Dan Penn -- who wrote such soul classics as "Dark End of the Street" -- penned "Don't Give Up on Me" for Burke, and his songwriting style is perfectly suited to Burke's voice. As a spare acoustic guitar is played in the background, Burke practically whispers his entreaty to a woman he's let down: "Please don't give up me/I know it's late in the game...." The plea can also be read as an appeal to fans who have followed Burke's below-the-radar forty-year career: "If I fall short, if I don't make the grade/If your expectations aren't met in me today/There's always tomorrow, or tomorrow night/Sooner or later, I know I'll get it right."
Not that Burke has ever been disappointing -- but he has been under-acknowledged. Don't Give Up on Me is a testament to the singer's vast, if subterranean influence. The songs on this disc were written by some of the most influential songwriters of the latter half of the twentieth century, all of whom credit Burke as an inspiration: Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, Brian Wilson, Joe Henry, Nick Lowe, Tom Waits and Van Morrison are among those who penned material for the album. Beautifully sung by Burke, Morrison's "Fast Train" is a sad, shuffling song of "breaking down and going on the lam" that Morrison later recorded himself. Dylan's contribution, "Stepchild," is a bluesy grinder that Burke has a grand old time singing: "Anything you ask me, you know I'm willing/I just sure can't be Bob Dylan/You still treat me like a stepchild."
The album was recorded live in the studio, with all of the parts recorded at once rather than as individual tracks. That organic spontaneity is captured in the recording. Burke breaks loose most forcefully on the menacing, overtly political "None of Us Are Free," written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. Backed by the Blind Boys of Alabama, Burke lets it rip, his 62-year-old vocal cords up to the task of hitting the higher registers with a righteous bellow: "There are people still in darkness/And they just can't see the light/If you don't say it's wrong/Then that says it's right."
Burke's voice would be enough to bring you to tears if it weren't for the hope and optimism embedded within it. The man is a giant of soul and spirit. Here, musicians who owe him a debt of more than gratitude take some steps to pay him back.