Solomon Burke: last of the great soul men

He's a 30-stone ladies' man with 89 grandchildren; a mortician-turned-preacher who claims to be a king; a friend of Malcolm X who played for the Ku Klux Klan... Ahead of his performance at Glastonbury tonight, Solomon Burke, soul legend, tells his amazing, contradictory life story

"Humility," I ask Solomon Burke, soul legend, mortician and archbishop of The House of God For All People, "is a central pillar of religious faith, isn't it? The idea is that you should strive to be humble, and modest?"

"Absolutely," says Burke, who is talking to me in his church, in South Central Los Angeles.

"I mention this because there are one or two things that are sort of bothering me about you."

"Such as?"

"Oh, I don't know: your golden throne; your crown; the sceptre..."

"My throne," he interrupts, "represents a number of things. It indicates that I am under the direction of God."

"...the way you are referred to as 'King Solomon' on your website."

"We are all kings."

"No we aren't."

"We are."

"I'm not."

"Yes you are. It's simply up to you to accept it. If what you're telling me is that you'd prefer to be a Duke – well be a Duke, that's up to you.'

"I'm not putting that on my letterhead."

"Why not? Why not try it, and see what happens? And whether you try it or not, from now on I am going to call you Duke Chalmers."

We're talking at the Prayer Assembly Church of God in Christ, not too far from the daunting heart of South Central LA. Burke, who weighs 30 stone, is in the wheelchair to which obesity confined him a couple of years ago. His entourage, which includes parishioners, is visibly awed by his presence.

At 68, Solomon Burke remains as Jerry Wexler, founder of Atlantic Records, once described him: "a piece of work: wily, highly intelligent, a salesman of epic proportions". In the 1960s, Wexler recalled, he got into a debate with Philadelphia DJ Jimmy Bishop as to who was the greatest soul singer of all time.

"We talked about James Brown, and Otis Redding, and Wilson Pickett. Then Jimmy said: 'Solomon Burke. With a borrowed band.' I agree on both counts."

In recent years, Burke, as if having taken that remark to heart, has worked with a wide range of new musicians and, just when you might expect him to pipe down and contemplate his garden in the San Fernando Valley, has produced some of the most wonderful recordings of his extraordinary career, beginning with his 2002 triumph Don't Give Up On Me.

"They told me they'd got other artists to write songs for me on that album," Burke recalls. "I said: 'Oh. That's nice. Who?' They said: 'Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, Tom Waits...'" His 2006 album Nashville includes collaborations with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris. And his outstanding new CD, Like a Fire, features compositions by Eric Clapton and ' Ben Harper. Each of these recent releases, strong throughout, has produced one really extraordinary song. On Nashville, there's a stunning version of Tom T Hall's previously neglected masterpiece "That's How I Got to Memphis". In the case of Don't Give Up On Me it was Elvis Costello's majestic anthem "The Judgement", which demonstrates as remarkable a degree of empathy between songwriter and artist as any composition in the history of pop music. On Like a Fire it's "We Don't Need It", by blues guitarist Keb' Mo': a song written in the character of a child offering sacrifices to ease his parents' poverty, with all of the discomfiting force you might expect from that theme, but none of the queasy schmaltz.

This church was built from the profits of a barbecue grill started by 83-year-old Pastor Williams, the man Burke calls his godfather. The grill, in the church grounds, has become a large stall that employs a dozen people. If every 10 meals sold represent a brick in the building, it's not inconceivable that Burke, a devoted fan of turkey necks, chicken wings and gravy, might have taken care of the nave single-handed.

Talking to him, you have a curious sense of being under the scrutiny of a man who is waiting for you to make the foolish mistake of underestimating his intelligence.

"Solomon is informed, perceptive, and as brilliantly intuitive as anybody I have ever met," one associate said. "When he meets somebody he grasps immediately what is coming back at him." Burke says he resembles his grandmother Eleanor, a visionary.

"I'm like her spiritually," he says. "Physically. All my children resemble her. That's one of my granddaughters, sitting across the room."

"How many grandchildren do you have?"

"Eighty-six – no, hold on..." Burke stares into space, as though consulting one of those signs cities erect to display the national debt: digital counters that increase by the second. "Eighty-nine. And 20 great-grandchildren."

"How many children?"

"Twenty-one."

"By how many women?"

"I don't discuss that."

"Why not?"

"Because it's not necessary." (Burke has been married three times; the majority of his children – one friend said 13 – were born to his second wife, Dolores.) Burke reluctantly confides that he's been with his current spouse, Sunday, for 33 years and that they have four children.

