Fans and collectors of early '60s soul music on vinyl often make sonic sacrifices in their quest for early first pressings; finding good-condition copies of the old records is an ever-increasing challenging.
Popular among DJs and fans of so called "Northern Soul" in England, lots of these records have been scooped up by entrepreneurial collectors who flip them for high coin on the Internet and such. And then there is the simple reality that many of these records were played on less than ideal equipment back in the day and were well-loved party records -- in short, a lot of the copies out there that you come across are not in real fine condition.
Sure, you can find much of this music on CD, but the sound just isn't the same as hearing an original LP or -- even better in many instances -- an original 45 RPM single.
Thus I was pleased to recently discover that HDTracks is carrying uber-high resolution downloads of Solomon Burke's early recordings made for Atlantic Records in the 1960s. One of the original wave of soulful singers who blended rhythm, blues, gospel and country elements into a heady brew that cuts to the heart, Solomon Burke was among the finest of these performers (alongside Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding and so many others).
And despite his 2002 resurgence -- with my favorite album of that year, his Don't Give Up On Me Baby (on Fat Possum Records) -- Burke's early recordings remained annoyingly difficult to find on LP. The CD versions were often compiled into random hits collections or two-fers that lost some of the feel of the individual releases.
Listening to Burke's 1964 release Rock 'n Soul, the HDTracks download -- at 24-bit resolution and 192-kHz sampling -- is a refreshing wonder.
I have a original mono LP pressing of this album (and a stereo CD) and this stereo download is lush and warm, comparing favorably to the LP. This album has a surprising amount of acoustic guitar -- including 12-string! -- which is a nice showcase for the high-res download.
The early stereo mix is surprisingly pleasing, with drums, bass and vocals dead center and the guitars, horn sections and back up vocals panned hard left or right. This approach allows the rockers to groove cohesively while the aching country western ballads like "Just Out of Reach (of My Two Empty Arms)" and the bluesy "Can't Nobody Love You" provide a timeless canvas for Burke's passionate vocals.
The simplicity of a track like "You Can't Love 'Em All" is just spectacular, with the acoustic guitar plucking away in on speaker as the Latin-flavored horns punch in -- sounds like Herb Alpert's Tijuana Brass there! -- on one side of the mix while a chorus of backup singers chimes in the background. You can almost count out each of the distinct voices on this track. For a real shiver down the spine, however, put on "He'll Have To Go" and you hear Burke's pained voice treated with a dramatic slap reverb on it as the acoustic guitar strums in the right channel. Then in come the horns and strings in the background. For 1964, these are amazing productions!
Comparing this to the stereo CD version put out by Collectors Choice in the 1990s, there really is no contest -- all that studio presence has been squashed down and diffused. I am guessing this is due to the nature of CD resolution, which is roughly one-fourth the effective size of the file on the HDTracks version. That different in size translates into a markedly different sound.
While I don't know the details of the source material used here, I can say that these recordings reveal a wonderful amount of presence and studio detail that is at times lost in the compression of the original LP versions. On a track like "You're Good For Me," the drums sound like you are right there in the room with the band. Kudos to the legendary Tom Dowd (Ray Charles, Bobby Darin, John Coltrane, Allman Brothers, etc.) who engineered these sessions.
By 1968, Solomon Burke was tackling some topical new material in the driving title track to I Wish I Knew. Again, with a hot session band and engineering by Tom Dowd, this album pops really well on my fairly pristine original Atlantic Records LP pressing. The 1990s Collectors Choice two-fer CD sounds OK, but again is a shadow of the LP, with harsher edges around Burke's voice and the drums reduced to a muffled thud. On the 24/192 incarnation you can hear the sticks hitting the snare head.
Arif Mardin's horn arrangements shine on tracks like John Loudermilk's "Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye" and Don Bryant's "Save It" -- they sound positively huge on this HDTracks download! This is the sound that influenced countless musicians, from Edgar Winter to George Harrison to Eric Clapton to the Blues Brothers (who paid tribute to this era with their fun yet fabulous film and soundtrack).
It's hard to go wrong with any of Solomon Burke's Atlantic-era recordings, so I recommend both of these downloads wholeheartedly.
Rock 'n Soul was born here.