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From the front passenger seat of his black Lincoln Continental (Sunday, his wife of 27 years, drives on this chilly, slick day), Burke extends his huge, friendly hand and explains he's been out all day at his churches. Clad in a pinstripe suit with an ornate black-and-silver khoufi on his head--though not the crown he often sported during his 1960s Atlantic Records heyday as the King of Rock 'n' Soul--Burke explains that he just got back from Riverside, some 60 miles to the west, and traffic was tied up on the 101. We must hurry now, he says, or we'll be late to the next stop. "Climb in," he urges his small entourage--which consists of his wife; his assistant, Jane Vickers; his European booking manager, Lara Cariaggi; his daughter, Candy; and Tederd Jones, a singer who works as Burke's opening act--and they split into two different cars. Climb in...and hang on. "This is a special journey," Burke proclaims.
Although his first album for Virgin-Pointblank, The Definition of Soul, came out February 11--marking the first time since the '60s that he's been on anything approaching a major label--Solomon Burke does not promote a record. After all, records come and go, and he doesn't even own a piece of most of his albums--the famous ones and the unknown ones, the important singles and the journeyman debris. They belong to white record-label executives who conned him out of his royalties in the '50s and '60s. They belong to friends he helped out by recording for them, only to watch them sell his music out from under his nose and not offer him a penny. They belong to the fans who stuck with him through the number one-hit singles and those that didn't even make the charts; and they belong to history, to a yesterday erased for Jesus' better tomorrow.
While the 60-year-old ordained soul-music hero is renowned for his ability to tell a story and make the listener feel as though he or she lived that bit of vita, Burke does not really sit for interviews. The always kind and gracious host, he will answer any question, but he's moving too quick to sit still. To talk to the great man, you must catch up with him and keep pace; fall behind, and he's long gone--to church, to a business meeting, to some festival-circuit concert, to his Beverly Hills home, to anywhere but here.
"If you'd have come with us this morning, you'd be worn out," he says as we pull out of the church parking lot and back onto the 101 heading south. "You'd be exhausted."
Burke makes the rounds the second and fourth Sundays of every month, popping into four area churches to lend his moral and spiritual support; sometimes he will get up and preach and maybe even sing a hymn, but most of the time he just sits in the pews and offers his encouraging words from the back row. There are about 20 churches affiliated with his United House of God for All People denomination in California, from Sacramento to Riverside, and Burke shows up at all of them on occasion to lend his support. He's also helping with the building of a new church in the San Fernando Valley, which he hopes will be open by Easter.
"If you're here, you gotta be part of it," he says, extending just one of many invitations he will hand out during the evening. "We'll make you one of my deacons," he chuckles.
The church we're headed to this night--the United House of Prayer for All People on Vermont, in the shadow of downtown L.A.--is particularly special to Burke. It was founded 70 years ago by his godfather, a Portuguese man named Daddy Grace, and Burke refers to it as "my roots...my inspiration...part of my life," though he in fact moved to Los Angeles from his native Philadelphia 30 years ago.
"Daddy Grace was dynamic, he was colorful, charismatic, just magical," Burke says. "He had the marching bands, he had the guards, he had the long fingernails painted red, white, blue, and gold....When he came through the streets, the police blocked off the streets. His guards marched like real soldiers, and they had silver and gold swords, and the bands played, and he'd wave from the top of this big Cadillac. I'd never seen a Cadillac limousine before until I saw Daddy Grace's limousine.
"He was a fabulous man with a great message of deliverance for the people, and my charter is based on his charter. It's the one true church in America that I can truly say does everything it says it's gonna do. There's no hanky-panky, no wishy-washy. It's a church."
Burke doesn't recall exactly when Daddy Grace died; his spirit, his myth lived on long after his death, and people spoke of him so often that dates became jumbled and forgotten. Burke explains that Daddy Grace's church has only recently been rebuilt; it was torn down a few years ago, its wooden exterior a shoddy frame for such a lofty house of worship, and in its place now stands this rather modestly ornate building. Statues of lions greet visitors at the front entrance, and angels guard the building from the rooftops. Inside, the sanctuary is painted white and filled with black faces--and some of the most amazing music this side of heaven, brass-band horn blasts and gospel shouts that would no doubt put a smile on Daddy Grace's face.