Mission accomplished: Solomon Burke's new album, Nothing's Impossible, was produced by Memphis studio ace Willie Mitchell.
Solomon Burke and Willie Mitchell were friends for years without ever laying eyes on each other.
The King of Rock & Soul and the revered Memphis producer who made R&B stars out of Ann Peebles, Syl Johnson and, most famously, Al Green, spoke frequently over the years. But it wasn't until Burke finally visited Mitchell in 2008 that these longtime pillars of soul music would collaborate.
I had just finished a job in Mississippi, and I called and told his son that I was driving to Memphis to meet his dad," says Burke, 70, whose latest album, Nothing's Impossible, would be one of Mitchell's last projects. The producer died Jan. 5 at 81.
I had been talking to him on the phone for 35 years and never met him," Burke says. We had laughed, told jokes, and always promised that we were going to get together.
Before that evening was over, we were in the studio. He was like, 'You're not going to leave here until you sing something.'
Soul pioneer Burke, whose voice is a powerful mix of gospel fervor, R&B silkiness and country twang, is best known for such early '60s hits as Cry to Me, Just Out of Reach (of My Two Empty Arms), You're Good for Me and If You Need Me. A flamboyant performer who favors props that include a crown, cape and throne, he's also a preacher and mortician, with an outsize personality to match his mountainous frame.
He and Pops sat down at the piano, and the magic just started happening instantly," says Lawrence Boo" Mitchell, who with his brother Archie has run day-to-day operations at his dad's storied Royal Studios for a decade. The musicians were just blown away. Then (Willie) started writing songs (for the album), and I hadn't seen him with that much fire in a long time."
Burke recalls Willie calling him in Los Angeles and telling him, 'I got a hit for you called Nothing's Impossible. How long is it going to take you to get back to Memphis?' I said three or four days, and he said, 'You better hurry up.' I didn't realize what those words meant until I watched (his) casket go down the aisle."
The album's 12 tracks were completed over 10 days in January 2009. Burke says Willie often kept him in the studio until the wee hours.
It would be 2:30 in the morning and he was like, 'So what? I'm here and we'll stay until 4 if we have to. I'm 81, how old are you?' He was amazing," says Burke.
The pair shared a big brother-little brother" relationship, says Lawrence. Pop had him singing stuff he didn't know he could do. It made the hair stand up on the back of your neck."
But even Willie was stunned when Burke wrote and sang the mesmerizing ballad Dreams on the spot at the piano.
When it was over, everything was quiet, and Pop said, 'Oh, my God, I'm scared to ask him to do that again. That's a wrap.'"