Soul survivor

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

"And then a song like 'Everybody Needs Somebody,' well, it came from the church. When I did it for Jerry Wexler and Bert Burns, they told me that song would never make it. I said, 'Well, I tell ya what--I'll give you a piece of it.' They said, 'That's the way we'll get the record played, so we'll take a piece of it.' In those days, they took a piece of your songs--a piece of the publishing--but in the end, you didn't have any pieces left. Even now, I'm still struggling to get the publishing, the royalties, and that'll never happen."

By the time Burke stopped recording for Atlantic in 1968, he had 15 singles that made the R&B charts--only one, "Got to Get You off My Mind," reaching as high as number one in March 1965, though two, "Tonight's the Night" and "If You Need Me," came in close seconds--and 14 that made the pop charts. And though he'd never receive the acclaim bestowed on such men as Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, James Brown, Sam Cooke, even Little Willie John or Joe Tex, Burke was their equal and then some--a messenger of the Lord clad in silk robes and a gold crown who did his best work on the stage, behind the pulpit, between the sheets (he's got the kids to prove that). Even now, performing at festivals and at such places as Billboard Live, Burke proves he still has that indescribable, indestructible something that turns preachers into sinners and heathens into believers.

Although the history books make it appear that Burke dropped off the face of the Earth after leaving Atlantic, he did indeed continue to record for the likes of ABC, Bell, Chess, and MGM, the output ranging from sublime to merely adequate. Like all soul singers who sacrificed artistic and financial control for the opportunity to record, Burke doesn't know what has happened to much of his work: The 1978 album Let Your Love Flow, which contains the immortal "Sidewalk, Fences and Walls," has been issued and reissued dozens of times without Burke's knowledge or approval (most recently by the folk label Shanachie). He doesn't even own a copy of the album--"I don't even know what Shanachie is"--from which he's never seen dime one. As an extra slap in the face, Burke's name is misspelled on the cover of Let Your Love Flow as "Soloman."

Burke was at least spared the fate of a Bobby Bland, who never lost his chops but was relegated to the indie Malaco label, which has neither the distribution nor the promotion power to generate enthusiasm outside the chitlin circuit where Bland is still a superstar. Burke's two albums on Rounder Records' Black Top subsidiary--1988's in-concert Soul Alive! and 1993's marvelous Soul of the Blues--and his hard-to-find gospel records on the Savoy label proved he was not quite ready for a place in his mortuary.

Which brings him back to The Definition of Soul, a real family affair that features his sons Solomon Jr. and Selassie and daughters Candy and Elizabeth and Wexler himself--not to mention Little Richard, a rock and roll legend who has long coasted on faded glories, his feet forever stuck in the shrine's cement. And if The Definition of Soul isn't the definition of a legend, if its synthesized strings and prefabricated horns often sound far smaller than the man singing over them, that's because Burke's still got the punch (the closer, "Nobody but You," could well have been cut in his church, Burke howling to a woman or to his God). The speed bag's just gotten heavier, that's all: There's little place in the R&B world for a 60-year-old, 300-pound icon revered by few and forgotten by too many.

"It's a new day," Burke says. "I want the old sound, but my son says you've got to have the new sound with the old sound. The old sound's better to me. I believe in the horns, and I believe in the live bass player, but when you see things work for other artists, you ask yourself, What's happening? Luther Vandross makes hit records with keyboards. Why shouldn't I be able to do that? I don't know. Maybe that's not right. Maybe that's not right for me. I don't know. It's hard to say.

"When we go out on these live performances, the people want to hear the old songs. You wonder, What else can I do? I just can't keep singin' these old songs. I just can't go in the studio and record the old songs over and over again. I've already done that five times. Atlantic Records made sure they did that; there's at least 12 different The Best of Solomon Burkes out there. I know you have to come up with something different....Maybe the next album'll be country, maybe it'll be blues. I don't know. But I do know we'll be doing what we need to do."

Burke has steered his entourage into a crowded family Chinese restaurant, which has reserved for him an enormous table in its packed back room. Burke orders for the table, getting a little of everything and a lot of something. The waiter winds up bringing giant bowls filled with soup and plates heaping with fried shrimp, steamed fish, sauteed scallops, marinated beans--a feast with enough left over for everyone. But before anyone can touch the food, Burke blesses it: "My father, we thank you for the food we're about to receive and the food we have received. May it strengthen our hearts, minds, souls, and bodies...."

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