Negrology

The Glory of Soloman Burke

My friend Handsome Vic likes to refer to himself as a "big, fat, greasy country Negro." It always makes me laugh when he says this, and I wish more people would refer to themselves thus, even if they don't really fit the account. Personally, I am fat and greasy, although I'm certainly neither country nor a Negro, and yet I may well start using all four adjectives and the noun in question when characterizing myself to others, so fond am I of this particular designation and all it implies. When I grow up, I want to be a big, fat, greasy country Negro just like my friend Handsome Vic.

Please do not gasp in a pique of scandalized political correctness at my usage of the other N word. Negro is a fine term, one that deserves to be brought back into the popular parlance. I frequently hear people of ebony epidermis greeting one another with the salutation, "What's UP, Negro?!" and it never fails to bring a smile across my otherwise-glum countenance. Negro is a friendly, stylish word, certainly more fun to say than the overly formal African-American, the boring and inaccurate black, or the trendy and highly unfortunate nigga. No less a figure than the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. took unabashed pride in using the word as both a noun and an adjective to describe his cherished people. You gonna tell me that MLK, the man who delivered the immortal "I Have a Dream" speech, didn't know how to use the English language effectively? I rest my case, fuckers.

Anyway, all this Negrology may seem a peculiar way to preface a story about soulman extraordinaire Solomon Burke, but I cannot help thinking of Handsome Vic's "big, fat, greasy country Negro" when I contemplate Burke's particular brand of wonderfulness. Not only does the description suit Burke even more than it does Handsome Vic, but what Burke performs could also best be described as "big, fat, greasy, country Negro music"—as opposed to "skinny little funky-butt Negro music" (James Brown), "obsessively horny urban Negro music" (Marvin Gaye), "scary sharkskin switchblade-wielding Negro music" (Wilson Pickett), "Christian drag queen on drugs Negro music" (Little Richard), or "wretched Wonder Bread suburban Caucasian music" (Pat Boone).

But I digress. Exactly why does Burke fit the appellation so perfectly? Let us examine this phenomenon further:

BIG and FAT. Both of these words apply to Burke, who I understand hovers near the 400-pound mark. Burke's formidable girth is part of his mystique, his charisma—his oeuvre, if you will—and especially his glorious sound. Certainly, Burke's omnipotent vocal force would not resonate so divinely were it not emanating from that brazen barrel of a body. Burke is a professional preacher and trained mortician as well as a singer, and both of these professions seem to employ more than their share of big, fat people. For example, I cannot for the life of me take the Reverend Al Sharpton seriously anymore since he lost all that weight; he might as well have gone the Samson route and grown that slick-assed conk out into a 'fro. GREASY. Grease is a marvelous thing. Without grease, we'd have no soul music, no rock & roll, no blues, no jazz, no hillbilly music. Without grease, we'd all be listening to . . . Pat Boone. Burke is a man so greasy he was renowned for cooking up fried poke-chop sammiches on his tour bus and selling so many to his band mates that they were left penniless after gigs. This man is so greasy you just know he breaks out into torrents of man-sweat from channel surfing or relieving an itch on his splendidly adipose hindquarters. Betcha he smells like cheese, garlic and bleach. He simply has to! COUNTRY. While much ado has rightly been made of how artists such as Dusty Springfield, Freddie Fender and Charlie Rich blended county and soul music to perfection, people tend to forget that Burke was doing this before any of them (since the '50s) and still combines them better than anyone. His phrasing, delivery and often his instrumentation bespeak a rural perception the equal of even Ray Charles—not bad for a brother who grew up in Philly. Even a cursory listen to Burke's latest album, the much-ballyhooed "comeback" (even though Burke never went away) Don't Give Up on Me, reveals a sensibility as Grand Ole Opry as it is Apollo Theater. With acoustic guitars and front-porch-friendly compositions written for him by the likes of Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, Van Morrison, Tom Waits and other heavies, Burke serves up a seminar forever linking the roots of black and white American musical traditions. Want more obvious evidence? In Burke's current publicity photo, he proudly sports a greasy, pinstriped, wide-lapel suit and a cowboy hat. Stylin'!NEGRO. For me, this word will forever conjure up images of the progressive '60s, when Solomon Burke—and soul music in general—was at his zenith. Although I'm loath to admit to being this elderly, I still remember when colored was the appellation applied to people of African descent. Even when I was a small boy growing up in a desegregated Yankee neighborhood, this word made me uncomfortable; it brought home the fact that the "coloreds" were institutionally set apart from white folks; it made me think of the "Colored Only" signage of the Jim Crow South I witnessed on the TV news at the height of the civil rights movement. "Negro," on the other hand, sounded proud, dignified and singular—just like Solomon. I mean, anyone could be a this-that-or-the-other-hyphen-American—you could even be a Swedish-American (boooring!) —but you had to be a Negro to be called a Negro. Solomon Burke and the soul music he helped to forge was a righteous product of the Negro era—the dawn of ethnic pride as pop-culture statement; the intermingling of heretofore separate ethno-musical styles, the first evidence of miscegenation in the media—and the end of AmeriKKKan civilization as we knew it, at least according to beady-eyed Fox News and MSNBC commentators.
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