Burke, Solomon 1936–
Solomon Burke 1936–
Soul vocalist and songwriter
Not the best known star in the firmament of 1960s soul music but perhaps the one with the most intensely emotional vocal style, Solomon Burke transplanted elements of black church services into secular music more effectively than any other artist except for perhaps Aretha Franklin. Burke enjoyed his greatest renown as part of the stable of soul vocalists under contract with the Atlantic record label in the mid-1960s. He remained a consistent crowd-pleaser into the twenty-first century thanks in part to his luxurious self-presentation on stage; dubbed the “King of Rock and Soul,” he once had an exact replica of the British crown jewels made for his onstage “coronations.”
Solomon Burke was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1936. His family was religious: he attended church services at the House of God for All People and sang gospel music all through his childhood. His musical solo debut came with the church’s choir when he was nine, but it was preaching, not singing, that first marked him as something special. Soon he was giving sermons and becoming known as the Wonder Boy Preacher. He began hosting a gospel program on Philadelphia radio by age 12 or 13, broadcasting from a church of his own that he called Solomon’s Temple.
Burke’s radio program mixed preaching and gospel singing, and in his late teens the power of his voice caught the attention of the wife of a Philadelphia disc jockey who in turn pitched Burke to record label executives of his acquaintance. Burke’s recording debut came in 1955 with a song he had written for his grandmother entitled “Christmas Presents from Heaven.” Recording for the New York-based Apollo label he soon began to make forays into the secular field; whether the rock-and-roll-oriented “Be Bop Grandma” of 1959 referred to the same grandmother is not known.
Reaping few financial rewards from his early recordings, Burke made a living by learning the mortuary trade. He remained involved in the funeral business after becoming a star, investing some of his earnings in a chain of funeral homes on the West Coast. “Solomon Burke knock you dead from the bandstand,” fellow soul vocalist Joe Tex observed to writer Gerri Hirshey who authored No Where to Run. “Then he gift-wrap you for the trip home.”
At a Glance…
Born 1936 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Religion: Attended Church of God for All People before founding own church, Solomon’s Temple, at age 12.
Career: Soul vocalist and songwriter. Gave sermons and sang gospel music broadcast on Philadelphia radio through his teen years; signed to Apollo label, ca. 1955; worked as mortician, late 1950s; signed to Atlantic label, 1960; recorded first major hit, “Just Out of Reach,’ 1961; reached R&B Top Five with “Cry to Me” (1962) and “If You Need Me” (1963); topped R&B charts with “Got to Get You Off of My Mind,” 1965; moved to Bell label, 1969; recorded for Dunhill, MGM, and Chess labels, 1970s; continued to tour with 21-piece band through 1990s.
Awards: Inducted into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 2001.
Addresses: Agent —Thomas Cassidy, Inc., 11761 E. Speedway Blvd., Tucson, AZ 85748.
Burke’s fiery yet controlled vocal style caught the attention of Atlantic Records, the leading rhythm-and-blues label of the day. Atlantic sensed that Burke had the potential to connect with diverse audiences. “He had a kind of gospel feeling to his singing, and he was also a little bit country,” Atlantic executive Ahmet Ertegun told author Gerri Hirshey. Signed to Atlantic in 1960, Burke was brought under the influence of Atlantic producer Jerry Wexler’s instinct for unexpected style mixtures. Burke’s first major hit came in 1961 with a country song, “Just Out of Reach.” Although vocalist Ray Charles is usually credited with developing successful country-soul fusions in the 1960s, Burke’s effort preceded Charles’s major country-style hits and may have helped to inspire them.
The country side of his work set Burke apart from other singers. “That got me a lot of bookings in the Deep South, in some places no other black artists could get into,” Burke told Hirshey. “That kind of country soul bridged a lot of waters. Of course, once or twice it darn near killed me.” The singer was referring to a bizarre incident in which he and his band were booked to provide entertainment for a Ku Klux Klan rally—from which the group nevertheless emerged unscathed as hooded Klansmen repeatedly requested Burke’s hits.
