By M.D. Spenser
The phrases roll off his tongue like songs, no less heartfelt for having been polished over the years. Solomon Burke is one of the greatest soul singers in history; he knows how to communicate from the heart.
“The wonderful thing about being in England and being in Great Britain,” he says by telephone from his home in California, “is that you feel the royalty, the magic. You know that there’s something special happening there. The people are who they are. Everybody’s real.”
Burke has returned from the Led Zeppelin gig in London, a tribute to Ahmet Ertegun, the founder Atlantic Records, for whom Burke recorded decades ago. At a private party after the show, Burke performed with other soul greats, including Ben E. King, Percy Sledge and Sam Moore, who was half of Sam and Dave.
Burke’s hit-making heyday was 40 years ago. His place in the pantheon of soul artists is assured. He’s had himself crowned in innumerable concerts “The King of Rock and Soul.” One could be forgiven for thinking he might be a tad pompous, a bit blasé, a man living on the glories of the past.
Nothing could be further from the truth. He will not begin an interview without asking about your family and responding warmly to a question about his own. (“Wonderful!” he exclaims. “Blessed, blessed, blessed.”) You feel that he wants to make friends.
At 67, he still lives for the future, for the record he is about to record, for the songs yet to be sung. And he is nothing if not enthusiastic – about life, about this conversation, about the channel tunnel – “To be able to do that in my lifetime!” – and about the Zeppelin gig.
“It was one of the most exciting moments of my career to be part of that,” he says.
Soul was founded in part by shouters like Wilson Pickett and Joe Tex. Burke, blessed with a powerful voice, could shout with the best of them. But he brought a sweetness to the genre as well. One of his early hits was ‘Just Out Of Reach,’ a wonderfully lush ballad that had been recorded earlier as a country song.
What made his contribution to the creation of soul different? No words could be better than his own:
I think the idea of me born and raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and coming from a very religious family, and locking into all phases of music – enjoying country music and pop music and rock and Blues and jazz and opera. My mind was open to every ounce of music. I wanted to know and wanted to hear – and I’m still learning – about music.
And knowing that music is a healer, and that there’s a magic that music has that can cross nations and language barriers, oceans and seas, and calm wild beasts. And this is the magic of music – if it’s right, if it’s the right chord and the right tone, and if it’s the right sound, the right words.
You know, there’s something so special about just that word, music – I believe it’s heavenly. I know that this is something that God has given many of us a chance to be part of. Because it’s such a heavenly thing; it’s something that the angels endure and are part of. Music!
Although Burke was a sensation in his teens, he was at one point blacklisted by an influential DJ, and unable to get his songs on the air. He quit music and worked in the family funeral home.
At length, he was lured back into the business – a producer blockaded the funeral home with a Cadillac and would not move it until Burke agreed to record again. He was revered by fellow artists but he never crossed over into the white audience, the way singers like Aretha Franklin and Wilson Picket did.
But his career was given a boost when the Rolling Stones recorded two of his songs, ‘Cry To Me’ and ‘Everybody Needs Somebody To Love’ on their early albums.
Some soul singers – notably Irma Thomas, from whom the Stones took ‘Time Is On My Side’ – were bitter. Audiences wanted black songs, it seemed – but only if they were sung by white folks.
But bitter is not what Solomon Burke is about. Just ask him whether his career was helped or hurt by what Americans call the British Invasion of the 1960s:
Mine was helped! (He laughs heartily.) Yes, please – you know, one more time! Do it every month, if you can! It was wonderful for me. My music was widened to a greater audience by so many great artists, taking our music around the world and opening doors that I could never open, and giving me the opportunity to walk into those same doors: Being an artist that says I performed at the Royal Albert Hall over five times in my career – that’s a triumph!
Burke first toured Britain in 1964. The travel opened the world to him to such an extent that he now believes all kids, before they go to university, should spend a year touring the world – a radical thought for the United States, where, for much of the population, the rest of the world remains a mystery.
