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
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Pratt stars in Guardians of the Galaxy
film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

    The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

    What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
    Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

    Finding the names for America’s shame

    The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
    Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

    Inside a church for Born Again Christians

    As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
    Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
    Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

    Incredible survival story of David Tovey

    Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little