"Living legend" is an overused term but when it comes to Solomon Burke the title fits. Burke, who was born in Philadelphia in 1940, is the self-proclaimed king of rock'n'soul and one of the most influential singers in pop. He is also a larger than life character; a 300-pound licensed mortician, an ordained bishop and father to 21 children (with 68 grandchildren and eight great grandchildren). And he is a true soul survivor: not since Johnny Cash has an American veteran completed such a remarkable comeback.
Burke's return from the wilderness came in the form of the album Don't Give Up On Me (Fat Possum) released last July. He had never retired from recording across his 48-year career, yet until Andy Kaulkin approached him in 2001 he was reduced to making gospel albums for his own label. Kaulkin is boss of the Mississippi-based Fat Possum and Epitaph Records where he succeeded in relaunching the careers of Tom Waits and Merle Haggard. This ensured his belief that a contemporary audience existed for Burke. But where Waits and Haggard were self-sufficient singer-songwriters, Burke is largely an interpreter. So Kaulkin turned to Dan Penn – co-author of many soul standards. Penn led to Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello, both writers in love with 1960s soul. Tom Waits volunteered a song. Bob Dylan dug out a tune. Brian Wilson proffered Soul Searchin'. Van Morrison, who worshipped Burke as a teenager, offered two new songs.
"The songs just fell together," recalls Solomon, who has the most infectious laugh I've ever heard. "I'm honoured such important artists would have songs for me. The whole album took four days – rehearsals, everything! I'm consistently saying 'I'm grateful' but I am. Very few artists at 62 get a chance to blaze the path of new glories and pass the pits of hell. With Don't Give Up On Me we're bringing in the purity of new-approach soul music without relying on profanity or sexual innuendo."
Perhaps it's not surprising that Burke should once again be on top of the game: as a child he was celebrated as the "wonder boy preacher" for his pulpit skills and, in his teens, he started recording R&B. After he signed to Atlantic Records he broke new ground with Ray Charles and began tearing up the US charts with an eclectic mix of material – reinventing the country ballad "Just Out Of Reach" as an R&B and pop hit, storming dance floors with "Cry To Me", delivering operatic soul wailers on "Goodbye Baby (Baby Goodbye)" and "If You Need Me". "Everybody Needs Somebody To Love" became one of the great pop epics.
Burke was a huge star, nowhere more than in Britain where Tom Jones modelled his vocal style on him and The Rolling Stones recorded two of his hits. "I used to come over to Britain all the time. Tom Jones and I used to hang out and I played everywhere including The Cavern in Liverpool. I always enjoyed having a cup of tea and those English sausages – oh my, they're so good!"
The 1970s found soul overtaken by funk and then disco. Burke continued to record material for a variety of labels, but he no longer had hits. Always an astute businessman, he focused on his mortuaries and ministries. Even today he's still looking beyond music. "I'll be doing a 13-part TV series called Soul Cooking – I make a pretty good barbeque. So a little singing, a little cooking, a little praying... I like to keep busy."
Burke's back catalogue has always kept him in demand: such films as The Blues Brothers and Dirty Dancing introduced his hits to new audiences. And this autumn he finally returned to the UK after a 28-year absence to perform a concert at the Barbican. It went something like this: leading a crisp 12-piece band, the king waddled to the front of the stage and settled into a huge red velvet throne. He proved to be in magnificent voice while masterfully playing the crowd like the seasoned preacher he is. Throughout the evening he mixed old hits with new songs and dished out advice on life, love (both intimate and brotherly) and war.
"This is a time that we as a world need to come together as a world in peace," testified Solomon. "This is a time to rebuild the world otherwise we won't be here in another 500 years."
Backstage he was in an ebullient mood. "I always meant to come back, I guess things just delayed me," he says with a chuckle. The power of his performance has led to more dates in the UK: Jools Holland has invited him to appear on his New Year's Eve show and Mojo have picked him to headline one of their South Bank gigs in January.
As I left him, I mentioned how inspiring I found his positive attitude. "At my age and my weight you have to be!" he answered, with a peal of laughter.
Solomon Burke appears in 'Jools's Tenth Annual Hootenanny', BBC2, 31 December at 11pm. He plays The Royal Festival Hall, London SE1 (020 7960 4242) on 31 Jan
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies