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Burke Slaw

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Also included is a rousing gospel-inspired track, "None of Us Are Free" by the great Brill Building duo, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, best known for songs such as "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" and "On Broadway." Burke was able to fulfill a lifetime ambition when he recorded this song with the Blind Boys of Alabama.

"Oh, man, that was the greatest thrill, 'cause I've always been a fan of The Five Blind Boys, from back when I was a kid. And they're still 50 years old," Burke says, laughing. "They got some kind of magic potion, I don't know. I had sweet potato pie for 'em and fried chicken. They said, Let's go! Hit song! Gotta eat!' Within an hour it was finished, no rehearsal. We was mad 'cause there wasn't another song for them to do."

The album is almost stark in its simplicity; the complexity of some of the lyrics is underscored by the simplicity of the instrumentation. And the presence of Rudy Copeland, Burke's blind house organist, who filled in when Billy Preston had to cancel, adds both a touch of the church and a sense of Dylan's '60s rock. "That's what we got on this record. It's almost like we're having service.

"I think the organ gives it a foundation," Burke adds. "Takes it back to that Bill Doggett Honky Tonk' feeling almost, back when you could just feel the music, you know? The secret was to tell Rudy, Rudy, just play for me like you do in church. Don't pay no attention to the rest of these guys,' 'cause remember, Rudy doesn't know the songs. He can't read the charts. I don't even know if there were charts. I think they played it down for him once, and that was it. We cut the whole album in four days."

Burke, who has never stopped recording or touring, has always made a point of playing what the audience asks of him. "Sam Mayfield is my guitar player, and he says, Man, my greatest job is to guess where in the heck you gonna go.' We might rehearse 40 songs and, when I get to a performance, if someone in the audience wants to hear I Wish I Knew,' I'm gonna sing it. I'm gonna sing what they want to hear, because that's what they came for. I know how disappointing it is to go to a concert and you want to hear an artist sing something, and they sing everything but that!"

But with the release of Don't Give Up on Me, Burke is in the enviable position of having a new audience that likely will be as interested in hearing new songs as in the oldies. "We're ready for them — we've already started rehearsing the band. The greatest thing, my horn guys are getting angry because the new record has no horns. Are you gonna write some parts for us for the tour?' Oh yeah,' I tell 'em, I got you on the endings,'" Burke laughs. "So now my horn players are out taking dance lessons, so they can be doing routines while I'm playing all these songs."

Burke has a big voice that can shake rafters, but like other great preachers, he can wind all that energy down into an intimacy that touches each individual within earshot. What's surprising is that, in spite of the history and the larger-than-life aspects of the man — the crown he wears onstage, the robes, his girth and giant grin — he is completely unaffected in a way that only truly comfortable people are.

"I'm just so grateful to be here and to be part of this," he says. "And I hope that I can continue to do more, and do better."

Burke does not seem interested in representing himself as anything other than himself: smart, well-spoken, humble and possibly even wise. Like George Foreman, Burke almost seems Buddhistic, and it doesn't take much to get him back on the pulpit.

"I don't really see any difference between singing about God and singing about love and romance. I think God is love. And when you talk about love, you have to talk about God. This is the greatest answer of all time. The reason why we're having problems is because we don't love one another. And He said, in His own words: Above all things, love one another.' This is the only commandment He gave, that we love one another.

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Henry Cabot Beck