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(Above: Solomon Burke takes a mid-day festival crowd to church with “If You Need Me.”)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Soul legend Solomon Burke died Sunday at an airport in Amsterdam. The 70-year old singer was best known for 1960s soul classics such as “Got To Get You Off My Mind” and “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love,” which was covered by Wilson Pickett and the Blues Brothers.

Although he made his name in the ‘60s, Burke released several stunning albums in the last decade of his life. His 2002 comeback “Don’t Give Up On Me” featured songs written specifically for him by Van Morrison, Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson and Nick Lowe. In 2006, Buddy Miller helmed “Nashville,” an Americana-themed album featuring support from Emmylou Harris and Gillian Welch. 2005’s “Make Do With What You Got” is another crucial piece of Burke’s renaissance.

I never got to see Burke perform. In fact, unless I missed him at the old Blues and Jazz Fest, I can’t recall him even stopping in Kansas City in the last 15 years. I always hoped Bill Shapiro would be able to book him for one of his excellent Cypress Avenue Live at the Folly series. Sadly, it was not to be.

But while I missed out, thousands of fans around the world were able to enjoy the king of rock and soul up close. Writer Peter Guralnick devotes an entire chapter to Burke in his classic 1986 book “Sweet Soul Music.” Plenty has been written about Burke’s musical legacy; the following recollections from the book spotlight Burke’s colorful personality.

 

Burke during his glory days.

 

Burke was signed to Atlantic Records in 1961, in part to fill the hole that had been left when Ray Charles departed for ABC. Burke had, Guralnick wrote, “a combination of Sam Cooke at his mellifluous best and Ray Charles at his deep-down and funkiest, an improbable mix of sincerity, dramatic artifice, bubbling good humor, multitextured vocal artistry.”

Music was Burke’s love, but he always had a little something extra going on the side. Before signing to Atlantic, the Philadelphia-based singer struggled to bridge the gap between gospel and something bigger. When his first independent singles didn’t perform to expectation, he briefly left the music business to become a mortician, a skill he never completely abandoned. During an early Atlantic recording session, he begged out early to return to Philadelphia where he worked a snow-removal job for $3.50 an hour.

The ability – and willingness – to deliver a wide range of musical styles, from country to soul to gospel, not only made Burke a nationwide star, but disguised his race in a still very-segregated landscape. In “Sweet Soul Music” Burke described a Friday night gig in Mississippi that looked like a dream.

“They had those big flatbed trucks with the loudspeakers hooked up, and the black people was just bringing us fried chicken and ribs,” Burke recalled. “Oh, my God, they got corn on the cob, they making cakes and pies, they got hot bread, barbecued ribs …. Oh, man, I can’t begin to tell you – it looked like the festival of the year!”

Before the band went on, the sheriff instructed them when to take the stage and end their set, and promised protection and an escort back to the highway. When the band went onstage at the appointed time Burke noticed odd lights in the distance.

“All the way as far as your eye could see was lights, like people holding a blowtorch, coming, they was just coming slowly, they was coming toward the stage,” Burke said. “They got closer and closer. Man, they was 30,000 Ku Klux Klanners in their sheets – it was their annual rally. The whole time we played we played that show those people kept coming. With their sheets on. Little kids with little sheets, ladies, man, everybody just coming up, just moving under the lights, everyone dancing and having a good time.”

True his word, the sheriff made sure there was no trouble, and the band departed unscathed – not that they lingered any longer than necessary.

In 1964, radio station WEBB in Baltimore crowned Burke the King of Rock ‘n’ Soul. Burke took the title seriously and began performing from a thrown and wearing a crown. It was his royal cape, however, that caused the biggest problem.

 

If you haven't read Peter Guralnick's wonderful book, you are missing out.

 

The other reigning king of R&B had featured a cape in his shows for some time, and James Brown took offense to what he considered Burke’s stealing part of the act. The feud came to a head when Brown hired Burke to open in Chicago for $10,000. That was good money for a one-night stand in the early ‘60s, made even better when Burke was told he could use the James Brown Orchestra, saving his own band expenses.

Shortly before show time, Brown’s assistant met with Burke, ensuring Burke had his throne, red carpet, robe and crown all ready to go. Burke confirmed he was ready to go. When it was time to go on, Burke was standing in the wings in full regalia as the introduction started – only the emcee introduced Brown instead.