In 1962 and 1963 Burke cracked the Top Five of Billboard magazine’s rhythm-and-blues chart with “Cry to Me” and “If You Need Me,” two recordings that fit the mold of what would soon be called soul music—songs in established rhythm-and-blues forms augmented by vocal devices and a fervent emotional tone borrowed from the world of gospel. In one section of “Cry to Me,” Burke broke into an ecstatic high stutter that helped pave the way for some of the other acrobatic vocal devices of soul. Always appreciated by his fellow musicians, Burke numbered among his musical descendants the British rock band the Rolling Stones, which recorded covers of “Cry to Me” and several other Burke songs. Burke finally topped rhythm-and-blues charts in 1965 with “Got to Get You Off My Mind.”
Record sales, however, were always less important to Burke than his flamboyant live appearances. Described by Gerri Hirshey as “a great, undulating vision of sea-green satin and rhinestones” and often appearing on stage in an ermine-trimmed cape or a gold lamé jacket, Burke played on the tension between his gospel roots and his sensual appeal. “It would be a sin to pass up the pleasures the Lord made just for us,” Hirshey quoted him as saying, and indeed Burke has fathered 21 children, large groups of whom he has sometimes dressed identically. Long after his era of hitmaking had ended, Burke continued to tour with a 21-piece band and to command strong attraction from female fans.
By the late 1960s the focus of soul music had shifted south, to the Stax label in Memphis and Fame Records in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and Burke fell out of the limelight. In part Burke blamed Wexler. “My relationship with Jerry Wexler is like a two-way street,” Burke told Billboard in 1997. “There’s one side where I’m angry for a lot for things that didn’t go down and one side where I’m very grateful that he was there, because he did develop Solomon Burke to a certain point and then he stopped.” Nevertheless, Burke included a Wexler-produced track on his 1997 album, Definition of Soul.
Leaving Atlantic in 1969, Burke recorded for the Bell label (for which he cut several fine tracks in Muscle Shoals) and for the Dunhill, MGM, and Chess labels through the 1970s; he has continued to record intermittently. The 1981 album, Take Me, Shake Me, recorded for the Savoy label, showcased his gospel skills. In 1987 he appeared in the film, The Big Easy. Burke’s stage show survived little altered through the 1990s, and various collections of his recordings that appeared became, in the words of allmusic.com’s Richie Unterberger, favorites of those “who want to experience a soul legend with talent and stylistic purity relatively intact.” Solomon Burke was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in April of 2001.
Solomon Burke, Apollo, 1962.
Solomon Burke’s Greatest Hits, Atlantic, 1962.
If You Need Me, Atlantic, 1963.
Rock ‘n’ Soul, Atlantic, 1964.
The Best of Solomon Burke, Atlantic, 1965.
King Solomon, Atlantic, 1967.
I Wish I Knew, Atlantic, 1968.
Proud Mary, Bell, 1969.
Electronic Magnetism, MGM, 1972.
We’re Almost Home, MGM, 1973.
I Have a Dream, Dunhill. 1974.
Music to Make Love By, Chess, 1975.
Back to My Roots, Atlantic, 1977.
Take Me, Shake Me, Savoy, 1981.
Soul Alive!, Rounder, 1984.
The Best of Solomon Burke, Atlantic, 1989.
Home in Your Heart: The Best of Solomon Burke, Rhino, 1992.
Soul of the Blues, Black Top, 1993.
Solomon Burke Live at the House of Blues, Black Top, 1994.
Definition of Soul, EMI, 1997.
Hirshey, Gerri, Nowhere to Run, Times Books, 1994.
Larkin, Colin, ed., The Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Muze UK, 1998.
Romanowski, Patricia, with Holly George-Warren, The New Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock and Roll, Fireside, 1995.
Shaw Arnold, The World of Soul, Cowles Book Co., 1971.
Stambler, Irwin, Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock & Soul, St. Martin’s, 1989.
Billboard, January 25, 1997, p. 13.
Jet, April 9, 2001, p. 34.
