King Solomon

He has 21 children, 74 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren. He knows his way around a corpse. He loves God. Dr Burke has many parts. But the greatest, says Gavin Martin, is his humungous soul...
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The King Of Rock 'n' Soul (also Doctor of Mortuary Science and First Minister of The House Of God For All People) is holding court at his home in the San Fernando Valley. It is an affluent neighbourhood, but not outlandishly so. At the gate of his house, Solomon Burke's right-hand man Bernard waits with his umbrella to usher me in.

The King Of Rock 'n' Soul (also Doctor of Mortuary Science and First Minister of The House Of God For All People) is holding court at his home in the San Fernando Valley. It is an affluent neighbourhood, but not outlandishly so. At the gate of his house, Solomon Burke's right-hand man Bernard waits with his umbrella to usher me in.

I am invited to leave my shoes under a church pew in an open-plan hallway. The King sits on a throne on the far side of the living room. This throne was made by his son, who sprayed it gold, padded it with red velvet cushions and encrusted it with gemstones. Leaning against this structure are a handful of the chest-high "rods" (Solomon prefers the biblical-sounding term to the more regal "sceptre") that he has acquired on his journeys around the world. There's a vase of pink and red roses on the hearth, a large, welcoming fire roaring in the grate.

In a corner a five-foot harp is guarded by two toy ponies belonging to The King's grand-daughters. And at one end of the room a large table groans under the weight of platters of fried chicken pieces, pastrami sandwiches, potato salad, macaroni cheese, slices of strawberry gateau, cans of soda, tea and coffee. At the other, a small coffee table supports a red velvet cushion inscribed with King Solomon's coat of arms. On it sits a silver crown inlaid with glittering stones.

Burke is engaged in animated conversation with Jessica, the director of his choir. She has presented him with a new health product said to alleviate various ailments including the arthritis which, along with his considerable weight, renders Burke largely sedentary. But what he lacks in movement he makes up for in loquaciousness. And he speaks just as he sings, alternately grave and exacting, then light and playful. He beckons me to join them.

"My friend from England," he exclaims, although it is the first time we have met. "Man, I am so pleased to see you. You have come so far! Come here and give me a hug." His reputation as the eye-rolling avuncular elder statesman of soul precedes him. Even so the greeting is so obviously genuine, so disarming, I cannot help but feel humbled. Burke is, after all, one of the last surviving figureheads of the soul music revolution.

Who else is left from soul's golden age? James Brown, Wilson Pickett and Bobby Womack? All have struggled to find contemporary settings suited to their talent. But on the recent Grammy-winning Don't Give Up On Me and the brand new Make Do With What You Got albums, Burke has reasserted his standing - as the most resonant and naturally gifted singer of his generation.

Nevertheless it's true to say that sometimes his larger-than-life persona and colourful biography overshadow the profound nature of his talent. Just for starters: Burke lost his virginity at the age of nine; his father was a black Ethiopian Jew who worked as a kosher chicken-plucker; Paul Robeson was a second cousin; and in the Seventies Burke supported Richard Nixon and wrote for Donny Osmond. On Sixties package tours he prepared and sold food to fellow performers (he was banned from Harlem's Apollo Theatre when he tried to set up a pork sandwich franchise during a residency). Famously, he played a Ku Klux Klan gathering at the height of his popularity, unaware of what he was doing until he hit the stage and saw the white sheets of the torch-bearing hordes massed at his feet.

Yet entertaining as the legend is, it is his voice - a unique blend of sonorous compassion, wounded humility and authoritative wisdom - that captivates. It is as magisterial on his new interpretation of Robbie Robertson's "It Makes No Difference", as it ever was on "Down In The Valley", "Just Out Of Reach" and "Everybody Needs Somebody To Love" in his Sixties heyday.

Burke has 21 children by 3 wives, 74 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren and a steady stream of them are introduced to me as the interview proceeds. This is no doubt a typical Friday afternoon in the Burke household and it only goes to emphasise how Solomon's art is rooted in the bonds of family and community.

Today, he is wearing a blue-grey three-piece suit, immaculately cut for him by his Korean tailor. "Well," he grins indicating the considerable amount of cloth used to make the suit, "we try to spread it around." Yet despite his obvious appetite for the good things - his weight is variously estimated at between 300 and 400lb - Solomon doesn't touch any of the food laid on for his guests. He says he has never indulged in drink or drugs. But in response to a question about food as an addiction and the "sin" of gluttony, he stalls, pretending to mishear.

"Can't you see I am trying to avoid the question?" he says. "Of course I sin. I'm surrounded by it; we live in a world of sin. They have me on a diet; I've lost a little and am trying to lose more. Last year I learned to swim - now that's a great thing for all obese people to do."

