Soul survivor

Four decades after his first record, Solomon Burke is still in the studio and in God's arms

"It has not been easy," he says. "I've had my ups and downs. It's been some rough times. I sit back and I watch my music being stolen from me, my royalties I'll never receive. I've had to eat that, bite the dust and bite the bullet. Watch my songs be played in movies and never receive the checks and never get the credit. But God gives you the credit."

He prefers to think about his new "moment," as he often calls it, delivered by God--and Jim Fifield, the CEO of EMI Music, who heard Burke perform in 1996 at an Aspen, Colorado, bluesfest and offered him a contract not long after their meeting. In a business filled with opportunists looking to sign the Next Big Thing, who shrink from memory before the ink on the contracts is dry, Fifield signed the Original Big Thing long after Burke had given up hope of ever being on a real label.

"Men my age don't get record deals," Burke says. "Forget it. If you haven't got it 20 years ago, you don't get 'em, no matter how good you sound or how many people you know. You just don't get these deals. This is something God has to give you through a miracle, through a special blessing, and this is something that happened. I could not have put this together. Women have a chance because if you're good-lookin', a record company will sign you. You know how it is. My legs are great, but it wasn't my legs that did it."

No--it was his voice that did it, that high and low and deep and beautiful voice that has lost none of its force since the days when King Solomon ruled the charts with such songs as the immortal "Everybody Needs Somebody to Love," "If You Need Me," "Cry to Me," and the number one "Got to Get You Off My Mind." Back then, Solomon Burke was a beautiful young man--a giant smile spread across chubby cheeks, an angel who hadn't yet quite figured out how to keep the devil at bay. Back then, Burke ruled the burgeoning soul music scene: He was a regular at the Apollo Theater in Harlem (until they banned him for selling concessions at his own gigs, which wasn't unusual since Burke had a dozen other jobs off the stage), a friend to then-unknowns such as Joe Tex and Wynonnie Harris and other men who'd become soul pioneers, a lady's man and a man's man.

Burke was a star at the age of 12--a radio minister who toured to tent revivals around the north; his grandmother and mother were both ministers, and Solomon was the next link in the holy chain. He delivered sermons from the pulpit when he was a small child, sang on the radio in his early teens, formed a band called the Gospel Cavaliers, set himself on a course for greatness while still a very young man. He started recording in 1954 for the New York-based Apollo label--"I've been recording for 43 years and a few minutes," Burke now deadpans--for which he released a handful of decent, now-obscure singles. It was enough to get Burke on national television, score him the occasional regional hit (including "You Can Run (But You Can't Hide)"), give him a taste for something bigger.

Burke recalls that in 1957, he figured he was getting stiffed by the label and demanded more money--money he'd never get--and was forced to leave Apollo. As Peter Guralnick recounts in his 1986 book Sweet Soul Music--the one account to acknowledge Burke's genius and influence, for which Burke remains eternally grateful--Burke went back to Philly, where he was reduced to begging for street-corner change. When he hit his lowest point, chasing a coin down a sewer, Burke decided to go back to school and become a mortician--and, indeed, he owns a mortuary in Philly even now, the consummate businessman with his fingers in a multitude of pies.

In 1960, Burke wound his way back into the music business, landing square in the arms of Jerry Wexler, among the most influential producers during the soul-music era--and such a good friend of Burke even now that he was lured out of Florida retirement to lend a helping hand on The Definition of Soul. From the get-go at Atlantic, Burke proved he wasn't to be categorized, neatly slotted into the record business and defined with one or two words. His first record for Atlantic was a country-western throwaway, "Just Out of Reach (of My Two Open Arms)." Burke took the hillbilly jingle and wrung the sugar and sweat out of it, turning it into a desperate plea for love and understanding; listen to the song even now and you feel this young man's pain, his desire to love even if he doesn't yet know what love really means. And that he recorded country before Ray Charles makes the accomplishment that much more profound.

"'Just Out of Reach' was the first country song by a black artist, but the country music was given to me because they had nothing else for me to do," Burke recalls. "At that point, I couldn't do rhythm and blues for Atlantic, and I guess they were trying to find a way to keep me in my recording contract, so they just gave me country. And the country record became a big hit, so they had to continue to give me songs to sing. So then they brought in writers like Brook Benton, who did 'It's Just a Matter of Time,' which was very successful for us. And they brought in Bert Burns, who wrote 'Cry to Me.'

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