“James came on with his cape, dancing on the carpet. That was funny, man,” Burke said. “He says, ‘Your job, just watch me. Watch the real king.’”

At one point in the show, Brown asked Burke to come onstage and place his crown on Brown’s head. Even though he never performed, the crowd chanted Burke’s name all night.

“(Brown) says ‘Solomon Burke cannot perform because he’s been decrowned,’” Burke said. “I never did find out what ‘decrowned’ meant. But it was, as I say, very amusing.”

It was also an easy way to pick up ten grand. After the show Burke told Brown he’d be willing to do the whole thing over again the next night for a discounted price of $8,000. It was a generous gesture for Burke, who while not exactly cheap, recognized – like Brown – the value of making a buck.

For example, he frequently traveled with a mini convenience store of sandwiches, orange juice, tomato juice and ice water. As the odometer turned on the tour bus, so increased the price of Burke’s goods. Otis Redding’s brother Rodgers Redding remembers one tour with Burke.

“(Burke) always carried stuff like ice water, cookies, candy, gum; even though he didn’t drink at all, you’d go into his room at the hotel and see all this, Courvoisier, different kinds of wine, the whole room would be full of booze. He’d have a hot plate, frying pan, flowers, roses, everything, just for his guests, whoever would come by.

“I remember one tour,” Redding continued, “Solomon was selling his ice water for ten cents, sandwiches for a dollar – everybody just laughed at him. By the time they got halfway there, he was selling that water for a dollar, sandwiches for $7.50!”

Jim Crow laws in the South had given Burke a captive marketplace, but also provided a generous audience in each town. Burke taught his band never to eat out after a gig – the little old ladies would always provide a nicer meal for free in their home than they could imagine at a restaurant. Sometimes they offered more.

“Them old ladies would come out with their biscuits and fresh-baked pies, they’d say ‘Here’s some fresh milk for you, son, just be sure and bring back my thermos.’ Fried chicken, barbecued ribs, ham hocks, collard greens, man it was great,” Burke said. “Then them old ladies would say, ‘Son, would you drive my granddaughter out to the main highway? Don’t you worry none, she can find her own way back.’”

Every facet of Burke’s personality converged when he played the Apollo Theater at the height of his popularity in the mid-‘60s. Playing the famed theater was a dream for most performers, but Burke, as always, wanted a little something extra. He had language included in his contract that gave him control of the theater’s concessions that night. Known for strolling the aisles at intermission and hawking wares, this is what the theater owners thought they were agreeing to. Burke, however, had other plans.

 

The king of Rock and Soul on his throne.

 

Bobby Schiffman, brother of Apollo owner Frank Schiffman, picked up the story in his other brother Jack Schiffman’s book “Uptown: The Story of Harlem’s Apollo Theater.”

“Solomon arrived … with a cooker on which he fried pork chops to sell the gang backstage, and a carton of candy,” Schiffman said. “I decided to humor him – until the truck pulled up.”

It seems Burke had recently bought into a chain of drugstores and had an abundance of popcorn. He had taken to hauling a trailer of the stuff around to his shows and passing it out. So when the Apollo deal was struck, Burke thought he had the perfect means of ridding himself of the overstocked kernels.

“I had about 10,000 stickers printed up to go on the boxes of popcorn saying, ‘Thank you for coming to the Apollo Theater from Solomon Burke, Atlantic Records Recording Artist. Your Box of Soul Popcorn,’” Burke told Guralnick.

After nearly giving the Schiffman family a collective heart attack, the two parties hastily renegotiated. In Burke’s version of the story, he agreed to take a loss on the rest of his food and cede concessions back to the theater provided he could still distribute the popcorn. In Bobby Schiffman’s version the family bought the popcorn off Burke for $50,000 provided he not sell anything else in the theater that night.

“That’s been my problem my whole life in entertainment: I utilize my educational background and maybe that makes me a little too smart for my britches,” Burke said. “They assumed my intelligence was limited, that my ability to supply a demand was limited. I wasn’t even thinking about singing that week. My biggest shot was: get rid of that popcorn. But it was the greatest publicity thing that I ever did.”

