From the moment he speaks, KB Solomon’s distinctive bass voice — think Barry White or James Earl Jones — is large, rich and resonate.
In opera circles, he is known as a basso profondo, an exceptionally deep male singing voice. According to the New Grove Dictionary of Opera, a typical bass has a range that is limited to the second E below middle C, but basso profondos can often descend as low as three Gs below middle C.
“A lot of basses are in the background, but not me,” Solomon said recently from his home in Los Angeles County.
Solomon’s voice is so huge that it needs to be heard in person to be fully appreciated — so it’s fortunate that Solomon will be performing “Speak of Me as I Am” — his one-man musical tribute to iconic singer and civil rights activist Paul Robeson — Thursday night at the JSU McClellan Center.
Solomon’s performance will be part of a daylong celebration of the groundbreaking for Freedom Riders Park, a memorial planned for the site of the infamous bus burning outside Anniston on May 14, 1961, a seminal moment in Civil Rights history.
To be able to perform his one-man show as part of such a momentous event proves just how far we’ve come, Solomon said.
“It’s like looking back on Mt. Everest after climbing it. There’s something about looking back at a mountain that once seemed so impossible to climb. I’m thrilled to be living in a day when, in the South, there’s such beauty — beauty of spirit, the beauty of forgiveness, the beauty of art and song. It’s a story of triumph for me.”
The organizers behind Freedom Riders Park hope that it will become a place for remembrance and healing. “This will be a place for education, contemplation and reflection … a bad event triggered good things — unity, and wonderful partnerships,” Bill Harbour, Freedom Riders Park Committee co-chairman, said in a statement.
Harbour was a Freedom Rider and will be among the guest speakers during the morning groundbreaking ceremony, along with fellow Freedom Riders Charles Person and Hank Thomas, as well as Janie Forsythe McKinney who, as a young girl, brought water to the Freedom Riders after they fled the burning bus and the mob that attacked them.
The park will be an opportunity to take one of the darkest moments in Anniston’s history and place it in a positive light.
“The focal point is not the terrible actions that occurred at that moment, but the lessons learned in perpetuity from that moment,” said Pete Conroy, the other co-chairman of the Freedom Riders Park Committee. “Anniston reacted very differently from most. The petition to integrate the library evolved from that moment.”
Finding his voice
Thursday’s performance will be something of a homecoming for Solomon (real name Kevin Bell, KB Solomon being his stage name). Solomon lived in Anniston from the age of 2 until his final year of high school, before moving to Oregon to study music.
It was in Anniston where Solomon found his voice.
“It was spring break when I was 15 years old, and it literally happened overnight,” he said. “I woke up one morning with this bass voice, pretty much the way it is now. The kids at school thought I was joking because, before that morning, my voice was very high.
“I wasn’t so much born with this voice, as I grew into it. And I can say that it was never my ambition to be an opera singer, but I found it naturally and thus found my path.”
Solomon traveled the world for 20 years, performing principal roles with major opera companies in American and Europe, before stepping away from the opera stage.
Solomon branched out into R&B, blues and soul music. He released an album, “Inexplicable,” in 2007. But it is his tribute to Robeson that has become Solomon’s most cherished work.
Growing up, even before the voice change that would define his life, Solomon loved listening to classic music on the radio. One of his favorite singers was Paul Robeson, who was most famous for his haunting rendition of “Deep River” along with spirituals like “Amazing Grace” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” But Robeson was also a controversial figure.
“When I hear someone sing and it emotes beauty and peace, I find it confusing to hear they’re bad people,” Solomon said.
Robeson was born in 1898 in New Jersey; his father was a former slave. Robeson graduated from Columbia Law School and played in the NFL before taking to the stage as an actor and singer.
Robeson matured into a political activist. During World War II, Robeson played Othello in the United States while supporting the war effort. After the war ended, the Council on African Affairs, in which Robeson was very active, was placed on the Attorney General’s List of Subversive Organizations. It was the age of McCarthyism, and Robeson was blacklisted.
It was Solomon’s father who called Robeson a “bad man.”
Robeson died in 1976, at age 77.
In late 2004, after returning from Germany, Solomon wanted to perform something that would “promote social health and healing.” He spent a year studying the life of Robeson, whom many said he sounded like, and wrote a screenplay for a movie. As a means of promoting the screenplay, Solomon began performing the tribute as a one-man musical.
“I learned what a great story his life was,” Solomon said. “His story exemplified what I always believed — oppression and racism are conditions of the human spirit. It has nothing to do with skin color.
“And it’s an impossible story to tell without singing.”
Contact Brett Buckner at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Freedom Riders Park groundbreaking
• The two-part event on Thursday is free and open to the public.
• 9 a.m., groundbreaking with music and speakers at the park’s future location on Highway 202, west of Anniston.
• 6 p.m., speakers and a performance by KB Solomon, who will perform portions of his Paul Robeson tribute, “Speak of Me as I Am,” at the JSU McClellan Center.
• To learn more about KB Solomon, visit www.kbsolomon.com.