—James M. Manheim
Enduring soul legend Solomon Burke was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001 for a recording and performing career that was nearing the end of its fifth decade. Burke enjoyed a string of hit singles in the 1960s and was—along with Sam Cooke and Otis Redding—considered one of the pioneers of modern soul, an outgrowth of gospel and early rock ‘n’ roll. “Lots of people have copped his mannerisms,” remarked Philadelphia Inquirer music writer Tom Moon, referring to Burke’s memorable vocal style, “but none has yet caught the compassion, the immersion, the sense that behind the song stood a real person who was aching inside.”
Burke was born c. 1938, the eldest of seven children in a deeply religious west Philadelphia family. Both his mother and uncle were ministers, and Burke stepped up to the pulpit himself at the age of nine. He enjoyed some success as the “Wonder Boy Preacher” on the East Coast revival circuit over the next few years, but when he entered his teens, his interests turned to music. He wrote his first song, “Christmas Presents from Heaven,” in December of 1953. He recorded it, and when it garnered local airplay on Philadelphia radio stations, it made the teen a star at his junior high school. In 1955 Burke won a talent contest and was signed to Apollo Records. He cut singles for the label that did well, and performed at its showcase Apollo Theater in Harlem. There were questions over royalties, however, and Burke, like many artists of his era, believed he was being cheated out of his due by fraudulent business practices. He quit in 1957.
Burke left the music business to study mortuary science, but his singing career was unexpectedly revived in 1960 when the editor of Billboard magazine championed executives at a new label, Atlantic, to sign him. After his first recording session for them, Burke couldn’t even stay to hear the finished tape because he was moonlighting as a snowplow operator and was due at work that night. Over the next few years, Burke worked closely with Atlantic’s famed producer, Jerry Wexler. He also became the first soul performer to cut a country-and-western single, “Just Out of Reach,” which was released three months before Ray Charles’s first foray into the genre.
Burke and Wexler—who later went on to make stars out of Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett—collaborated on a number of songs, 19 of which made it onto the Billboard Hot 100 chart. “There were great vibes in those days,” Burke recalled in his interview with Moon for the Philadelphia Inquirer. “People were always coming by, walking in off the road just to see what was going on at the (Atlantic) studios. You’d do everything live, all within two or three hours.”
Burke’s hits included “Cry to Me,” “Just Out Of Reach (Of My Two Empty Arms)” and “Everybody Needs
For the Record…
Born c. 1938 in Philadelphia, PA; father of 21 children.
Began preaching at age nine; toured on revival circuit at age 12; wrote and recorded first single, “Christmas Presents from Heaven,” 1953-54; signed with Apollo Records, 1955; signed to Atlantic Records, 1960; also signed to Savoy, Rounder, Black Top, and Pointblank labels.
Awards: Induction, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 2001.
Addresses: Record company —Varèse Sarabande Records, 11846 Ventura Blvd., Suite 130, Studio City, CA 91604.
Somebody to Love,” which was recorded by the Rolling Stones in 1965. Tracks like “The Price” and “Got To Get You Off My Mind” also became standards. Moon called them “songs that mixed the cadences of gospel and the buoyancy of pop with the confessional directness of the blues.” Burke’s trademark crown symbolized his status as the “King of Rock and Soul”; still an active minister, he was sometimes hailed as the “Bishop of Soul” as well. Live audiences were awestruck by his performances. His magnetism translated onto vinyl as well, the torrid evangelical delivery still evident. Down Beat magazine writer Frank-John Hadley reviewed of some of his classic soul records and noted that Burke seemed to sing “as though his storytelling offered wisdom absolutely crucial to the listener’s life.”
Atlantic released two LPs of Burke’s work: King Solomon and I Wish I Knew, both of which were issued in 1968. By then, however, soul was losing ground to other forms of pop music, and Burke quit the business once again. He made occasional forays into the recording studio over the next few years, but remained largely forgotten except for appreciative soul musicologists and a small but devoted legion of fans. He became minister of his own church, ran a successful chain of mortuaries, and occasionally cut a gospel or blues album, such as 1981’s Lord, We Need a Miracle or Soul of the Blues, released in 1993. Down Beat’s Hadley termed Burke on this latter recording an “inspired and exhilarating singer” with “a dignified emotional magnetism.” Burke also enjoyed some success in film as a character actor, most notably as Daddy Mention in The Big Easy, released in 1987.