"How many mothers would you prefer me to put: one?"

"One in mind and one in spirit. 'Love one another.' The only commandment that was given."

"Hang on: isn't monogamy supposed to be another ideal of the church?"

"What's monogamy again?"

"Remaining faithful to one wife."

"That all depends what you call faithful," Burke replies, "and how you define a wife. How many wives," he asks, with an ominously mischievous look, "do you have?"

"Just the one."

"Do you believe she is faithful to you?"

"So far as I know."

"Do you know whether she's home right now?"

"What are you saying – that she's up at your place?"

"If she is," Burke laughs, "she'll be well taken care of. What church are you talking about, anyhow?"

"Well, the Church of England, say..."

"The Church of England," Burke replies, "could not look at my life and say anything. That church was created out of one man's..."

"Lust and ambition?"

"There you go. Amen. Long live the Queen."

Burke's own ecclesiastical history is a little less straightforward, not to say downright confusing. He says his own organisation, The House of God For All People, was founded by his grandmother as a result of a dream she had about him, years before he was born. But Eleanor belonged to The United House of Prayer For All People, an evangelical organisation founded in the early 20th century by Portuguese immigrant Bishop CM "Sweet Daddy" Grace. And the chapel we're in now is a branch of the largest Pentecostal church in North America. Burke, who has also had mentors from Islam, fends off such details by declaring that there is "one faith and one Lord".

"You say faith is built on love: weren't you also once quoted as saying: 'I asked this guy: "You don't believe in God? Really?" Then I took out my pistol, and shot him.'"

"Right."

"Where did you shoot him?"

"Here, in Southern California."

"I'm not asking about the state; I meant..."

"I don't recall what part of the body I shot him in. I know the bullet pierced him. God forbid. Those were the days when I needed to pray. But I was blessed, because that man had taken my money."

"Were you drunk?"

"I've never used alcohol, or smoked."

"But you did carry a gun."

"I loved guns. I had a lot. From the age of 21 to 31."

"Have you shot a lot of people?"

Burke consults his watch, then looks at me.

"Not yet, Duke."

Solomon Burke was born in Philadelphia, the youngest of seven children. He has a lump the size of half a golf ball on his shaven head: the result, he says, of being "whacked by a frying pan. Your mother tells you to do something, you do it." He says his father, Vincent, was "a kosher chicken picker". Later it emerges that he never knew his biological father, and that Vincent arrived when he was nine.

"I never had the opportunity of knowing who my dad was. I believe that's why I was always looking for a large family."

"You once said your favourite verse in the Bible was 'Be fruitful and multiply.'"

"I got stuck on that verse."

"You married very young, and by the age of 17 you'd already had a child, and been separated?"

"Yes. Which wife you working for?"

He sang in the church choir from the age of seven, and grew to revere charismatic preachers who seem to have shaped his conception of what a man of God ought to be: these figures included iconic black preacher Father Divine, and Sweet Daddy Grace, whose mausoleum, at New Bedford, Massachusetts, Burke used to visit.

He says that his first hit, "Christmas Presents From Heaven", was "the last song I wrote for my grandmother. I finished it the day before she died. She passed on 19 December 1954. I sung it the following day at church. By Christmas Eve they were playing it on the radio." He recalls that Eleanor told him, the day she died, that he would have cars, women and money but also descend to the pits of hell. Burke still preaches, here in South Central, most Sundays. Many of his recollections of his own life have the quality of parables.

Jerry Wexler, now 91, has a chronic heart condition. When I called him at his Florida home and mentioned the name of Solomon Burke, he summoned the energy to talk to me.

"He is a card-carrying fabulist," Wexler said. "Solomon has told so many versions of the same happening that it's unreal."

"For instance?" "He professes to love me dearly, yet maintains that I stole from him."

That said, according to the highly respected writer Peter Guralnick, author of definitive biographies of Elvis Presley and Sam Cooke, who knows Burke well: "Solomon Burke is one of the most brilliant fabulists I have ever met. His stories encapsulate a truth more effectively than a mere recitation of the facts. He has a photographic memory. Over many years, he has almost never told me a story that hasn't had a solid basis in fact. He once told me how he fled a Philadelphia lunatic asylum – where he was working – and set off for California with a friend in a horse and wagon. Years later I met the friend, a gospel singer who recalled, in detail and with no prompting, the same story – with the same horse and wagon."

The young Burke's vocal style was described by Jerry Wexler as "churchy without being coarse": a description that might equally be applied to the character of the current Pope, the second pontiff to have had the singer perform for him at the Vatican.

