Solomon Burke: The '60s soul music legend and a spiritual enigma

Friday 5th November 2010

Tony Cummings reports on the recently deceased King Of Rock 'n' Soul, SOLOMON BURKE

Solomon Burke
Solomon Burke

The death of Solomon Burke last month brought to a close one of the most extraordinary and colourful lives in the long history of showbiz. The former Wonder Child Preacher who went on to become the King Of Rock 'n' Soul and whose hits like "If You Need Me" and "Everybody Needs Someone To Love" were covered by such as The Rolling Stones and The Blues Brothers became, in the last decade, a venerated musical elder statesman who was eulogised in The Guardian and appeared regularly on Jools Holland's TV shows. For some, Solomon was the greatest soul singer ever. In his book Sweet Soul Music author Peter Guralnick recorded what the legendary record producer and co-founder of Atlantic Records, Jerry Wexler, thought of Burke's talents, "I was talking with Jimmy Bishop once, who used to be a very big DJ in the Philadelphia area, and we were talking about who was the best soul singer of all time. People were saying Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Ben E King. Jimmy said, 'No way. The best soul singer of all time is Solomon Burke. With a borrowed band.' Which I agree with. Both parts."

Solomon was born on 21st March 1940 in Philadelphia. Burke told Guralnick that God had spoken to his grandmother in a dream about his birth 12 years previously. It was on the basis of that dream that the grandmother, Eleanora A Moore, founded a church, Solomon's Temple: The House Of God For All People, in anticipation of the arrival of its spiritual head. His father, Vince, a native of Kingston, Jamaica, was a chicken plucker in a kosher market and (according to Solomon) a black Jew. Solomon was the eldest of seven children and obviously the cynosure of every eye. "It was such a big deal when he was born," said his mother, Josephine, herself an ordained preacher. To his grandmother he was the confirmation of a long held faith and with his uncle, Harry R Moore, who was seven years older, he undertook spiritual leadership of the church at a very early age. At seven Solomon delivered his first sermon; at nine he was widely known as the Wonder Boy Preacher; at 12 he was conducting a radio ministry and travelling on weekends, with a truck and tent, to Maryland, Virginia, and the Carolinas to carry on the spiritual crusade.

White religious sensibilities may baulk at the idea of a child preacher but Solomon is adamant that he was following a divine calling. "The sermons were given to me by God, by an inspiration of God. At that age, when you just stand up there and something just speaks to you and you say it. I was just standing there in amazement. Half the time as a kid, I didn't know what I was talking about. I just thought maybe I was repeating what I heard, or had been told. God was dealing with me back in those days as a young minister, as a young healer and as a leader. That's something that has continued my whole life. I was born with the power of sight and vision, to be able to read people, to talk to people and to tell them about their lives and their problems. That's a gift to me. Something was given to my children and my children's children also. I can't argue with it. If something comes up in the church, I'll have a prediction, I'll say it. Sometimes people don't like it. But, hey, I have no control over it. Spiritually, I have no control over it.

Solomon Burke: The '60s soul music legend and a spiritual enigma

"That's what I have now. I have like an underground following of people who come to my concerts for the spiritual value. It's not so much for the value of seeing Solomon Burke. It's a value of seeing their vision, of seeing their spiritual leader, of seeing someone who has talked to them, who has helped their family for years, who has been a spiritual inspiration to them, who has brought their sons home from the war, brought them out of jails and behind prison walls and helped their parents when they're in the hospitals. I have no idea what can be done. I try not to get on my pulpit and preach all the time when I talk to people because everybody doesn't want to hear it. So, I don't bore people with it. You ask me about it, I talk about it. If you don't ask me, I ask God to bless the people I'm talking with and help them and their family, enlighten them and continue on with life."

In 1954 the life of the teenage preacher and healer underwent a change. He told Peter Guralnick, "I wrote a song for my grandmother for a Christmas present. God gave me the song on December 10, I finished the song on December 17, and on the 18th she said that she wanted to speak to me. She said, 'I want to see your Christmas present.' And I said, 'Now?' She said, 'Yes, look under my bed.' And I looked under her bed, and there was a guitar wrapped in a pillow case. And then I sang my little song that I had written for her, called 'Christmas Presents From Heaven', not knowing that it was a prophecy for me, to alert me to the future. Then on the morning of the 19th my grandmother passed in her sleep, so she only heard the song one day - but that whole day she was briefing me and telling me the different things that were going to happen and all the children that I would have, the loves in my life, just laying it out: 'You'll have big homes, fancy cars' - but I'll never forget the most exciting thing she said to me, and then the most depressing thing, too. The most exciting thing was that I would be able to reach out and touch people and help them spiritually, thousands of people, millions of people, and then she said to me that I would go down to the pits of Hell and submerge at will, and I've been there a couple of times, Pete, I've been there you know."