Burke seems to be a showman no matter what his medium. Philadelphia Daily News writer Mark de la Vina remarked that “[t]he man can convince you that the world is flat.” De la Vina noted that their conversation ranged from Burke’s appearance on American Bandstand the day that Dick Clark debuted as its host to “how he was banned from the Apollo Theater in New York for trying to sell porkchop sandwiches and magic popcorn at his shows; or how he was dubbed the King of Rock & Soul in the early ‘60s and was later offered $10,000 by James Brown to hand over his title and the crown Burke wore on stage.”
Burke continued to tour, though he often played small shows at intimate venues. A genuine renewal of industry interest came in 1995, when he played the Jazz Aspen Snowmass Festival. From the stage, he noticed one couple enthusiastically singing along to all his hits; they came to see him after the show and introduced themselves. The husband was Jim Fifield, president and CEO of EMI Music, a genuine fan who told Billboard writer Melinda Newman “I had all his recordings.” Fifield was instrumental in finding a new label for Burke on a Virgin subsidiary, Pointblank Records. It released an album of new material, Definition of Soul, in 1997. Coproduced by Burke and his son, Selassie, the record was described by Newman as “a collection of songs that mines vintage soul territory of love lost and found, and the attendant miseries and pleasures.” The album also featured “Everybody Has A Game,” a duet with Little Richard, whom Burke told San Francisco Chronicle writer Lee Hildebrand he had “always idolized…. To me, [Little Richard] was a superstar of superstars.”
Much to the surprise of many, one of Burke’s tracks on Definition of Soul was cowritten with Wexler. “My relationship with Jerry Wexler is like a two-way street,” the singer told Newman in Billboard. “There’s one side where I’m angry for a lot of things that didn’t go down and one side where I’m very grateful that he was there, because he did develop Solomon Burke to a certain point and then he stopped…. But you can’t keep anger inside because then good things don’t happen.” His minister’s faith displayed itself in other ways: a few tracks featured racy—but never explicit—lyrics, a balance that had long been a hallmark of Burke’s style. “My kids will say, ‘Dad, what are you saying? You’re a religious man,’” he said in the interview with Newman. “But I say, that’s a reality. I got 21 children.”
Burke thanked those 21 children, 58 grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the spring of 2001. Others who took the stage that night to accept their honors were Michael Jackson, Aerosmith, and Paul Simon. Burke was introduced by Mary J. Blige and made a characteristically royal appearance in a velvet and ermine cape.
Two of Burke’s children are also morticians and run branches of the family business in California and North Carolina. Burke himself has made southern California his home for many years. From there he serves as bishop of his own nonsectarian religious denomination, the House of God for All People. “The secret of longevity is people,” Burke told Moon in the Philadelphia Inquirer interview. “I learned a long time ago that big people get their records for free. The little people are the ones you pay attention to—the janitors, the cooks, the cab drivers. They’re the ones who have been with you through the thick and thin. You need to thank those people, make them feel special.” He recalled meeting a man who had one of his records on the long-defunct eight-track cartridge format and told the singer “he wore it out. He wanted to know where he could get it transferred. Those are the kind of fans I like.”
I Wish I Knew, Atlantic, 1968.
King Solomon, Atlantic, 1968.
We Need a Miracle, Savoy, 1981; reissued, 601 Records, 1998.
Soul Alive!, Rounder, 1985.
A Change Is Gonna Come, Rounder, 1986.
Home in Your Heart, Rhino, 1992.
Live at the House of Blues, Black Top, 1993.
Soul of the Blues, Black Top, 1993.
The Best of Solomon Burke, Curb, 1994.
Definition of Soul, Pointblank/Virgin, 1997.
If You Need Me/Rock ‘n’ Soul, Collectables, 1998.
The Very Best of Solomon Burke, Rhino, 1998.
King Solomon/I Wish I Knew, Koch International, 1999.
Not by Water but Fire This Time, CGP, 1999.
Proud Mary: The Bell Sessions, Sundazed Music, 2000.
The King of Blues ‘n’ Soul, Varese, 2001.