The memories are still fresh:
I came over with Doris Troy. We were with Atlantic records and she had a great record called ‘Just One Look.’ And I was so thrilled and excited to meet people like The Undertakers (a ’60s Liverpool-area band). I did get a chance to meet a lot of great people – Tom Jones. And being in the great country was just so overwhelming, so magical to me, where the queen was! It was as royal as it should be.”
When the radio play waned, Burke toiled on in relative obscurity. Video from his middle years shows him to be an enormous man, but still an agile dancer and extraordinarily vigorous.
The 1986 album, “A Change Is Gonna Come,” recorded when Burke was in his 40s, may have gone largely unnoticed. But it reveals a soul singer in peak form, the vocal power undiminished, the sweetness more poignant than ever.
Like many soul singers, Burke dabbled in Blues. And just what does he see as the relationship between soul and the Blues?
“The feeling,” he replies. “The experience. The moment. The time. The pain. The hurt. The joy. The expression that releases the confidence or the sadness.”
Film soundtracks helped return his name to wider attention. His rendition of ‘Cry to Me’ was used in “Dirty Dancing.” The Blues Brothers covered ‘Everybody Needs Somebody to Love.’
Then one day in the airport in Portland, Oregon, in 2001, Burke found himself being pestered by a funny-looking guy. It was the beginning of an extraordinary career renaissance:
I was blessed by a gift from God that a man came along in Portland, Andy Kaulkin, and said to me, “Hey, man, I want to talk to you.” And I thought he was some guy from a football team or something. He didn’t look like a record president. He looked like a young teenager, you know – hippie.
“Hey, man, I got an idea!”
And I said, “Oh, my God. Is this the same guy again?”
When he finally caught up with us, we were on the same plane together. And when he told me he was with Fat Possum, I said, “Oh, my God. Another football team wants me to be a mascot. Prior to that, somebody wanted me to be a mascot of the Big Bears. Now here’s some guy wanting me to be a possum. This is my week for animals, I guess. And when he told me it was a record company, I almost turned around and kissed him.
“Record company! That’s the name of your company? Great!”
The resulting album was titled, appropriately, “Don’t Give Up On Me.”
Produced by Joe Henry, it included songs written for Burke by Dan Penn, Van Morrison, Tom Waits, Brian Wilson, Elvis Costello, and Bob Dylan. Almost 50 years after his career began, Burke won his first Grammy, for best contemporary Blues album. And he won a new generation of fans, as well, thanks to Kaulkin pestering him on the plane.
It was one of the greatest things in the world. We have become great friends. I talk to him all the time. We talk to one another, and we share – and he’s such a warm person.
Because, he’ll call me and say, “Solomon, just heard your record, I love it.” You know, and it’s not even on their label.
It was the first label that ever gave me my royalty checks, my first real royalty checks. Fat Possum.
C’mon, man, would you believe that? You know, you say here’s a guy that’s been on all the labels in the world, and his first real royalty check is with Fat Possum? But how wonderful! How usual life can be if you live it.
His most recent album is called “Nashville” – a country album recorded in Buddy Miller’s living room, featuring duets with Dolly Parton, Gillian Welch, Patty Griffin, Emmylou Harris and Patty Loveless. It brings Burke full circle – “Just Out Of Reach” having been a country song – and he ranks it among the best of his career.
As a kid, I used to listen to the country music of Gene Autrey and Roy Rogers, Hank Williams and all those great people, and, oh, just on and on and on.
And later on, I loved so much Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson. To me these are just legends. Patsy Cline. Incredible.
And to have the opportunity to go to Nashville and actually record with Buddy Miller and some of the great musicians, and to meet the queens of country, to perform with me, and to sing with me?
I’ll tell you, the honour was mine.
Country music is so special, because it tells a message immediately, within the three-minute period. You know what happened, from beginning to end.
The Blues tells you, “Hey, I’m hurt. I’m in pain. I’m suffering. You mistreated me. You misused me.”
