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"We all have God inside us, as well as a little bit of the devil," Burke says, smiling. "We activate the God because that's the good to fight the devil, because he's always workin' on us. He's constantly got something going, ya know? That's his job. He does a very good job too, but not good enough."
When Burke, with his small entourage in tow, walks into the United House of Prayer for All People this cold and wet Sunday night, the sanctuary is half filled; it's a youth service, and little kids--babies even, bouncing in their mother's laps--line the walls and dance in their seats. Most of the pews are filled with women; the few men in the hall are seated up front, part of the brass band or preachers sitting in their cushioned thrones.
This evening's program features several youth choirs and vocal ensembles performing spirituals and hymns; some of their voices are tentative, others soaring as they perform in front of the great Doctor Reverend Bishop Brother Solomon Burke, who has 21 children, 44 grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren of his own. They know him not as a soul music hero, but as a man of God whose presence seems to warm the entire room. Between the choirs, whose members usually perform backed by taped instrumentals, a brass band swings into action--literally, their half-dozen trombones, their trumpets and tubas blowing like Gabriel's own. Young men and old women overcome by the spirit fill the aisles, raising their heads and hands to Jesus. Burke even stands to dance, shaking and quaking his 300-pound-plus frame as if it were half the size.
"C'mon, brothers," he half shouts. "That's right." Behind the drum kit sits a seven-year-old boy, banging away; he keeps the rhythm in his pocket. "He plays drums better than my drummer, and my drummer's big time," Burke says, laughing. "It's beautiful!"
The woman leading the program, introducing the choirs and singing along every now and then, finally cajoles Burke to come to the front and say a few words of inspiration to the congregation. He almost bounds to the microphone: This is the place where he's most happy, preaching to the converted. In fact, he will say later, he's even considering retiring from the secular stage to fulfill his destiny as God's messenger. "I'm more free" behind the pulpit, he explains. "I'm more at ease. Time is running out. I realize I do want to retire from performing and just be in the church. That's my whole goal. The church is my foundation." His next album, which he plans to record this year, will be a gospel record, and after he tours the world for The Definition of Soul, he will very possibly hang up his cape and crown for good.
"I'm just blessed," he tells the crowd, his words greeted with choruses of hallelujahs and amens. "I was on a plane on the way to Italy for New Year's Eve, and the snow was so bad they said we might not be able to land, and the whole time we were in the air, I was just thinking about this man." He points to a thirtyish man sitting in the front row, known to the crowd as Brother Charles. "And I was thinking about this man singing 'Eyes on the Sparrow.'" Hallelujah. Amen. "Maybe you'll sing it for me, brother," Burke asks. And he shall receive, but not before he launches into "The Lord Will Make a Way Somehow," his deep, rich voice turning a spiritual into the most moving of soul music.
Burke was born into the church, the son of God-fearing, churchgoing folks; this is his music, he says often, his roots, and when he wraps those golden vocal cords around the song, it's like turning on a thousand stadium lights--the church is electrified, horns and hand claps and shouts and stomps and praise Gods and oh yeahs accompanying every syllable. It's a moment that transcends denomination and color, for devout follower and heathen alike.
"If you understand that, then you understand me," he says later, after the brass band tears through the Dominoes' "Tears of Joy." "I was born with those trombones and tubas playing. They never heard me cry because there was no need to cry; it was joy. This is all I know. You really had to experience that to really understand the definition of soul and what everything else connected with me is about, because it's God first, and everything else follows. That's just it."
It is not enough for Solomon Burke to be a legend. He was friends with so many of them--Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, and Joe Tex to name a very few--and has watched as lesser men than he were awarded the appellation. Anyone over the age of 60, it seems, is deemed a legend simply by virtue of sticking around long enough. The word does not mean much to him. "I knew a lot of legends," he sighs, "and they're dead."
Burke doesn't even have his own spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a so-called honor bestowed on far lesser performers. Burke knows why--"I don't know Dick Clark," he says, his whole body shrugging and laughing; "he doesn't remember me from Philadelphia"--and though he refers to myriad disappointments in his life, he brushes them all away. "It hasn't all been great," he says, "but it's all been worthwhile.