Monday, October 11, 2010

Solomon Burke

Legendary soul and R&B vocalist Solomon Burke passed away Sunday at age 70, while en route to a performance in Amsterdam.

Burke was born in Philadelphia in 1940, in a room over a church founded by his grandmother; allegedly, she had foreseen Burke's birth in a dream. The church would be a key influence throughout his career. The day he was born, he was ordained a bishop, and by age 7 he was preaching sermons. At age 12 he had a radio ministry on Philadelphia station WHAT, and in his teens Burke made his first gospel recordings. He toured the East Coast as a gospel performer, but the crooked dealings that were standard practice in the music industry in the 50's soured him from becoming a full-time professional, and he returned to Philadelphia to study embalming.

Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic Records noted Burke's gospel recordings, though, and in 1960 invited the singer to New York to cut some R&B sides. According to Burke, Wexler was frustrated by his insistence that he was not a R&B singer, and his penchant for sermonizing while singing. Wexler hit upon the idea of giving Burke country-and-western songs to sing - a novel idea for a black artist in 1960 - yet became irritated as Burke brought his preaching style to the C&W material as well. Eventually, Ahmet Ertegun basically told Wexler to leave the young vocalist alone to do his thing. From those sessions, "Just Out Of Reach (Of My Two Open Arms)", which had been a hit for Patsy Cline, became Solomon Burke's first R&B hit.

Burke would continue to work with Wexler and Bert Berns through most of the 60's, and they would produce a substantial run of hits. He had a rich voice that could give a warm and tender flavor to ballads, and an impeccable sense of swing that propelled up-tempo numbers like "Everybody Needs Somebody To Love" and "Got To Get You Off My Mind", two of his biggest hits. Burke's recordings continued to retain the flavor of the church, and the sermons that had frustrated Wexler turned into lengthy intros to his songs. A large, imposing man, Burke dominated the stage with his presence, and was dubbed "King Solomon" by his fans. He played his regal persona to the hilt, arriving on stage in velvet robes, a scepter, and a crown, preceded by midgets who scattered rose petals across the stage. Burke's charisma and talent made him one of the 60's most popular soul performers. He was not as well known with white audiences, although The Rolling Stones covered "Cry To Me" and "Everybody Needs Somebody To Love" during their early days. Top 40 programmers likely thought that Burke's music carried too many traces of gospel for AM radio consumption; his biggest pop hit, "Got To Get You Off My Mind", only reached #22 in the Billboard charts.

Burke left Atlantic in 1968 to record for a series of smaller labels, and although continuing to be an active performer on the R&B circuit, his star slowly faded as the 70's progressed. He also kept busy in a number of other activities, maintaining his presence in the ministry and owning a Los Angeles funeral parlor. His music's legacy would spread to Hollywood in the 80's - "Everybody Needs Somebody To Love" was featured in The Blues Brothers, and Patrick Swayze sang "Cry To Me" in a scene of Dirty Dancing.

During the last decade, Burke enjoyed a musical comeback. He was inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame in 2001, and the next year won his only Grammy for his album Don't Give Up On Me. He maintained an active touring schedule, and his performances were as grandiose as ever. With his weight having ballooned to 500 pounds, Burke now sang while seated in a throne. In 2006, he returned to country music with Nashville, featuring performances with Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, Patty Griffin, Gillian Welch and Patty Loveless. Remaining active to the end, he was on his way to The Netherlands for a show with De Dijk when he passed away. Solomon Burke is survived by 21 children and 90 grandchildren.