Solomon Burke’s recent pair of new releases — produced by Joe Henry and Don Was, respectively — have somewhat returned the King of Rock & Soul to the spotlight where he belongs. But don’t call it a comeback. As these two reissues from last decade prove, he’s been knocking them dead straight along. If anything, Burke’s much-hyped new albums are more of a falling away from form than a return to it.
Soul Of The Blues, originally released in 1993, is just what it says it is: a great soul artist singing the hell out of R&B standards such as “My Babe” and “Pledging My Love”. Burke’s brand of blues is the uptown variety, with horns and organ and danceable grooves a la Bobby Bland or Johnny Copeland. The approach is well-suited to Burke in his golden years. His voice is higher and a tad thinner now than on his classic Atlantic sides, but he remains a gripping vocalist, especially on “Letter From My Darling”, an old Little Willie John number that Burke begins with a recitation and ends with a crescendo and a grimace. In the old descriptive sense of the term, Soul Of The Blues is “generic” — that is, it remains within the conventions of its genre. But in the newer, evaluative sense of that word, Soul Of The Blues isn’t generic at all. Exemplary is more like it.
Live At The House Of Blues is even better. From the album’s second track — a three-song medley that flows like one coherent performance — Burke has the crowd eating from the palms of his chubby, bejeweled hands. At moments, whether he’s revisiting his early hits such as “Cry To Me” or “Got To Get You Off My Mind”, or tackling a standard such as “Good Rockin’ Tonight”, the power and charisma of his vocals actually arrive within shouting distance of his classic Atlantic sides. Except here, when your heart swoons at Burke’s muscular falsetto or at one of his poignant spoken asides, there’s an entire club’s worth of folks swooning, shouting and clapping right along with you.