The rain and cold don't stop Solomon Burke. He's an hour late for the rendezvous, in the parking lot of the red-ribboned church at the intersection of Franklin and Highland in Los Angeles in the heart of Hollywood, and he hastily apologizes for the tardiness. But Solomon Burke has been out doing God's work, and God doesn't work on a journalist's schedule.
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.
"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.
"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.'
"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...."
Stories have long circulated about Burke's generosity, about how he'll put so much money in the collection plate it'll literally overflow with bills or treat his band as though they were members of his family. Everything about him is larger than life, and his kindness is sometimes equal to his jacket size. Indeed, when the kids stroll around the church selling their raffle tickets--three for a dollar--Burke sits there with a wad of ones sticking out of his left hand. When kids come by, he buys a few tickets and lets them keep the money and the ticket: "Here ya go, darlin'," he says, handing out ones like plain paper.
And during dinner, he tells the waiter--with great secrecy, his voice reduced to a slight whisper--to bring him the check of the man sitting at the table next to ours. That man is none other than Ron O'Neal, the legend that was and forever shall be Superfly, and he and Burke go way back. Burke and O'Neal visit for a short while, talking business and friendship. Their words are warm, and they shake hands and pat each other's backs often.
"I want him to play me," Burke says, when O'Neal walks away, referring to his life story he'd someday like to turn into a film.
"If they made a movie of Solomon's life," says Jones, Burke's longtime opening act, "it'd have to be like Malcolm X--four hours just to fit in the highlights."
"My time will come," Burke says, his voice tinged with a little modesty, perhaps more than a little frustration. "A lot of the people in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame are not around. A lot of people that have accomplished a lot of things or gotten recognition, they're not around. So I thank God for the longevity. I thank Him for extending my life and my career little by little, step by step, day by day. When my time comes, if it's for me, it's for me. It doesn't matter to me. I'm happy to see it happen for other people. I'm happy to see it happen for my friends, because I'm blessed. I'm wealthy with God's graces. Look at my kids. They all walk, talk, see, hear, with two legs, two arms, two eyes. C'mon--I'm blessed!
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.