SOLOMON BURKE (By Steve Walker)
Born Solomon Burke McDonald, 21 March, 1940, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
A larger-than-life rhythm & blues singer, Solomon Burke was one of the mainstays of Atlantic Records' "soul clan" of the Sixties. He was proclaimed the "King of Rock and Soul" in 1964 and has also been anointed "the Bishop of Soul." No less an authority than Jerry Wexler, the legendary Atlantic Records producer, has proclaimed, "The best soul singer of all time is Solomon Burke."
Burke's versatile, force-of-nature voice combines gospel fervour, country gentility and R&B grit. He can swing from a satiny croon to gruff soul shout to a deep, caressing baritone. From 1961 to 1968, Burke released 32 memorable singles on Atlantic. These included six top ten R&B hits, four of which crossed over to the pop top forty: "Just Out of Reach (Of My Two Open Arms)" (#7 R&B, #24 pop), "Cry to Me" (#7 R&B), "If You Need Me" (#2 R&B, #37 pop) "You're Good for Me" (#8 R&B), "Got to Get You Off of My Mind" (#1 R&B, #22 pop) and "Tonight's the Night" (#2 R&B, #28 pop).
Many more of Burke's singles cracked both the R&B top forty and the Top Pop 100 charts. Yet his lasting significance as a recording artist and performer goes beyond numbers. Burke was a consummate showman who adopted the role of "King of Rock 'n' Soul" onstage by adorning himself in a regal robe of velvet and ermine. One of the greatest vocalists of the soul era, Burke has been credited for helping to keep Atlantic Records solvent from 1961 to 1964 with his steady run of hit records. Jerry Wexler pronounced Burke a "vocalist of rare prowess and remarkable range. His voice is an instrument of exquisite sensitivity." He is also a colourful and even eccentric figure - one of the true characters in the world of popular music.
Burke was born in Philadelphia on 21 March, 1940, the oldest of seven children, and gravitated to the church through the influence of his grandmother, preaching his first sermon at age seven. The day that changed his life came at Thanksgiving in 1954, when his grandmother gave him a guitar as an early Christmas present. ("It was a little acoustic she hid in a pillowcase under the bed," he says.) Within two weeks he had written his first song, Christmas Presents from Heaven. His grandmother died shortly afterwards, so it was the only song of his that she heard. "She was my greatest encouragement," he says. "She would make me listen to the radio: classical, country, jazz, Paul Robeson, Count Basie. And she told me to copy them and learn to phrase and project a song. She was my teacher. I never had no music training. She gave me the promise of a new life, not just as a singer, but as a person alone in the world with nothing but Jesus."
He was broadly exposed to music, absorbing the varied likes of jazz-pop vocalist Nat King Cole, cowboy singers Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, bluesmen Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker, gospel queen Clara Ward, and R&B kingpins Ray Charles and Big Joe Turner. This accounts for Burke's stylistic breadth as a soul singer.
On 3 December, 1955, Solomon released his first recording, "Christmas Presents" b/w "When I'm All Alone" on Apollo Records. He recorded for the New York-based label from 1955-1958, and scored a minor hit with "You Can Run (But You Can't Hide)," a song whose authorship was co-credited to Burke and boxer Joe Louis.
In 1960, after a short stint at Artie Singer's Singular label ("Doodle Dee Doo" and "This Little Ring"), Burke signed to Atlantic Records, where it was believed that his flexible voice and roots in gospel and country would earn him a wide, bi-racial audience. His first hit for the label was a soulful cover of the country song "Just Out of Reach (Of My Two Open Arms)", which reached #7 on the R&B chart and #24 on the pop chart. The "B"-side was a favourite of several SAO members, namely, "Be-Bop Grandma", recorded on November 20, 1959, when Solomon was still at Singular.
Burke wrote or co-wrote much of his material, and he also recorded songs by fellow Atlantic soul singers Wilson Pickett ("If You Need Me') and Don Covay ("You're Good for Me"). Burke and Covay co-wrote one of his biggest hits, "Tonight's the Night."
Burke's signature song, "Got to Get You Off of My Mind", written by him about Sam Cooke - in whose company he'd been shortly before Cooke was shot to death under mysterious circumstances - stands as one of the premier soul hits of the Sixties. "Got to Get You Off of My Mind" and "Tonight's the Night" appeared in 1965, Burke's biggest year, and hit #1 and #2 on the R&B charts, respectively.
In 1968, Burke teamed with fellow Atlantic artists Don Covay, Ben E. King, Arthur Conley and Joe Tex to record a single ("Soul Meeting") as the Soul Clan, an expression of solidarity and mutual support by five pillars of soul music. "We wanted to interlock ourselves as a group, to express to the younger people how strong we should be and to help one another, work with one another and support one another," Burke has said of the Soul Clan's lone single. Burke left Atlantic in 1969 and subsequently recorded in a variety of styles for such labels as Bell, MGM, Chess, Savoy, Rounder and Blacktop.
In March 2001, Solomon Burke was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at the sixteenth annual induction dinner. Mary J. Blige was his presenter.
In the summer of 2002 he re-emerged with an album prophetically titled "Don't Give Up On Me". Released on Fat Possum - a tiny label based in Oxford, Mississippi - and recorded in just four days, it boasted a host of renowned songwriters. There was a song Bob Dylan wrote for him. Brian Wilson also donated a song, as did Tom Waits and Nick Lowe. Van Morrison wrote him two. Elvis Costello wrote a song and then flew in at his own expense to hear Burke record it. There were so many great songs, in fact, that Burke didn't even get around to the one Carole King had written for him. So, with the last of the great 1960s soul singers performing a bunch of songs written for him by 10 of the world's finest living songwriters, it is unsurprising, perhaps, that a poll of music critics in Mojo magazine voted "Don't Give Up On Me" the album of the year.
Today, Solomon Burke is 63 years old, has 21 children and 68 grandchildren, weighs more than 300lbs and heads his own evangelical church with 168 missions across America and a congregation 40,000 strong.
Here's the official Solomon Burke homepage: http://www.thekingsolomonburke.com/
Recommended listening: The Very Best Of Solomon Burke; Rhino 8122.72972-2 (1998) Original Apollo Recordings, 1955-1957; P-Vine PCD-5464 (1998)
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