There is a photograph of a slim, imposing woman on the mantelpiece: his grandmother, the late Eleanora Moore. "That is the boss," he nods. "The Queen Mother. I learned everything from her." It was Eleanora who named, raised and then ordained Solomon as the head of the House of God for All People; a church which now maintains 160 parishes. Eleanora might well have foretold Solomon's future fame but a dispute with his very first manager brought his mid-Fifties career as Philadelphia's teenage singing preacher crashing down. "It was a case of 'I can make you and I can break you' - which he proceeded to do," says Burke, bluntly. But then at 17 Solomon was already a father and estranged from his wife.

A court order forced him to pay child support and banned him from the family home. A period living on the streets ensued. "Can you imagine the shame?" he thunders. "It was very hard going from being a star to being a bum at that age. But it was a blessing too - I learned how important it is to know the business and be on top of the figures. I always say to kids today, know your business. And know it well."

Eventually he joined an aunt working in a mortuary and acquired a Mortician's Doctorate by correspondence. (The Philadelphia establishment in which he scrubbed, embalmed and prepared bodies for burial is still open for business today.)

But then a powerful local businessman, one Babe Shivian, persuaded him back into the music business. He won't be drawn on the nature of Shivian's business connections, but concedes that when Atlantic bosses baulked at Burke's improvised spoken-word passage in his breakthrough hit "Just Out Of Reach", a quick chat with Mr Shivian resolved the problem, with Atlantic backing down.

There followed a run of early-soul classics: not comfort to the broken-hearted, as was conventional, but sexually vengeful kiss-offs. Evidently, if "Got To Get You Off My Mind" and "Someone To Love" are anything to go by, Burke's marital strife provided a rich source of inspiration.

"I'd sit with Don Covay writing those songs and just cry. I'd say, Don you have such a beautiful wife but mine is probably out somewhere slashing my tyres because I was off with some chick ... I was a young man," he confides. "Girls were coming from every angle. I couldn't love 'em all. But I certainly tried."

Shortly after his ambitious plan for a soul supergroup, The Soul Clan (featuring Otis Redding, Joe Tex and Wilson Pickett), failed to take off, Burke left Atlantic. In 1974 a plan to launch his children as a Jacksons-style family act ended when six of the group were kidnapped.

"I try not to even talk about that. Every time I hear the word 'kidnap' on the news my heart jumps straight into my mouth. I'm right back living the two weeks and four days that my children were missing. I gave up the idea of encouraging them into show business after that. I never wanted to put them in jeopardy again."

Nevertheless, at least one member of the Burke family has followed his father's lead. Eldest son Solomon Selassie - named after the Ethiopian Ruler whom Solomon met on a "soul searching" trip to Africa in the 1960s - has studied and practised as a mortician and helped produce the 1984 live album, Soul Alive!.

"I've learned so much from my children," says Burke. "I recorded that album myself on two-track and he transferred it to 16-track. An 18-year-old kid! I didn't know you could do such a thing. The result was I sold it to Rounder which at the time it was like winning the lottery."

The album was another new dawn in a career marked by rebirths, then?

"That's why I always keep diapers handy."

Time goes by in Solomon's front room. Business associates and grandchildren come and go. His manager calls time but Burke won't stop talking. He invites a photographer and I to pose with him. We all get to wear the crown. "Sometimes," he tells me, "this whole room is full. The choir is lined up the stairs, people are sat on the chairs, on the floor, in the hall, everywhere - praying meditating, singing."

When it is time to leave Selassie presents me with a bag of "soul food to go". Bernard waits to escort me up the driveway, umbrella in hand. But Solomon wants to show me a video of a service recorded last year in a Pasadena church. Seated centre-stage in the robes of an African Chieftain he introduces the 2,000-strong congregation - a mix of all ages and races - to the Ward Singers, led by the Gospel group's last surviving original member, Madeleine Thompson.

"Now watch her cut loose," he tells me excitedly. Thompson runs through the aisles, tracing the flesh/spirit divide that is at the heart of all great Gospel. She is 68 years old, four years Burke's senior. He watches avidly. "Hel-lo," he says, bizarrely reminiscent of the comic actor Leslie Phillips. "Doesn't that give everyone hope for the future?"

The service ends with the spotlight back on Solomon. "Oh Jesus, Jeeee-sus," he sings, "Thank you, Jesus, I wanna thank you, thank you for my life!" For an instant, the mighty torso rises up from the throne and rocks, shudders and quakes. Behind the tinted lenses, the eyes water. And there can be no doubt: these are tears of joy.

'Make Do With What You Got' is released tomorrow on Shout Factory Records