by Jochen Markhorst
“Here’s a mighty, mighty man, a mammoth talent…He’s the father of 14 daughters and 7 sons…He has 64 grandchildren, and 8 great-grand children. No wonder he’s singing this song!”
Thus deejay Dylan announces “Cry To Me” by Solomon Burke, in episode 39 of his Theme Time Radio Hour. Two weeks later, on Valentine’s Day 2007, he opens his radio show with another song from Burke (“Home In Your Heart”, in episode 41, Heart) and this time the radio presenter also delivers an anecdote about the soul king he so deeply admires:
“Solomon is one of the most colourful musicians in soul music. One of my favorite stories is how he once stopped his tour bus in front of a funeral parlor, because no one in his band believed he used to be a mortician. He took all his musicians in this aisle, where the funeral parlor owner was preparing a corpse. His band couldn’t believe it as Solomon took over. He embalmed the body, applied make-up and slipped a suit on the dead man, before climbing back on the bus, heading after the next gig.”
The story touches Dylan in several ways. He is a self-proclaimed Solomon Burke fan, he can of course identify with a band leader who is traveling by bus with his band, and this band leader is also a funeral director – an archetype who comes by a few times in Dylan’s songs (“I Want You”, “I Wanna Be Your Lover”, “Shelter From The Storm”). Dylan demonstrates his admiration musically, too. In March ’87 he records a fairly unknown and beautiful Solomon song from 1979: “Sidewalks, Fences & Walls”.
The four recordings thereof surface years later, in the same February month of ’07 when the deejay Dylan pays all that attention to the singing caretaker. A Dylan fan and friend of the late producer David Briggs (producer of Neil Young, in particular) apparently has been able to obtain the recordings and is now trying to sell it via eBay for $ 12,500.
When that does not work out, he offers $ 50 copies, which is not that smart; the first buyer puts the recordings on the net, shares them among others on expectingrain.com, so the entire Dylan loving community has the song in no time. In March 2008 a copy ends up with the writer of the song, the eccentric soul legend Jerry “Swamp Dogg” Williams and he posts an enthusiastic, proud reaction:
I just found out about this last night….one of the greatest honors of my music career, Bob Dylan singing my song, “Sidewalks Fences and Walls”. David Chance turned me on to it. My educated guess is that Dylan’s keyboard man was Williams “Smitty” Smith, a guy I grew up with and taught to play the piano. Dylan is actually singing from the version I produced on Soloman Burke; using Soloman’s riffs, runs and inflections. I’ve never heard him this soulful nor have I ever heard him take on an r’n’b song this intricate. To be able to add Dylan to my list of who recorded my songs is part of my dreams coming true. Too bad it hasn’t been released commercially.
Love and Happiness to all,
Burke’s respect for Dylan is similar to Swamp Dogg’s awe, just like the perplexity with which Solomon accepts a gift from Dylan in 2002: the throwaway “Stepchild” from 1978, intended for Burke’s come-back album Don’t Give Up On Me.
The song, originally called “Am I Your Stepchild?”, is a surprising choice, not to say: a missed opportunity. Dylan does have soulfuller leftovers in the drawer. “Making A Liar Out Of Me”, for example. Moreover, Solomon Burke is a pastor, and no small fry in that area either: his own church, The House of God for All People, has some forty thousand followers spread over two hundred churches in the US, Canada and Jamaica. That fact could have led Dylan to give up one of his many religious remnants. “Thief On The Cross”, “Stand By Faith” … the list of leftovers with a lot of Solomon Burke potency is long, but the master opts for the rather run-of-the-mill twelve-bar blues Stepchild.
Just as unfathomable is Dylan’s relationship with the song. “Am I Your Stepchild?” appears on the set list in the last months of 1978 and is played remarkably often: fifty-four times. Much more often than comparable blues songs such as “New Pony” (five times) or “Meet Me In The Morning” (once), which are considered good enough for a studio recording and an official release.
The performances are driven, Dylan sings passionately, guitarist Billy Cross is given room to shine with a dirty solo and from the first performance (Augusta, September 15) it is a solid, very pleasantly steaming blues. Three months later, for example in the Charlotte version, the tempo is slightly slower and the guitar solo replaced by smashing harmonica solos. He usually announces the song with “This is a new song I recently wrote” or similar words, and one time the bard says, “This is a new song I wrote about six months ago about a horrible love affair.”
The song does not have fully crystallized lyrics; Dylan sings different words every night – sometimes only four, five words differ from the previous evening, then again complete lines of verse are rewritten. On the last evening of that tour in 1978, it is played too and after that it gets discharged into obscurity. Dylan’s evangelical phase has begun and there is no room anymore for his secular songs. Then, after that Christian phase, Stepchild is definitively waived.
But when he dusts off the song for Solomon Burke in 2002, Dylan first polishes it up again. He radically rewrites all lines (except the chorus) and that is quite remarkable too. The text changes are not spectacular in terms of content. It remains the lamento of a hurt lover who feels wronged by a mean missus and again the chosen words are more or less within the traditional blues idiom. In any case, the lyrics are so insignificant that Solomon feels free to add another verse to it, to improvise in between and to name-check Dylan twice.
It causes a modest revival of “Stepchild”. The come-back from Solomon Burke is very well received, Don’t Give Up On Me receives worldwide acclaim and a Grammy Award (Best Contemporary Blues Album), sells excellently and scores highly in the end-of-year lists of both renowned music magazines and serious newspapers. And every article mentions that even Bob Dylan has contributed. Other big names are top musicians like Elvis Costello, Van Morrison, Nick Lowe and Tom Waits, and the name of Dylan producer Daniel Lanois stands out in the list of studio musicians.
Lanois plays the guitar on “Stepchild” and that leads to a little coda. Twelve years after Don’t Give Up On Me, in 2014, Lanois participates in Rock & Roll Time by the then 79-year-old legend Jerry Lee Lewis and points to the existence of “Stepchild”. Lewis recorded a Dylan song once before, a song writer who was unknown to him. That was “Rita May”, back in 1979, and Jerry Lee approvingly declared: “That boy is good, I´ll do anything by him.”
Thirty-five years later, The Killer returns to this unknown talent. His cover, for which he goes back to a more or less original, early text variant (the Oakland variant, November 13, 1978, comes close), is by far the most exciting version of “Stepchild”, wonderfully easygoing and swampy. In addition to Daniel Lanois, the phenomenon Doyle Bramhall II and co-producer, drummer and Dylan veteran Jim Keltner play along – but the exceptionally spry elderly Killer cannot be outplayed.
Jerry Lee Lewis
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