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Down on “Cypress Avenue”

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Here’s another blast from the past. Nearly 10 years ago, I interviewed Bill Shapiro about “Cypress Avenue,” a staple of Kansas City public radio. The past decade has been kind to Shapiro. He celebrated both the 25th and 30th anniversaries of the show and launched the great concert series “Cypress Avenue: Live at the Folly,” which has brought Jerry Lee Lewis, Bettye LaVette, Madeleine Peyroux, Los Lobos, Sly and Robbie and other great acts to town. His show producer at the time, Robert Moore, has since started the fantastic “Sonic Spectrum” radio show and founded OxBlood Records.

If you don’t listen to either “Cypress Avenue” or “Sonic Spectrum,” you are missing out. “Spectrum” podcasts are archived by Present Magazine, and while the only way to catch “Cypress Avenue” is to turn your dial to 89.3 FM from noon to 2 p.m. on Saturdays, this feature will bring you up to speed.

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Down on “Cypress Avenue”

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(Above: Bill Shapiro appeared on television in Kansas City in 2008 to celebrate 30 years of his radio show, “Cypress Avenue.”)

By Joel Francis
The Examiner

Late at night, the house is silent.

Everyone is asleep, or so it seems. In a bedroom, a dim light shines through the blankets peaked around a small figure sitting up under the covers. The sound of tinny music can barely be heard.

The boy beneath the sheets is still, but his heart is racing. His hands tremble as he fine-tunes the radio under the covers with him. He thought it was lost forever, but he has found it: the jazz radio station carrying the songs of Dave Brubeck and Shorty Rogers. It was only late at night he could pick up the phantom AM signals from stations in exotic places like New Orleans. Forget sleep, he had found something far more important.

Fast-forward 50 years.

Today, the city – Kansas City – is alive. Cars zoom past on the interstate, clearly visible from the law office’s window on the 20th floor near Crown Center. Visitors scurry in and out of the renovated Union Station.

A train blows by in the distance. The stress of daily life is lost in this picturesque, birds-eye view.

The scene is quite different, but the boy, now 62 years old, has not changed. The passion for discovering new music still burns within.

Today Bill Shapiro doesn’t hid his love of music; on the contrary, he broadcasts it. Shapiro has hosted the weekly radio show “Cypress Avenue” for more than 20 years on KUCR 89.3 FM, the University of Missouri-Kansas City, National Public Radio affiliate.

Taking the show’s title from a song on Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks” album, “Cypress Avenue” has become one of KCUR’s highest-rated local shows.

Shapiro has found freedom on the airwaves. Unrestricted by playlists generated by demographic studies and corporate interests, Shapiro plays the music that excites him in hopes of engaging his audience.

“He has a lot more information and insight into groups that commercial radio doesn’t know about,” says Robert Moore, KCUR and “Cypress Avenue” producer and music director. “A show like his would never happen on commercial radio because they don’t break down artists. They just play one format.”

While commercial radio serves a bevy of Bachman-Turner Overdrive and saccharine teen pop, Shapiro slips his sophisticated audience the Velvet Underground, Stevie Wonder and Uncle Tupelo, all linked by a common theme for a given show.

PrinceWhen Beck’s “Midnite Vultures” was released in 1999, no Kansas City radio stations would pick it up, despite heavy play from MTV and VH1. “Cypress Avenue” not only spotlighted the album, but buttressed it with Prince’s “Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic,” forming a fitting tribute to both.

Shapiro sprinkles his shows with information from box sets, liner notes and magazine interviews, but for the most part he lets the music do the talking.

His inspiration may come from a television special or an album passed onto him by a friend.

More often than not, Corky Carrol, co-owner of Village Records in Overland Park, Kan., points Shapiro to a quality release. The two usually talk once a week about scheduled new releases.

“It’s strange to think that this is the only place to hear Elvis Costello or Nick Drake on the radio,” Carrol says. “You know at least for two hours you are going to get a solid effort, not a couple of good songs then Celine Dion.”

Says Moore, “He turns the public on to new groups they won’t hear anywhere else. Unfortunately, it won’t have any impact on commercial radio because it is run by corporations. It’s expected that this is what non-commercial radio does.”

