"None Of Us Are Free" / Solomon Burke
Somewhere up in heaven, there's a gospel choir with a new voice -- the late great soul singer Solomon Burke, who never forgot that essential connection between soul and gospel music.
This particular track found its way onto my iTunes thanks to a superb compilation album from the Blind Boys of Alabama -- an amazing record, featuring partners that range from Randy Travis to Lou Reed. (Yes, you read that right.) The Blind Boys won't sing with you unless you're singing about the Lord -- they do have their standards -- and I have to say, not every track rings with the same conviction. I'm also enamored of the duet with Asleep at the Wheel, "The Devil Ain't Lazy" (that's just a total hoot) but the finest track on this very fine album is the one with Solomon Burke, taken from his 2002 album Don't Give Up On Me.
I wasn't surprised to find out that Ray Charles was the first artist to record this song, but I was surprised to find out that his original was fairly recent -- 1993. This song struck me from the very first listen like something you might have heard civil rights marchers singing to back in the early Sixties. Sure, it's got a deeply funky undertow, but the main course of the song has that same dogged weariness as Sam Cooke's "Chain Gang," or Lee Dorsey's "Working in the Coal Mine." Even odder, this song was written by those old pros Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, along with Brenda Russell -- yes, the same team who wrote "Blame It On the Bossa Nova" and "Sometimes When We Touch." It hardly seems like a your usual slickly expert Weil-Mann number, but there you go.
Once Ray Charles unleashed this on the world, it was snapped up by other artists -- Lynyrd Skynyrd, for one (a tasty 1997 cover) and, to complete the trifecta, Sam Moore (of Sam and Dave), who recorded it with guest stars Sting and Sheila E. (I kid you not.) They're all wonderful renditions, but really, who could compete with Solomon Burke's powerful, rich voice? His round tones are oh, so steeped in woe, and the hair-breadth lags of his phrasing just quiver with regret. Listening to this recording, you cannot doubt that life is a vale of tears.
And yet there are the Blind Boys, shaking their heads and echoing everything he says, and suddenly it's all about brotherhood, too. We're all in the same boat; nobody gets a free ride. It's a sad song, and yet incredibly uplifting too -- that's the magic of it.