Just months after his grandmother died there was a gospel talent show down at the Liberty Baptist Church and Solomon tried to get his group, the Gospel Cavaliers, to enter. It proved impossible. One of them had just obtained a television while another had tickets to a football game. So Solomon went down alone, borrowed a guitar from one of the other groups, entered, and sang "The Old Ship Of Zion". He must have been a big success because Viola Williams, wife of Kae Williams, a pominent Philadelphia deejay, spotted him there and introduced him to Bess Berman, the owner of the New York independent label Apollo. It was for Apollo that Burke made his first records in early 1955.

Bess Berman had made a small fortune out of gospel music through the early recordings of Mahalia Jackson but Apollo was far from being an exclusively gospel company. They released swing, hillbilly, calypso, Yiddish comedy, anything in an attempt to get a hit. With Solomon, Bess attempted to transform the young gospel singer into a pop crooner. She is reputed to have said, "Let's take this church boy and make him the next Harry Belafonte." As it turned out, Solomon's insipid Apollo recordings didn't sell, apart from the song "You Can Run (But You Can't Hide)" for which co-writing credit was assigned to ex-heavyweight champion Joe Louis, who had used the saying as his boxing slogan. Louis helped promote the song in exchange for the credit, even appearing on TV's The Steve Allen Show with his young protégé, but forgetting Solomon Burke's name. Solomon became convinced that his manager and Apollo were cheating him out of most of his record royalties. He faced them down and as a result his Apollo contract was terminated. Things went quickly down hill for Solomon. At the end of 1957 he was literally on the streets.

Solomon Burke: The '60s soul music legend and a spiritual enigma

He recounted, "My manager told me that I could not record for anyone, that I would be blackballed all over the world. So I became a bum, because I was just really terrified, I thought my whole little world had crumbled. Well, it had. And I'll never forget, I asked a guy standing on the corner of Sixteenth and Ridge in Philadelphia in the summertime to loan me 50 cents, and he took 50 cents out of his pocket and kind of tossed it to me. Well, in Philadelphia we have grates on the sewers, and the 50 cents landed right on one of those grates, and you would have to be very careful how you picked it up, 'cause otherwise it would fall down the sewer. So I got down on my knees and very gently tried to get that 50 cents from the sewer gate, and all of a sudden something came over me spiritually that said, 'If you pick up that 50 cents now, you'll be picking up change for the rest of your life.' I made the decision, and I kicked the 50 cents in the sewer. And the guy said, 'You gotta be crazy. You crazy nut.' Well, he went to run after me, and I run out into the street, and a lady hit me with her car, and when she hit me with her car, she got out and offered to take me to the hospital and came to find she knew me (her name was Lathella Thompson), because I had been dating her niece. Well, she took me home with her, and that whole cycle of my life was over. That's when I went back to school and became a mortician."

With the encouragement of his aunt, Anna, who owned and operated AV Berkley funeral home in Philadelphia, Solomon went off to Eccles Mortuary College where he became a doctor of mortuary science and then rejoined the family firm. As the years went on the singer's mortician business became a significant money maker through the good times and the bad.

By 1959 with the emergence of singers like Ray Charles plundering the stylistic and compositional heritage of the flourishing black churches, Solomon had begun to realise that the strength of his style and its potential commerciality lay in displaying, not hiding, his hard-won gospel music roots. His first record for Art Singer's Singular Records, "Be Bop Grandma", was a fiery rock 'n' roll song three years out of date but his next, "It's All Right", borrowed closely from Ray Charles gospel derived hits. Neither sold but by 1960 Solomon was moving in the right direction - the offices of Atlantic Records. In my book The Sound Of Philadelphia songwriter Weldon McDougal reminisced about an encounter he had with the singer: "I was in the waiting room at Atlantic and Solomon came in and said, 'What are you doing man?' So I said, 'I'm waiting here to get somebody to listen to my masters'. So Solomon said he was writing some songs that he hoped to get on some artists. Then Jerry Wexler came through and asked us what we wanted. When he realised who Solomon was he was knocked out - he'd been trying to get hold of him. So they went in the back and the next thing I know Solomon was on Atlantic Records."