“Cypress Avenue” may be popular, but Shapiro has yet to reach the notoriety of Murray the K. Sure, he gets calls at the office from fans and fan mail isn’t unexpected, but for the most part Shapiro is anonymous. That’s fine by him.

“Other than family I don’t think I could tell you a specific person who might claim to be my biggest fan or a longtime listener,” Shapiro says.

Carrol has supplied Shapiro with music for more than 25 years and is a regular “Cypress Avenue” listener. Carrol says he has bought “thousands and thousands” of albums for Shapiro.

“It’s hard to get one past him, but there are a few records he’s missed,” Carrol says. “His purchases are all over the board. I think the only thing I haven’t sold him is a classical record.”

A hit all over the country

The diverse playlists on “Cypress Avenue” have made the show successful not only in Kansas City, but all over the country. During much of the 1980s, “Cypress Avenue” was distributed on NPR’s satellite uplink system.

“In those days you could buy an hour of stereo time for $40,” Shapiro says. “I thought it was worth a shot and was willing to invest a couple thousand dollars.”

Several stations picked up “Cypress Avenue” and it became a hit in Minneapolis and a dozen other smaller markets, but when satellite costs rose, Shapiro pulled his show.

“I knew it wasn’t going to grow because it didn’t fit the NPR format,” Shapiro says. “People think public radio should be country and jazz or folk for the adventurous.”

But Shapiro wasn’t content with confining the show to his hometown. He decided to give the satellite one more try, this time with a national sponsor. “Cypress Avenue” proved to be popular, running in more than 40 markets, including Detroit, San Francisco and Jacksonville, Fla. Unable to find a sponsor, expenses were mounting and Shapiro was faced with a decision.

“I decided I could either earn a living as an attorney, or I could get in my car and drive across the country and build ‘Cypress Avenue’ into a radio show,” Shapiro says.

For the second time, “Cypress Avenue” was pulled from the uplink

“We just weren’t penetrating the major markets,” Shapiro says. “Today radio is a secondary medium. People don’t care about shows, they care about stations and that’s why radio is as homogenous as it is. Advertisers just want a demographic to sell their product to. I don’t fit that mold. I knew I’d never get the audience I wanted.”

Compromising the show to build a bigger audience would be counteractive to everything Shapiro was trying to do – share the music he loves with his friends. And if his only contact with these friends is through the radio, so be it.

“A lot of people use the TV as a companion. My stereo is my companion,” Shaprio says. “I lawasy have 30 to 50 unopened CDs at home. They come to me faster than I can listen to them. There is always part of my head saying, ‘Is this something you want to take further and put on the radio?’”

When Shapiro listens to music at home, he makes sure it gets the audio treatment it deserves. At age 12, Shapiro built his own Hi-Fi system from a Heath kit. That system has been upgraded and replaced many times since.

“I’m a sound freak,” Shapiro says. “I have more money tied up in sound equipment than most people have in a home. I wasn’t to hear it as well as I can hear it. I buy all the gold CDs and audiophile stuff.

“To me, music is as important as oxygen and food,” Shapiro continues. “When I’m home, I have music on 24 hours a day. In the car, music is on the whole time.”

Hooked by a phonograph

Shapiro got hooked on music in 1942 when an uncle gave him a phonograph player for his fifth birthday. A family friend in the jukebox business kept Shapiro supplied with records once they were too scratched for commercial play. At age 12, he discovered Brubeck, Paul Desmond and West Coast jazz.

Shapiro tried music lessons – he tackled the piano, vibraphone and banjo – but his musical aptitude was mental, not physical. He spent his time amassing records and building playback systems.

“Whatever money I made went into getting more records and improving what I had,” Shapiro says.

Shapiro migrated across Missouri and graduated pre-med from Washington University in St. Louis in 1958 with the intent of becoming a doctor.

Still an avid jazz fan, Shapiro would often get together with friends and playelvis precords. Then he saw Elvis Presley’s first appearance on the Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey show. Shapiro was hooked on rock and roll and spreading the gospel of Elvis.

“I didn’t know who or what it was, but it had the same impact on me as hearing JFK was shot,” Shapiro says. “I can still visualize that room and the TV set and here we are 50 years later.”

