The King of Rock 'n' Soul, a.k.a. Reverend Solomon Burke, may not be as well-known with the general public as some soul singers, but among musicians he is considered one of the best. His rich sonorous voice is matched by a vocal versatility as suited to country-style ballads as gritty blues and finger-snapping dance tunes. He is perhaps best known for the string of soul hits he had during the 1960s, tunes which influenced a generation of vocalists. His characteristic emotionally charged phrasings and intricate, melodic ballads were copied by many young singers, including Mick Jagger, who borrowed from him shamelessly on "Cry to Me" and "Everybody Needs Somebody to Love", featured on early Rolling Stones albums. Burke has just released a new album, "Don't Give Up on Me", which features songs - many written especially for him, none recorded by their authors - by the likes of Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Brian Wilson, Tom Waits, and Elvis Costello. An impressive fan-base indeed.
Like many of the great soul singers, Burke has deep roots in the gospel tradition. He was born in Philadelphia in 1940 (or maybe 1936 - sources vary) and by age 7 was already dubbed "The Wonderboy Preacher" for the sermons preached at his family's church; apparently he was already sporting the regal attire that is still his trademark: crown and robe. While still a teenager he recorded gospel and R&B singles for Apollo records in the 50s, selling a million records with 1954's "Christmas Presents from Heaven". In 1960, aged 20, he signed to Atlantic Records, working with famed R&B promoter Jerry Wexler, who still maintains that Burke is "the greatest soul singer of them all"; Ahmet Ertegun, co-founder of Atlantic, concurs. At Atlantic, Burke was steered in a more secular musical direction, a move which paid off in a strong of hits such as "Just out of Reach," "Cry to Me," "If You Need Me," "Got to Get You off My Mind," "Tonight's the Night," and "Goodbye Baby (Baby Goodbye)". However, he never had a huge crossover hit which would bring him a large pop audience, unlike his contemporaries who had followed similar paths: Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett, for example. Though he left Atlantic in the late 60s and has changed labels many times over the years, he has never stopped performing live and in the studio, and I hear he puts on quite a show.
Much of the legend of King Solomon rests on his extramusical activities, however. Since a Baltimore deejay cronwed him "King of Rock 'n' Soul" in 1964, he has seldom been seen in public without his regal accoutrements, robe, crown, and staff; he often sits on a throne when he performs. He is a tireless entrepreneur (some would say hustler), seeming to stop at nothing in his quest for a buck. On tour in the 60s, he would pack sandwiches and sell them to the other musicians travelling with him, raising his prices as they got further into the segregated south where blacks were refused service. When he recorded "Just Out of Reach" in New York, it was snowing, and he is said to have left immediately, driving back home to Philadelphia to make extra money driving a snowplow. His contract to play at Harlem's Apollo Theater allowed him to rights to concession sales, so he would show up with thousands of boxes of "soul popcorn". He has run a fleet of limousines and a pharmacy and owns a chain of mortuaries, having been trained as an undertaker. He has 21 children and 68 grandchildren, and is a bishop in the House of God for All people.
Today Burke is sixty-something, a huge smiling man, energetic, full of life, happy to be alive and working at the things he loves. He has appeared before presidents and, I've heard, popes, and has sold over 17 million records. And it seems he is finally getting the recognition he deserves: in 2001 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and "Don't Give up on Me" is garnering critical acclaim. We could all only hope to have lives half as full, and fulfilling, as that of King Solomon, and he's still going strong.
Update: Solomon Burke died in Amsterdam in 2010 of natural causes. He was still touring.
If you want more information on this great musician, I direct you to "The Kingdom of Solomon Burke" at www.thekingsolomonburke.com.
A complete discography can be found at www.kolumbus.fi/soulexpr/burkedg.htm
"Song of Solomon" by Alan Light, GQ August 2002