Solomon Burke and other New York Stories

The death of Solomon Burke last week at Amsterdam’s Schipol airport was widely reported but at first the news didn’t really resonate with me but after a while I started to think about it. I became sure that I had seen him at some point in the past and I started to wonder if it was him that I had seen at Summerstage in Central Park, New York back in 1995.

I’d gone to America for work to organise two events for a client, the first in Boston, the second in New York. I had flown into Boston on the Tuesday evening and did the Boston show the following day. Then I flew to New York and checked into my hotel and the following day I did the show again at the Four Seasons Hotel. After that I was free for a couple of days before I had to fly home on the Sunday. I was determined to make the best use of the time I had in the Big Apple!

I had a list of things I wanted to do and was armed with a copy of a New York on a budget book and a copy of a paper which had listings of events in New York. I had a couple of CD’s I wanted to find and I’d also arranged to meet up with a guy I had met on Compuserve and become friends with due to a shared grief over the death of Viv Stanshall earlier that year. The internet was still in it’s infancy in those days and I had only been on there for a few months, the www as we know it today was only just starting and browsers were still being developed. If it had been more developed I would have known that the Grateful Dead were playing in NJ on the Sunday (supported by Bob Dylan) and wouldn’t have arranged to fly home before the gig!! Never mind, I thought, I’ll see them next time – little did I know this would be their final tour as Jerry Garcia died later that year.

Still there were plenty of other things to do and I set about doing them. One of the CD’s I found straight away – it was Todd Snider‘s debut album Songs for the Daily Planet. The other CD’s proved a little more tricky and I must have gone into every record shop in Manhattan looking  for albums by Tom Ovans without success. In fact on one day I ended up walking from my hotel on 42nd street all the way down the island till I got to the Statten Island ferry terminal looking in every record store I passed. Once there I did the classic tourist thing of catching the ferry and then getting off at the other end and running round to catch it back again. The trip was wonderful giving wonderful views of the Statue of Liberty and the bottom end of Manhattan and the classic skyline with the two World Trade towers that would be attacked and destroyed just over 6 years later.

Music coloured almost every move I made in the city, if it wasn’t things triggering off songs in my head like “Walking down Madison” or “Fairy Tale of New York ” every time I saw NYPD on a Police car it was going to visit places from songs and one such place was the Chelsea Hotel. The Chelsea Hotel has long been (in)famous for it’s literary and musical residents. Dylan Thomas was staying there when he drank himself to death and Bob Dylan wrote Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands there. Leonard Cohen wrote about having sex with Janis Joplin there and Sid Vicious allegedly stabbed his girlfriend to death in the hotel in 1978.  I went in to the beautifully ornate reception area but it was deathly quiet so I left again – I’m not sure what I expected to find but it wasn’t there. If I’d thought about it I could have booked myself in there instead of the dreadfully sterile Central Hotel that I was staying in.

The night out with my friend from Compuserve turned out to be in Greenwich Village, itself an abvious destination on my musical odyssey because of the Bob Dylan connection. I met him in an underground bar where we drank and played darts with his friends – they were labouring under the misapprehension that being English I’d be good at darts! It wasn’t quite the night out in Greenwich Village I’d hoped for but enjoyable non the less and the group of people I met up with were intelligent and witty (they would later be responsible for an underground literary magazine called Lurch) and were eager to suggest things I should do while in town.


As I left the bar that night I noticed that there was a second hand record shop a few doors down so in a slightly drunken state I went in and started looking through the racks of CD’s. To my surprise I found a CD by Tom Ovans which I didn’t even know existed so I bought it and set off back to the hotel. In 2003 I finally got to see Tom at the 12 Bar Club in London and I took the CD cover along and got Tom to sign it after I told him the story.

