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...

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

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Jude Law in Black Sea

film

In Black Seahe is as audiences have never seen him before

Arts and Entertainment
Johnny Depp no longer cares if people criticise his movie flops

film

Arts and Entertainment
Full circle: Wu-Tang’s Method Man Getty

Music review

Arts and Entertainment
When he was king: Muhammad Ali training in 'I Am Ali'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
TV
News
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
art
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
books
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game