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His Legacy on the Line

Cover Story

With an album of new songs written for him, Burke is trying to reclaim his rightful place in the soul music pantheon. But can the singer leave the safety of the oldies?

August 11, 2002|ROBERT HILBURN

For the rest of the set, Burke focuses on oldies, mixing his own hits, including "Cry to Me" and "Just Out of Reach," with songs associated with Redding, Cooke and other singers.

In "Cry to Me" alone you can hear Burke's influence. John Fogerty is widely regarded as one of the great rock vocalists ever, and you hear Burke's howl in several of the records he made with Creedence Clearwater Revival, including "Born on the Bayou" and "Tombstone Shadow."

You also hear in "Cry to Me" a touch of the vocal stutter that Redding would later use to great effect. In "Just Out of Reach," Burke laid down a blueprint for Ray Charles' later mixture of soul and country.

After 40 minutes, the show begins losing its punch because Burke seems stuck in the past. He only does two more songs from the new album, and late in the set he turns to "My Way," the Sinatra anthem that simply has been worn out over the years.

The set may be nice enough for longtime admirers, but anyone drawn to the show by the new album is likely to be disappointed by the oldies tone.

Can he ever step away from the safety of the oldies? Backstage, Burke vowed to do more of the new songs on his U.S. tour this fall. The impact of the tour may depend on whether he follows through on that pledge.

"Thank God my father never gave up and that he is given this opportunity," Burke's son Selassie says backstage before the concert. "The good thing is he's getting the recognition while he's still alive."

And what was that first-week sales figure? 8,940 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. That was enough to enter the national sales charts at No. 138, the highest album chart position he has ever had.

Somewhere, someone must be saying, "Hallelujah."

*

Robert Hilburn, The Times' pop music critic, can be reached at robert.hilburn@latimes.com

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