The listings newspaper I had been recommended had lots of shows advertised that I would have loved to gone too but in true Sod’s Law fashion none of them were on while I was there. I remember there was a full page ad for a band I had vaguely heard of called Phish who were playing at Jones Beach but it was two weeks later. So with nothing I fancied doing I turned to the New York book to suggest things. After thumbing through it I set off to go and eat at a Lebanese restaurant that it recommended. However in order to get there I had to go through Times Square and while I was doing that I noticed the half price ticket booth like the one they have in Leicester Square in London. I toyed with the idea of seeing a Broadway show so I looked up and down the listings and then one caught my eye. It was called the Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) – I’d heard about this when it was in London  performed by the Reduced Shakespeare Company so I asked the guy if it was the same one but he didn’t know. I thought “what the hell, how often will I get to see an Off-Broadway show” so I bought a ticket and headed off to the theater. It was indeed the same show where they cover all 37 plays in 97 minutes and it was hilariously funny and I even got an extra laugh at the pronunciation of War-Wick-Shire!!

After the show I continued my journey to the restaurant which was, thankfully, still open. After eating I walked up to 88th Street to go to Manny’s Car Wash Blues Club which I think had been recommended to me by a friend. The journey I took snaked across town from west to east  and from south to north but I managed to make the route pass the corner of 53rd and Third which was the scene of the Killing of Georgie in the Rod Stewart Song! Arriving at the club the doorman told us it was something like five bucks to come in. This made me wonder if it was about to close so I asked him and he said it was open till 4am so in I went. I don’t remember who was playing that night but I’m sure if I found my diary I could but I stayed until about 2am enjoying good music and good beer (If I recall correctly I drank the first dark beer of my stay in this club).  As I left the club I decided that 46 blocks was too far to walk at this time of night so I hailed a cab that was coming up Third Avenue. The driver hung a left and then turned left again into Second Avenue and the road being empty at that time of night reached incredible speeds for my journey back to the hotel.

The weather was incredible that week, it was hot and humid and walking anywhere was a major task so it was incredible that I managed to avoid going on the Subway for most of the time I was there. In fact the only time I did venture underground was after my walk down to the Statten Island ferry that afternoon. It was either walk all the way back in the searing heat or take the plunge and catch the Subway. I went down the steps and paid at the ticket booth and was given a token by the man. I think it was obvious that I didn’t know what to do so the man from the ticket booth came over and showed me where to put the token.

On the Saturday afternoon I headed off to Central Park to go to a Summerstage concert in Rumsey Playfield making a detour to visit the spot where John Lennon had been shot and the monument in Strawberry Fields. I then went on to the concert which was free but I recall they were collecting for charity and I threw some money into their collection box. The reason I was there was to see the support band G Love and Special Sauce who I had heard on the Saturday afternoon show on Radio 1 back home. Once inside the stage was set along one side of the arena and people were spread out all around enjoying the sunshine. Around the area there were a number of stalls some selling tickets and some selling beer. You had to queue up to buy tickets before taking them to the bar to get a drink. There was also a Sony stall showing the new Minidisc system which I had a listen to but declined to buy a raffle ticket to try and win one!

G Love was really good, it was the first time I’d seen them but I did get to see them again about a week later at Glastonbury and they remain the only act that I have seen on both sides of the Atlantic! I may have left after their set if it hadn’t been for what happened on my way to get a beer. I was walking across the arena when I heard someone shout my name. I paused for a second but then realised that I was in New York and who would be calling me! So I started to walk again and then sure enough I heard them shout again, so this time I turned round and found two or three of the guys I’d met at the bar in Greenwich Village waving at me.

So I stayed and we watched Soloman Burke who arrived on stage being carried on a throne while being dressed in a Gold lame suit.  He played some hot soul music on a hot afternoon. It was so hot that they turned the fire hoses on the audience to cool them down.  The audience drank the bars dry and in the end we had to buy beer off illegal vendors who were skulking around with cool boxes and bags. When the gig finished we went off to a restaurant nearby where we sat and ate out on the street, talking about stuff and once again I had an enjoyable conversation with these guys. They invited me to join them in Brooklyn that evening to continue the party, initially I thought I would but then declined as I had an early flight the next morning. They gave me a lift back to my hotel and we said our goodbyes.

So I was right about having seen Soloman Burke and my quest to find this out has raised a lot of good memories and turned up one or two interesting links. The first, and the site which confirmed it had been Solomon Burke that day, was a recording of the G Love set that I found posted on the second was a collection of Solomon Burke pictures from that afternoon which I found on Getty Images, obviously I can’t post one here without breaching copyright so I will just publish a link so you can check out that suit!!