On leaving school, Burke became an apprentice embalmer at his uncle's funeral parlour, but left the business, still in his teens, to become a full-time singer, encouraged by his first manager, DJ Ulysses Kae Williams. His professional career imploded temporarily in 1957, after a row with Williams, who seems to have been the recipient of Burke's alleged bullet. "He'd banned all my records," Burke explains, "from local radio." At this point, the singer adds, he began sleeping on the streets of North Philadelphia.

"I'd been famous. People laughed at me because I still had my gold tuxedo pants on, and my patent leather shoes, and my beautiful ruffled shirt."

"How long did that last?"

"About a year. Then I met Brother Rashish, who taught me the Islamic faith."

Burke says he then returned to work as a mortician.

"I learnt a lot from the funeral business. It takes a very dedicated person to be a mortician."

There's a moment in Guralnick's classic book, Sweet Soul Music, which describes how, years later, out on the road, ' Burke took his entire band to a funeral parlour because one of them wouldn't believe how much a coffin could cost. Once inside, the singer recalled, "I see the guy is using too much formaldehyde. I say, 'Wait a minute. Hold on.' And before I know it, I forget what I've come for; it's too late – I'm already embalming."

The mortician's trade, Burke says, "changes you. It taught me that children aren't ours to claim. I would say to myself, 'God, please bless this child, because they are going home.'"

In the late 1950s, Burke was approached by a local businessman called Babe Shivian.

"He wanted me to return to performing. I said no, so he parked a bright red Lincoln outside the funeral parlour. He said he wouldn't move it till I agreed. The mortuary said: we have two funerals tomorrow. You'd better start singing fast."

"As I heard, Mr Shivian was deeply feared?"

"I would use the phrase 'deeply respected'."

"And if I didn't respect him quite deeply enough?"

"You'd be on a fast boat to Liverpool."

Burke signed to Atlantic Records in New York in 1961, just as that corporation lost its principal acts, Ray Charles and Bobby Darin. For four years, Solomon Burke kept the label afloat with hits such as "Just Out of Reach (Of My Two Open Arms)", "Down in the Valley" and "The Price".

On the morning of the day I met Solomon Burke, I'd watched him being filmed, on his throne, by producer Wolfgang Lorenz, who is completing a documentary about Atlantic Records. Burke spent quite a while pondering the true meaning of soul. "I still think of myself as a child of Atlantic," Burke told Lorenz. "I remember sitting in that hallway, staring at pictures of LaVern Baker and Ray Charles. I thought: 'My God, this is where I want to be – right here, where that red and black label is.'"

At London's O2 Arena in 2007, when Burke played the aftershow party for Led Zeppelin, an associate told me, "Solomon came on wearing red and black. I'm not sure that many people noticed or cared. But it mattered to him."

In the early 1960s, when his hits were being covered by the Rolling Stones, Burke was booked on an increasing number of national US tours. The challenges of working in the Southern states were, he recalls, unfamiliar to some fellow black performers.

"Many of them," he says, "had no idea what it was like on the other side of the Mason-Dixon line."

In his book Rhythm and the Blues, Jerry Wexler quotes Burke's sales patter on a crowded tour bus, carrying mainly black acts south to the so-called Chitterling Circuit, where segregation was still rife. "'I'm gonna be good enough to sell y'all sandwiches,'" Burke told his fellow passengers. "'A sandwich, soda and hot dog from me will be only five bucks, and the potato chips are free.' But," the singer recalled, "these brothers were stubborn. At the next stop they sent out Dion, the white singer, to do their dealing. Dion comes back holding two boxes of chicken and fries, and hot chocolate with whipped cream on top. The brothers are so excited they jump off the bus. When the redneck restaurant owner sees what's up, he starts shooting. Dion drops the food. The boys race back to the bus, where I'm now talkin' bout 'a sandwich, soda and hot dog – nine bucks, and just a dollar for the potato chips'."

Age and weight may not have enhanced Burke's quality of life, but they have added a glorious depth and rough power to his voice. As a young man, speaking on the phone, people often assumed him to be white; one of his most celebrated memories is of being accidentally booked to play to the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi.

"I went on after dark and all I could see was small lights," Burke recalled. "I was singing: 'I'm so happy to be here tonight. I'm so glad.' When they got closer, we saw these 30,000 KKK members, in their sheets, even little children, in small hoods. It was their annual rally. We did 45 minutes, then we were escorted by police, out on to the highway."

