fogerty came out with a woman dressed as a pig who danced on stage, symbolizing Fogerty's legal troubles with his ex-manager. Bon Jovi, barely known at the time, played one of their first shows in a stadium atmosphere. Lone Justice, another emerging act, played one of the night's sharpest sets. Bob Dylan appeared, backed by Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers. Their performance was so well-received that they soon agreed to launch a nationwide tour together. Sammy Hagar played live with Van Halen for the first time; Hagar launched into a raunchy monologue that got their set taken off The Nashville Network's live broadcast. Founders Young and Mellencamp turned in fine performances. Willie Nelson's set began the day's proceedings. He was a bundle of energy all day, bounding on and off the stage, introducing acts, generally keeping the party going. Nobody throws a party like Willie Nelson. Well past midnight, he launched into an hour-long set that I don't think was scheduled; I'm sure that he would have played till dawn if they had let him.

Farm Aid I raised over $9 million for struggling farmers, raised awareness of rural issues, and began a tradition that surprised Farm Aid's founders, who thought that they were putting together a one-time-only event. To this day, the Farm Aid organization has raised over $37 million and continues to advocate for family farmers throughout the USA. Celebrate 25 years of Farm Aid by checking out these classic performances from founders Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, and Neil Young from that first show in Champaign. For more details, there's this excellent article about the challenges involved in staging that now-historic show.