Farewell to a heavyweight from the golden age of soul

Solomon Burke was the consummate performer, writes David Hepworth
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The Independent Culture

Solomon Burke, the self-styled King of Rock and Soul, was pronounced dead in the early hours of yesterday morning at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam where he had flown from Los Angeles to perform with the Dutch group De Dijk tomorrow night.

The singer, who was at least 70 years old, was so bulky that when he last played with them he was wheeled on stage on the throne that he considered his sobriquet entitled him to. When he last appeared on stage with the Rolling Stones, in Los Angeles three years ago, Keith Richards estimated his weight as 35st and feared for the stage. Ron Wood reckoned it was more like 40. In any case they were thrilled, all the more so since Burke insisted Jagger wore the king's ermine-trimmed robe. This was so heavy that Jagger nearly crumpled to his knees.

Burke's songs became well known in the UK during the original rhythm'n'blues boom. The Rolling Stones used to open their show with his signature tune "Everybody Needs Somebody To Love". Merseybeat groups would play "Stupidity". The Pretty Things had a hit with "Cry To Me". One of the standouts on Otis Redding's cult album Otis Blue was his version of Burke's "Down In The Valley". All these and more poured forth from the bulky, eccentric figure of the Philadelphian in an early 1960s hot streak on the Atlantic label.

Most of these records were made in New York but had strong appeal in the South. Burke's trademark gruff preaching delivery slipped seamlessly from speech to song and back again. If you were only allowed one soul singer from the golden age, Solomon is the one you would take. He ticked every box from low comedy through country pleading to the kind of magisterial rock'n'roll that brought the house down. His shows were tours de force of riveting soul and unashamed hokum. He once employed a midget who was secreted under his cape. When it was thrown off the cape would disappear stage left as of its own volition.

When the hits ceased he was glad of his entrepreneurial drive. He never listened to the playback of his first Atlantic session because he had to be back in Philly driving a snow truck. Banned by the Apollo Theatre in New York from selling his "Solomon Burke's Magic Popcorn" in the theatre, he set up a hot plate and knocked out pork chops on the pavement.

Throughout his life he preached, ran a chain of mortuaries and appeared when asked with his wealthy young admirers. His career was given boosts by the 1980 movie The Blues Brothers and by 2002's Don't Give Up On Me, an award-winning album he made with the producer Joe Henry, featuring songs gifted by admirers including Bob Dylan and Tom Waits. He died, as most musicians of his generation are apt to do, on his way to a gig. Unlike BB King he never made the mistake of believing he was capable of retirement. For lifers like Burke there's no going home.

His latest record, Nothing Is Impossible, came out last month. It was produced by the great Al Green producer Willie Mitchell, who supervised the session from behind a Zimmer frame. "He was the genius. I was just the whipped cream on top of the great pie," said Burke.

Burke's spirit lives on thanks to his records and his famous fans. Every time Bruce Springsteen slips into his familiar on-stage testifying about the power and the majesty of rock and soul and adopts the manner that could be the most righteous preacher or could be a used-car dealer, that's Brother Solomon Burke right there.

David Hepworth is a music writer and broadcaster