The band, according to Gerri Hershey, in her book Nowhere to Run, "was in a 4/4 coma of fear. The drummer was able to croak to his boss: 'Man – you said this was the greatest gig we'd ever have. You didn't say nothing 'bout it being the last.'"

The singer became close to activists such as Dick Gregory and Malcolm X. "And Mr Farrakhan: somebody who has taught his followers the word of God and the meaning of hope."

Burke began work on one of his greatest singles, "Got to Get You Off My Mind", on 11 December 1964, the night his close friend Sam Cooke was murdered.

"I was here in Los Angeles, visiting Sam," he recalls. "That evening we ate at a local restaurant. Afterwards, I went back to the hotel he'd booked for me. There I got a call saying he was dead. I said: 'He can't be; I was with him an hour ago.' That same day, Dolores had told me she wanted a divorce. I sat down and started to write 'Got to Get You Off My Mind'. I never want to go through anything like that again."

Burke is less than eager to revisit the excesses of his earlier, secular life. There are glimpses of the way he once lived in Sweet Soul Music, where Burke says his Christian methodology differed from that of his uncle. "Mine," he says, "was more: God, money and women, hey hey hey; truth, love, peace and get it on."

"I was young," Burke's says. "Girls were coming from every angle. I couldn't love them all. But I tried."

His career entered a serious decline in the late 1960s; Burke had some success in 1984, with a gospel album produced by his oldest son, but his real renaissance came six years ago with Don't Give Up On Me.

"I remember being in the studio," Burke says, "recording that album. I'd told everybody I'd allow no smoking or drinking. The studio is a holy place when I am recording. There are candles. There are flowers. My throne is there. Visible. That is where I record from. God has set me down. It was time to do 'The Judgement'. I hadn't rehearsed these songs; I did them as they were handed to me. I heard people shouting, 'Elvis is here! Elvis is here!' At first I thought they must be smoking crack. Anyhow, Costello came in and told me he wanted to hear me sing the song. I said, 'Hear it? You're going to teach it to me.' When he sang it, it was just wonderful. I said: 'Right, OK. Let's record that right now.' What people fail to realise is that a great song has no colour. That's a beautiful song that he wrote."

"You say: 'God set me down on the throne.' Who put you in the wheelchair?"

"God did. God put me in this wheelchair."

"And what was his message when he did that?"

Burke laughs. "'You are too fat!'"

Burke has begun exercising in a swimming pool, though in order to walk again, he is likely to have to lose in the region of 100lbs. When he played the Royal Albert Hall in 2005 with long-standing collaborator Jools Holland, a leg sheared off his throne as he was being wheeled on stage.

"Do you consider yourself to have an eating disorder, or is this a clinical condition?"

"I have always had big..." Burke pauses and half raises an eyebrow. "Feet. At nine I passed for 16. I guess God let me develop into what I am now and allowed me to live. It's not an eating disorder. If I had an eating disorder, I wouldn't travel."

In any case, says Burke, when the Day of Judgement comes, "The Lord will raise me up."

"Are you saying you believe in rapture?"

"I do. I believe God will raise us up. Even me."

There have been occasional moments during our conversation – notably when he was talking about Sam Cooke's death – when Burke briefly exhibited something close to melancholy: a trait which, friends say, wasn't noticeable even five years ago, and which would seem to indicate disappointment with some aspect of his life. Perhaps it's frustration at his immobility; or simply the knowledge that, where the truly great male soul singers are concerned, he is the last one still around.

He talks movingly about how he's godfather to seven-year-old James Joseph Brown II, now living with his mother Tomi Rae in South Carolina.

"He's a very beautiful child."

"He is," Burke says. "He's amazing. I saw his father not long after little James was born; he was so proud; like a teenager. To have performed with James Brown and Sam Cooke – these are experiences you never forget. But James has gone. And Sam's gone. And Otis Redding is gone."

Pastor Williams arrives and indicates that he wants to lock the church up.

Burke says again that he sees no contradiction between his lifestyle and his principles.

"I'm a church minister first, then an entertainer. That would only be a contradiction to those who are not saved. Pastor Williams here, he built this church on love and commitment – from his heart and from his soul.

"Soul," says Burke, "is the deep feeling that is expressed from the heart and the mind: from a musician, an artist, a dancer, a photographer or from a writer. When you open your heart, and pour out your spirit, and you feel something that makes a difference in your life: that," Solomon Burke declares, "is the meaning of soul."

'Like a Fire' is out now on Pinnacle Records. Solomon Burke plays at the Glastonbury Festival tonight, and at the Barbican on 3 July (020 7638 8891, www.barbican.org.uk)

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