Solomon's time with Atlantic Records (1960 to 1968) proved to be the creative highpoint of his five decade recording career. Atlantic were one of the pivotal companies in enabling black artists to crossover to the white pop market. By encasing them in "beat concerto" arrangements with strings and horns and giving the singers every encouragement to demonstrate their church roots a bevy of New York producers and arrangers helped reshape the sound of pop music.

Solomon's debut Atlantic disc "Keep The Magic Working" flopped but his second, "Just Out Of Reach (Of My Two Empty Arms)", though the singer was swamped in a sugary choir on a flaccid country ballad, became a major top 30 success in September 1961. Explained Solomon, "I like country music but I don't think it was deliberate. I think it was something we just accidentally happened onto. By my being versatile. By my being able to sing different songs - being able to change my tone quality, having the different octaves. You must remember, I was capable of singing anything."

Solomon Burke: The '60s soul music legend and a spiritual enigma

Despite the use of a different arranger at each session Solomon conquered all. His rich, vibrant, baritone voice brought the full majesty of the gospel tradition to a series of intense, moody ballads and laid down the solid groundwork of the soon-to-follow soul music explosion. Hits like "Cry To Me" and "Down In The Valley" in 1962, and "If You Need Me" and "You're Good To Me" in 1963 hit the R&B and pop charts and made previous black singing styles seem limply drab compared with the emotion-packed exhortation of Solomon. And coupled with his records, Solomon evolved a fervently demonstrative stage act. "He turned theatres like the Apollo and the Uptown into churches, he had folk running down the aisles to be saved by his music," recalled Weldon McDougal. In Black Music magazine critic Cliff White described a show where "with head thrown back and one hand cupped to his mouth like an Alpine yodeller he cried out with such overwhelming passion that he left the spellbound audience wrung out and exhausted like so many limp rags."

The discs rolled on. Searing secular testifications like "Goodbye Baby (Baby Goodbye)", "Everybody Needs Somebody To Love" (a decade later to be performed in The Blues Brothers movie) and possibly the quintessence of Solomon's churchy style, "The Price", all sold well. And all were brilliantly produced by Bert Berns, a roly-poly white New Yorker with a deep love and empathy for black music despite a formal music education at the Juilliard School Of Music and a music background far removed from the searing soul in which, by 1963, he specialised. Atlantic cemented Solomon's growing reputation by releasing the albums 'Solomon Burke's Greatest Hits' (1962), 'If You Need Me' (1963) and 'Rock 'n' Soul' (1964).

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Reader Comments

Posted by Sonia in Olsztyn @ 13:59 on Nov 28 2018

Thank you so much for this article. It's probably the best of all I've read on the internet. Solomon Burke was a great artist, but almost nobody knows him in my country, although everybody knows his songs.
So thanks again.

Posted by David Hall in Mansfield, UK @ 21:05 on Nov 9 2010

A really informative and great article, Thanks

Posted by Joseph Zamberlin in Los Angeles @ 04:07 on Nov 9 2010

Tremendously well written, Mr. Cummings. Kudos.

Posted by Victoria Burke in Los Angeles, CA @ 00:39 on Nov 9 2010

Thank you so very much for a great article that expresses and makes clear his spiritual backgroud and how it propelled him to be just who he was. In all his doctorerine of religon and faith may not have been right on, but he was annointed and blessed. Blessed enough to be unselfish and give of himself to all mankind. He brought many people close to Christ and helped them to have faith!
Thanks again for a well writen article on my father the Legenday King of Rock and Soul!
Daughter #13 and child# 20,
Victoria Burke

Posted by Rob J in Hertfordshire, England @ 11:26 on Nov 6 2010

Solomon was the first major black artist to cover Bob Dylan.
His version of "Maggie's Farm" is superb and worth checking out. He never really got the acclaim that lesser talents got, but the Stones recognised his brilliance with their covers of his songs. Tom Jones
was certainly heavily influenced by him.

RIP. He was a class act...

Posted by Jane Vickers in Los Angeles @ 17:14 on Nov 5 2010

a brilliant article! thanks.

Reply by Bea Jackson in Durham, NC @ 14:09 on Jan 15 2013

I am trying to use an image of Solomon Burke on a book cover for Duke University Press. Can you tell me who manages his estate?

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