Billboard, January 25, 1997, p. 13.
Boston Herald, November 21, 2001, p. 49.
Down Beat, January 1994, p. 46; November 1999, p. 70.
Jet, April 9, 2001, p. 34.
New York Times, March 20, 2001, p. B6.
Philadelphia Daily News, January 6, 1994.
Philadelphia Inquirer, December 28, 1993.
San Francisco Chronicle, February 16, 1997, p. 42.
Burke, Solomon, the original soul singer (b. Philadelphia, Pa., 1936). By the age of 12, Solomon Burke was a bishop in the church where both his grandmother and mother were ministers. Called “The Wonder Boy Preacher,” Burke’s ministry took him all over the northeast and earned him a regular spot on the radio by the late 1940s. He also performed with a group called the Gospel Cavaliers. In his late teen years, he signed on with Apollo Records, singing gospel, R&B, and various other styles. He had some minor successes like “You Can Run (But You Can’t Hide),” and even made occasional national TV appearances. After leaving the label in a money dispute, he moved back to Philadelphia, eventually reduced to begging on street corners. His grandmother took him back in and helped him learn a trade; Burke is a licensed mortician.
One of Burke’s Apollo recordings, “Be Bop Grandma,” brought him to the attention of Atlantic Records. Unable to call himself—as the bishop of a church—an R&B singer (the elders forbade it), he coined the term “soul singer.” His first Atlantic record was the country tune “Just Out of Reach (Of My Two Open Arms).” When radio programmers ignored the record, a chance meeting with the song’s publisher, Gene Autry, got it on some of the stations Autry owned. This started the ball rolling. The tune eventually wound up on the R&B, country, and pop charts (#24). Burke recorded four more top-40 pop hits for Atlantic: “If You Need Me” (#37, 1963), “Goodbye Baby (Baby Goodbye)” (#33, 1964), “Got to Get You Off My Mind” (#22 pop, #1 R&B, 1965), and “Tonight’s the Night” (#28, 1965). He also had 15 R&B hits, including the seminal “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love,” later covered note for note by the Blues Brothers, right down to the “I’m so happy to be here tonight” introduction. Moving on to Bell records in the late 1960s, Burke cut the Memphis soul classic Proud Mary, making the title track a minor hit. He took to performing on stage wearing a purple, fur-fringed robe and a crown: he was the king of soul music.
Burke’s pop and soul recordings became somewhat spotty after that, though some high points include a record with the group Swamp Dogg, From the Heart. He made several strong gospel records for Savoy into the 1980s. He also explored acting, taking a role in The Big Easy and several Italian films. In the late 1980s, Burke signed with Bullseye Records, who recognized his real milieu: live performance. The 1988 album Soul Alive reintroduced the energized singer to contemporary audiences. The band featured several of his 21 children. He followed this up with a stunning studio album, Change Is Gonna Come. His most recent album, 1997’s Definition of Soul, featuring four of his offspring, lives up to the name.
Burke claimed that as of Jan. 1, 2000, he would give up the music business to concentrate on his ministry. His Solomon’s Temple: The House of God for All People has over 300 ordained ministers whose job is to “feed the hungry, educate the uneducated and be God’s workers in the vineyard.” The church has 40, 000 parishioners in close to 200 churches across North America and Jamaica. He also owns funeral parlors in Calif., Pa., and N.C.; two of his children have turned the mortuary business into a franchise.
Solomon Burke (1962); If You Need Me (1963); Rock ’n’Soul (1964); The Rest of Solomon Burke (1965); I Wish I Knew (1968); King Solomon (1968); Proud Mary (1969); King Heavy (1972); Electronic Magnetism (1972); 7 Have a Dream (1974); Back to My Roots (1975); Music to Make Love To (1975); Sidewalks, Fences & Walls (1979); Lord We Need a Miracle (1979); King of Rock ’n’Soul (1981); Soul Alive (1988); Best of Solomon Burke (1991); Home in Your Heart—Best Of (1992); Live at House of Blues (1994); Definition of Soul (1997); Very Best of Solomon Burke (1998); King of Rock ’N’ Soul (1998); Not by Water But Fire This Time (1999).