A final hallelujah for the 'King of Rock and Soul'
Published 16/10/2010 | 05:00
Solomon Burke, the American singer who has died aged 70, claimed to be the man for whom the term "soul music" was coined. Burke had most of the standard accoutrements of the soul musician -- a warm, throaty, bass voice, numerous children by different women and a penchant for snacking on whole roasted chickens (he tipped the scales at 300lb).
But he also had more unexpected accomplishments: he was a doctor of mortuary science, and, still more surprisingly, was the bishop of an evangelical church with 40,000 adherents that was founded by his grandmother after she dreamed of his birth 12 years before the event.
For Burke was first and foremost a man of God, and it was this that, in 1962, led to Atlantic Records marketing him as the first "soul singer" after he had objected to its describing his single Cry to Me as rhythm 'n' blues, a term many black churchgoers equated with the music of the Devil.
Burke was soon surpassed in the public's conception of "soul" by label-mates such as Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding; but Jerry Wexler, the most influential of Atlantic's producers, always maintained that Burke's was the finest voice he had ever heard. Wexler also described him as "wily, highly intelligent and a salesman of epic proportions".
Solomon Burke was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on March 21, 1940 (although some sources claim 1936). His grandmother, Eleanora Moore, had paved the way for his coming by starting Solomon's Temple: The House of God for All People in the city in 1924, and Solomon was created its bishop on the day of his birth.
Then, in 1954, his grandmother, who had encouraged him to listen to music from Count Basie to Brahms, gave him an acoustic guitar. His talent and church-trained voice were soon spotted. He signed with a New York-based label, Apollo Records, and released the track Christmas Presents From Heaven. He parted company with Apollo soon afterwards.
In 1960 Burke was persuaded to return to music by Atlantic and the next year had a hit with a song that had originally been a country tune, Just Out of My Reach (Of My Two Empty Arms).
Touring in the early 1960s, Burke was once booked to play an open-air show in Mississippi only to discover that he was performing to a Ku Klux Klan rally. "But they were cool," he recalled. "They even gave me my own sheet!"
In 1969 Burke moved to Bell Records and had a small hit with a version of Creedence Clearwater Revival's Proud Mary; but from the early 1970s onwards he concentrated on his episcopal duties.
He continued to tour and to release albums, and then in 2002 made an unforeseen return to the charts with the superb LP Don't Give Up On Me. Released by Fat Possum Records (Burke had never heard of the label: "I thought it was a basketball team or something, wanting me to be a mascot"), the album featured 11 tracks written for him by admirers such as Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Tom Waits, Brian Wilson and Elvis Costello, all of which he recorded in a single take.
The spare, restrained arrangement of the record, notably the playing of the blind organist Rudy Copeland, proved the perfect setting for Burke's time-worn yet still emotive voice, and the album received a clutch of awards.
It led to a renewed interest in the work of Burke -- now styled "The King of Rock and Soul" -- and he began to tour widely, appearing, for instance, at the North Sea Jazz festival in 2003.
In 2006 he released the album Nashville, including collaborations with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris. Two years later came Like a Fire, featuring songs by Eric Clapton, and his first appearance at Glastonbury.
Burke was no fan of younger black hip-hop musicians, whom he saw as godless. "They're on their way to hell," he said. In his day, "if I did something wrong, any adult could correct me. They'd take me home to my grandma and she'd punish me. If you say something to one of those kids on the street now they may shoot you. They got three places to go. Street. Jail. Grave."
He never smoked or drank; was thrice married; and had 21 children and more than 80 grandchildren.
Solomon Burke, who claimed to be "a church minister first, then an entertainer", died at Schiphol Airport, Amsterdam, after flying in from LA.