To a generation of buzz-cut, starched-collar squares, Elvis represented the rebellious, darker side of 1950s adolescence.

“Presley was a lightning rod from my generation, a button-down generation,” Shapiro says. “There was a whole side of our lives – smoking cigarettes, sipping beers, getting lad – that was never talked about, and here it was in our living room. I immediately became a hard-core rock and roll fan.”

By the time Shapiro graduated, he had abandoned the idea of being a doctor. He headed north to the University of Michigan and enrolled in law school. With his law degree in hand in 1961, Shapiro decided he wanted to be a tax attorney. He heard that New York University had a graduate tax law program, so he went to the Big Apple. One show on Manhattan Public Radio planted the germ that would become “Cypress Avenue.”

“It was a thematic program,” Shapiro says. “They’d take someone like big-band arranger Fletcher Henderson and play arrangements done by different bands. They might play a combo version next to a big band version. I listened to that show religiously. In later years, I got thinking that there was so much richness and social impact in pop music as in jazz and I could do the same thing.”

Shapiro had finally found his calling, but after three universities and seven years of higher education, a career shift was not going to happen.

“By this time my family and I had spent a lot on higher education,” Shapiro says. “If I’d know then what I knew no, I would have been in the music business. It just wasn’t in the cards.”

The jump from disc jockey to tax law may seem extreme, but Shapiro says his work is extremely satisfying.

“Tax law is not what most people think it is,” Shapiro says. “It is the most creative part of the law, because what we do is planning. You might want to buy your partner out. If you do it one way, Uncle Sam takes a hunk. If you do it differently, you save money.”

Shapiro left New York in 1962 and returned to Kansas City to work and start a family. As his family grew and Shapiro flourished professionally, he became involved with broadcasting, but it was television that proved to be Shapiro’s stepping-stone to radio.

Deeply involved with public television’s early on-air auctions and fund-rasiers, Shapiro’s good deeds did not go unnoticed. A high school friend working at KCUR called Shapiro and asked if she could take him to lunch and discuss fund-raising methods. At the end of the meal, she asked if there was anything she could do for him. Shapiro asked for an audition to do a public radio rock show.

The dream was starting to materialize. Shapiro arrived at the studio with a stack of records for the show and hoped that the manager liked it.

“My first show was called ‘Ballads by Rockers.’ It was all ballad material done by people thought of as screamers,” Shapiro says. “He (the manager) says, if you can do that every week, you’re on.”

Sonic spelunking

As Cypress Avenue entered its second decade on the air, Shapiro realized new music and artists – particularly rap and alternative – were not striking the same chord with him.

“I’ve known for a long time I’m the generation these people want to rebel against,” Shapiro says. “I respect the fact that the music says this to the previous generation,” he says, emphatically holding up his middle finger. “There is a need to shake up the status quo.”

Shapiro doesn’t mind the envelope pushing done by newer artists, he just doesn’t get it musically. The Talking Heads and Beck are about as modern asbrubeck Shapiro gets with “Cypress Avenue.”

But Shapiro’s show doesn’t need Moby and Soundgarden to be effective. “Cypress Avenue” is a discovery process – for both Shapiro and for listeners – of influential artists and the impact they’ve had on music.

By showing listeners the roots of music, Shapiro leaves the listener naturally curious of the modern amplification and integration of this process.

“Cypress Avenue” isn’t a forum for Shapiro to amaze everyone with his knowledge. It’s a platform for him to share his love of music and enlighten listeners who don’t fit commercial radio demographics.

Jackie Nixon, NPR director of strategic planning and audience research, says that shows like “Cypress Avenue” are what NPR is all about.

“We treat our listeners with respect and intelligence and try to produce programming that makes people think as well as entertain,” Nixon says.

For Shapiro, those sleepless nights in the early 1940s were a discovery process.

“It was like going into a cave with a flashlight and all of a sudden – bang, something is shining back at you,” he says.

Shapiro has not forgotten that feeling and tries to instill the same feeling of excitement in his listeners.

“I think I broaden the awareness of the intelligence and importance of popular music,” Shapiro says. “I lift it out of the aural wallpaper and let people know it can be a powerful element. That it shapes opinions and tells a lot about where we are and where we are going.”

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