Larger-than-life soul singer, evangelist and mortuary owner who made a surprise return to the charts in 2002
Published 17/10/2010 | 05:00
SOLOMON Burke, the American singer who died on Sunday 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, bishop of an evangelical church with 40,000 adherents that was founded by his grandmother after she dreamed of his birth 16 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 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 Burke's was the finest voice he had ever heard. Wexler also described him as "wily, highly intelligent, 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 became its bishop on the day of his birth.
He recalled that as he was growing up he realised "being a bishop was good, because bishops got two or three pieces of chicken when everybody else only got a leg". By the age of seven he was known as 'the Wonder Boy Preacher; and was a familiar voice on gospel radio broadcasts.
Then, in 1954, his grandmother, who had encouraged him to listen to music ranging 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, however, over money, and went instead to study at Eccles Mortuary College. Later, he joined his aunt's funeral parlour business.
In 1960, Burke was persuaded to return to music by Atlantic and the next year had a hit with a song that was originally a country tune -- Just Out of My Reach (Of My Two Empty Arms). It reached No 24 in the American chart, and over the next few years, while cementing his popularity with black audiences, he also had minor crossover successes with tracks such as Goodbye Baby, Down in the Valley, The Price (about his divorce from his first wife) and Everybody Needs Somebody To Love -- a song later made familiar when used in The Blues Brothers film of 1980.
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!"
Burke had another big success in 1965, with Got to Get You Off My Mind, which reached No 22.
But the appeal of his straightforward soul style was starting to wilt in the face of competition from the more energetic -- and licentious -- brand of soul purveyed by Redding, Wilson Pickett and Sam and Dave, as well as competition from British groups such as the Rolling Stones (who covered Cry To Me and Everybody Needs Somebody to Love).
In 1969, Burke moved to Bell Records and had a small hit with a version of Credence Clearwater Revival's Proud Mary, but from the early 1970s onwards he concentrated on his episcopal duties, preaching from a crimson throne (his church grew to have some 170 missions), and on his successful chain of California mortuaries. At various times, he also owned drug stores and restaurants. He continued to tour and release albums, and in 2002 he 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 Solomon Burke -- now styled 'the King of Rock and Soul' -- and he began to tour more widely (accompanied by his crosier), appearing, for instance, to much acclaim at Dublin's Vicar Street in 2003.
In 2006, he released the album Nashville, featuring 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."
Burke, who claimed to be "a church minister first, then an entertainer", died at Schiphol Airport, Amsterdam, after flying from Los Angeles.
He never smoked or drank, was thrice married and had 21 children and more than 80 grandchildren.