Solomon Burke: The 1960s 'King of Rock and Soul' who enjoyed a modern renaissance

Everything about the soul singer, Solomon Burke, was larger than life: his gargantuan frame, his dynamic vocals, his prodigious recording output and his huge family.

While not having the chart successes of Sam Cooke or Otis Redding, he played a major role in shaping the soul music of the 1960s. He called himself the King of Rock and Soul, and, wearing a crown and cape, he took part in mock coronations on stage.

Burke’s background is complex. Some years before his birth, his grandmother in Philadelphia dreamed of founding a church called Solomon’s Temple. She was waiting for its spiritual leader to be born and as the young boy was christened Solomon Burke in March 1940, he had much to live up to. He was preaching by the time he was seven and even had his own radio programme aged just 12. He recorded “Christmas Presents from Heaven” in 1957. This was followed by gospel singles for Apollo Records and then “Be Bop Grandma” (1959) for Singular Records. By then the boy preacher was studying to be a mortician as his uncle owned a funeral parlour.

In 1960, Burke was signed by Jerry Wexler to Atlantic Records in New York. Just before Christmas, he recorded a soulful version of the country ballad, “Just Out of Reach”, and he left the studio quickly as he had work driving a snow plough in Philadelphia. The single made the US Top 30 and Burke told me in 2002: “Atlantic also did ‘He’ll Have To Go’ with me but then they said they were getting too deep into country as they were not a country label. They wanted me doing R&B. Ray Charles picked up on my idea and did ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You’ and some great country albums, and then we got Charley Pride, but I was the pioneer.”

Over the next few years, Burke made some staggeringly good rhythm and blues records – the stuttering “Cry To Me” (1962), which was written by his producer Bert Berns; the playfully updated folk song “Down in the Valley” (1962); the pleading “Can’t Nobody Love You” (1963); and the dance-orientated “Stupidity” (1963), which became a Merseybeat favourite for both The Undertakers and Kingsize Taylor. One of his greatest performances was an impassioned version of Wilson Pickett’s “If You Need Me”, but Pickett had recorded the song himself and was furious with Atlantic’s duplicity.

In 1964, Burke made his most famous recording, “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love”, supposedly co-written with Jerry Wexler and Bert Berns. “I used to do it in church when I was a kid,” Burke told me, “and it was a march for the offering. We would play it with tubas, trombones and the big bass drum and it sounded really joyful I played it to Jerry Wexler and Bert Berns,who thought that it was too fast, and had the wrong tempo. However, they said they would record it if I gave them a piece of the song! (Laughs) Crazy me. I’ve even heard Jerry Wexler talking about how we wrote it.”

Burke’s sheer bulk meant that he could never be a dancer like James Brown, but like Brown, his act was full of showmanship. When he first appeared at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, he supplemented his income by selling Solomon Burke’s Magic Popcorn. After being stopped from doing so, he set up a grill outside and sold pork sandwiches instead. This entrepreneurial spirit never left him and introduced a tackiness to the proceedings. He would sell food to fellow musicians on tour buses and when I asked what he remembered about playing at the reopening of The Cavern Club in Liverpool in July 1966, he said: “The Cavern was a great place to play. The groove was there, the people were there, and it was wonderful. I remember them selling hot Pepsis. What a mistake – you gotta put ice in those things. Think of how many more they could have sold with ice in them.”

In 1965, Burke had a US Top 30 hit with his own song, “Got to Get You Off My Mind”, and although it was not a UK hit, it was a great favourite on the pirate station, Radio Caroline. Burke was one of the first black singers to record a Bob Dylan song, “Maggie’s Farm” (1965), but many of his fans thought this was a step too far. Since then, many black American artists have embraced Dylan’s material.

In 1966, Burke combined with Ben E. King, Joe Tex, Don Covay and Arthur Conley as the Soul Clan. It was a great idea but the material, written by Covay, was weak. Burke recorded “Take Me (Just as I Am)” (written by Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham and recorded with them in Memphis) and “I Feel a Sin Coming On”, but his career was drifting. Over the next decade, Burke would record for several labels with varying success, but there was usually something to make it worthwhile. His Proud Mary album (1969) for Bell Records, with sleeve notes from John Fogerty was fine, but several albums were directionless and his attempt to emulate Barry White (Music To Make Love By, 1975) was especially disappointing.

“Everybody Needs Somebody To Love” became a classic rock song, often being performed by The Rolling Stones and Wilson Pickett and then being featured in The Blues Brothers (1980). “Cry To Me” was featured in Dirty Dancing and Burke had an acting role in The Big Easy (both 1987). Burke had renewed critical success with his albums for Rounder, notably A Change Is Gonna Come (1986).

Burke was inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001, and won a Grammy for Don’t Give Up On Me (2002), produced by Joe Henry. This album included new material from Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson, Tom Waits and Van Morrison, and the highlight was Elvis Costello’s “The Judgement”, clearly modelled on Burke’s utterly soulful “The Price” (1964).

Burke spent the last decade recording new albums including Nashville (2006) with Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton, Like A Fire(2008), Nothing’s Impossible with Willie Mitchell (2010) and, awaiting release, Hold On Tight with Dutch band, De Dijk. He made guest appearances with Jerry Lee Lewis, Zucchero, Junkie XL and the Blind Boys of Alabama and was seen on both stage and TV with Jools Holland. He recorded“ Message To My Son” with Holland and Eric Clapton in 2005.

His performances ranged from Glastonbury in 2008 to appearances for Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican. By now, he remained seated for all performances and he carried a throne around with him. I saw him at the Royal Albert Hall, opening for Van Morrison, but was dismayed that so much of his stage time was dispensing red roses to pretty girls. His performance ended with 50 audience members dancing around him to “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love”. He died en route to a concert in Amsterdam yesterday.

Burke has an astonishing family of 21 children, 90 grandchildren and 19 great-grandchildren, and the total increased whenever he was asked. Some of them have followed him into the business and so far there are no signs that they have inherited his unique talent.

Solomon Burke, singer: born 21 March 1940, Philadelphia; married (7 sons, 14 daughters); died 10 October 2010, Schiphol, Netherlands

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