But sometimes the Blues leaves us hanging. You don’t know if the person’s ever going to get well. You don’t know if the person ever came back: “Baby, you’ve gone, you’ve gone, you’ve gone.”
Well, did she ever come back? Did she ever call you? Did she ever write you? Did you ever see her again?
At least with a country song, the guy says (he starts to sing into the phone): “Baby, you’re gone, and I saw you had a richer one. And y’all had two babies and that’s OK, because the baby looks just like me.” You know? Boom! It leaves you with a thought.
The last few years, Burke said, have been immensely satisfying, bringing renewed acclaim, new fans, more record contracts and performing opportunities. Great artists wait in line to record with him.
Brand new day. Brand new way. New way to step. New way to move. New way to breathe. New places to go and new people to meet. New hands to shake. And what a gift! After 50-some years it’s been – I started recording in 1954. How many people today can say that? That are still recording? That still have a record deal. This is amazing! A gift from God! And I’m still waiting to do more. And to do better. And I’m still learning.
The word is to move, and to keep moving, to keep going forward, never backwards, and always believe that there’s a greater way and a better way. There’s no yesterdays. Everything is tomorrow. Because today is almost over.
Burke uses a wheelchair now. He performs seated, but he dances up a storm on his special concert throne.
He says his health is fine. But he has severe arthritis and needs hip replacement and knee replacement. He must lose 140 more pounds before the surgery can be done. He has spent most of his life very large but very vigorous – his 21 children attest to that – but he has at last decided to do something about his weight.
He is working out in a pool under medical supervision. “I’m loving it,” he says. “Oh, you should see me in that pool. I’m dangerous. I could be in a dance marathon in that pool!”
And when he says “Nashville” is among his best albums ever, he means, of course, until the next one, which he is about to start recording. Talking about it, he sounds like a kid opening a Christmas present.
“I have a great producer, Steve Jordan, which I’m very excited about,” he says.
He pauses to ask his manger, “Can I mention somebody?” But he doesn’t wait for the answer, and plunges ahead.
“I have great songs that are just so incredible,” he continues. “And I just – I can’t help it. I got a song from Eric Clapton that I can’t keep still about, that he wrote for me. Oh, my God, I’m telling you. If this song is not a hit, I’m going to just walk around with a baseball bat.”
He laughs a great belly laugh.
Some soul singers have been at the mercy of their labels, and willing to record any song put before them. Not Burke, who rejects some songs and demands the lyrics on others be changed.
Every song that I record must have meaning and a story. And I must be able to feel that story and be able to relate to that story.
Because there’s no other way for me to sing it, if I can’t relate to it to tell the story to someone else.
Before you can say you understand, you have to go through the paces. You have to go through the hurt, you have to go through the pain. You have to know what love is about. You have to live it, to understand it, to feel it, to sing about it.
That’s why so many of the young people today are stuck on songs that only have one line. Because that one line is all they know. "No, no, no, no, I don’t want to go to rehab." That’s it!
Burke hopes to return to Britain soon. He’s great friends with Jools Holland, on whose New Year’s Eve Hootenanny he appeared two years ago. He remains friends with Tom Jones, whom he met on that long-ago tour in 1964.
And even if not so many people know his name, he’s excited that his songs have become part of the popular culture, not only in America but over here, as well.
I’m thrilled to come on the television in England and hear ‘Everybody needs somebody’ being sung for a candy commercial. C’mon! It’s incredible! I wanted to go out and buy the candy! Celebrate! C’mon, gimme some of that candy! How wonderful that is.
As the interview ends, Burke thanks you for having spent so much time with him. During the conversation, he has asked about your family and your travels. He has laughed, cracked jokes and told stories. He has sung. Before ringing off, he asks you to keep in touch with him.
He has done everything he could to make a connection. You feel you have a friend, one who has opened himself to you, one to whom you, likewise, could open yourself.
With skills like that, it’s no wonder the man know how to put a song across.