One of my favorite moments in the splendid movie Ray is when Ray Charles is in a Los Angeles recording studio–a far cry from the makeshift Atlantic shack that housed his early efforts–flanked by an orchestra for his recording of “Georgia On My Mind.” As the genius is working on a decidedly mainstream arrangement, a group of his regular band members and backup singers look at each other worriedly, wondering just when it was that Ray lost his mind.
I like the moment so much because it shows the essential part that individual courage plays in the creative process for a musician who has to get out in front of people and sing. Charles made several courageous choices in his career, none greater than the decision to lead the way in combining R&B and gospel to help create soul music, which, when done right, conjures the agony and the ecstasy of life and love, or life without love, better than anything else.
Happily, two of Brother Ray’s most accomplished disciples have new records out that do just that.
Al Green–make that the Reverend Al Green, since his road-to-Damascus career change to the ministry and gospel music in the late 1970s,prompted by a serious stage accident not long after a girlfriend threw hot grits on him while he was taking a bath, then shot and killed herself–has followed his triumphant return to secular soul, 2003’s I Can’t Stop, with Everything’s OK, another fine release that recreates his patented 70s sound.
Co-produced with Willie Mitchell, who at Memphis’s Hi Records in the early 1970s helped craft Green’s signature sound, Everything’s OK features many of the same musicians who laid down the sinewy horns, sleek strings, and understated, yet insistent rhythms that marked classic sides like “Tired of Being Alone,” “Love and Happiness,” and “Let’s Stay Together.”
The remarkable instrument that is Green’s voice is also intact after 35 years, still able to caress a melody, then grunt and growl under it, then soar into the pure, strong falsetto that, not unlike those of some of Green’s distant musical cousins in bluegrass music, sounds paradoxically more masculine the higher it goes.
The only thing keeping Everything’s OK from being as good as the original material it echoes is that not all of the album’s twelve songs are as well written or crisply arranged as their predecessors. But some of them are.
Goaded along by a funky wah-wah guitar, the title track is a happy groove that draws from Green’s more recent gospel sound, and the simmering “Another Day” is a worthy sequel to 1973’s “Here I Am (Come and Take Me).” Green also rescues the beautiful ballad “You Are So Beautiful” from its Joe Cocker-imposed mawkishness with a tender, straightforward reading. And finally, the sunny and melodic “Be My Baby” and “Build Me Up” would certainly belong on any updated greatest hits package.
While Green’s resurgence has happened after a conscious return to form, that of unsung elder statesman Solomon Burke, who bills himself as “the King of Rock and Soul” has been one of creative innovation. After starting out as a child preacher and gospel singer in his native Philadelphia, Burke began recording gospel and R&B for a small label in the 1950s. He signed with Atlantic in the 1960s and, though he never found crossover success like label mates Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding, enjoyed a reputation as a soul singer’s soul singer, his assured, gritty delivery exerting a huge influence among his peers and followers.
Burke continued in this vein until 2002’s magisterial Don’t Give Up On Me. Including songs contributed by fans such as Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Tom Waits, and Elvis Costello, the effort showcased the legendary voice that had become deeper, grander and even more expressive than it was on Burke’s minor hits four decades previous.
This much-heralded effort brought Burke before countless new fans, an opportunity the expert showman has not squandered. When I saw Burke open for Van Morrison in New York in 2003, Burke, who must weigh well over 300 lbs., performed much of his raucous set seated on a kingly throne at the front of the stage and nearly upstaged his famous patron. Also, Burke’s version of Morrison’s “Fast Train” was the soundtrack to the memorable closing montage on Season 3 of The Wire, HBO’s excellent crime drama. Burke has further built on that momentum with another gem of an album, Make Do With What You Got.
The most apparent strength of Make Do is the choice of songs, which, in spite of their varied sources and themes, all contain a thread of introspection, allowing Burke a chance to explore his own soul, and ours, with that all-encompassing voice.
The disc opens with a full-on rock number, “I Need Your Love in My Life,” then slips into an easy, loping cover of Bob Dylan’s “What Good Am I?,” signaling the ease with which Burke can shift from mood to mood. Burke breathes life into what was a sub-par track for Dylan (who recorded it on the poorly produced Oh Mercy), turning downcast self-doubt into a hope for redemption.
Burke also delves into country soul, with an earnest cover of Hank Williams Sr.’s “Wealth Won’t Save Your Soul” and with the steel-guitar laced “At the Crossroads,” a new song written by Morrison especially for Burke, who pays homage to Van by dropping his name at the end of some scat singing done in the style of the Belfast Cowboy.
The finest pure soul cut on the disc is Burke’s cover of the Rolling Stones tearjerker “I Got the Blues.” A thick Hammond organ and guitar arpeggio lay the foundation for pleading and moaning so fervent you can practically hear Burke wiping his brow. “Love is a bed full of blues,” Burke belts just before riding out the song’s horn-laden outro by growling and shouting out improvised lyrics.
But what makes this my favorite album of the year so far and cemented my opinion that Burke is a truly great singer is his cover of The Band’s “It Makes No Difference.” Written by guitarist Robbie Robertson for bassist Rick Danko, it’s a song that hit me hard the first time I heard it and it gets better each time I revisit it. Danko’s performance of the in the concert documentary The Last Waltz is the musical highlight of a film full of great music, with Danko’s lonely and pitiful, but gently gorgeous, wail matching Robertson’s lovelorn lyrics.
As good as Burke is, he doesn’t surpass or even approach the immediate pain Danko exhibited with his versions; no one could. Rather, Burke gives the song a new emotional meaning that works for his purposes while enriching the original. When Burke sings “It makes no difference how far I go / Like a scar the hurt will always show,” it sounds like the singer has by now had to live with that scar for a while and that Danko’s pain has turned into Burke’s deep regret, a regret that’s eased by revisiting it so honestly.
Here’s hoping that each of these resurrected careers continue to flourish.