Born: March 21, 1940 in Philadelphia PA
Died: October 10, 2010 in Amsterdam, The Netherlands
There will never be another soul singer quite like the mighty Solomon Burke, the self-proclaimed "King of Rock and Soul." A larger-than-life performer who never managed to achieve the level of success of many of his peers, Burke was nevertheless considered to be the greatest pure soul vocalist of his generation. Riding a string of R&B chart hits during the 1960s into a career that would span better than five decades, Burke was a dynamic live performer, a talented songwriter, and a powerful singer who combined gospel, blues, R&B, pop, and even country into a unique sound that could only be called "Solomon."
Born In The Church
Born upstairs of his family's church in Philadelphia, singer Solomon Burke was seemingly destined for a career in music. Raised in the gospel tradition, Burke was preaching and singing in The House of God for All People church in West Philadelphia as a child of seven years old, and he hosted a gospel radio program before he reached his teen years.
Burke launched his recording career in the mid-1950s at the age of 14, releasing several singles on the Apollo Records label. His powerful presence and strong, gospel-trained voice came to the attention of Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic Records, and Burke signed with the label in 1960. Burke would spend much of the decade of the 1960s with Atlantic, releasing some 32 singles during his first seven years with the label, enjoying six Top Ten R&B chart hits.
Defining Modern Soul
During his lengthy run with Atlantic, Burke helped write the book for modern soul with hit songs like "Cry To Me," "Everybody Needs Somebody To Love," "If You Need Me," and "Tonight's The Night." While Burke would influence a generation of soul singers, he never enjoyed the crossover success of followers like James Brown or Marvin Gaye. With a well-deserved reputation as a songwriter, Burke's songs would be recorded and performed by artists like Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, the Rolling Stones, and Bruce Springsteen, among others, and would be used in several films, including Dirty Dancing and The Blues Brothers.
Burke left Atlantic in the late 1960s, recording frequently for different labels as his moderate commercial fortunes waned. Still, while working as an undertaker in his L.A. mortuary, Burke managed to tour steadily, dabble in acting, and he would release a whopping 22 albums in the 30-something years after leaving Atlantic Records. His efforts managed to keep his name and legacy alive, Burke's gospel and soul sounds appealing to a small but loyal audience, his albums receiving widespread critical acclaim.
The New Century
Burke would be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2001, which kicked off a flurry of activity that would continue until his death in 2010. Building upon the body of work that he had created in the decades previous, Burke recorded his "comeback" album, 2002's Don't Give Up On Me. Produced by singer Joe Henry for the Fat Possum Records, such avowed Burke fans as Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, and Elvis Costello contributed songs while Henry's raw, stripped-down production highlighted Burke's still powerful and soulful vocals. The album would earn Burke a long-overdue first Grammy™ Award.
Burke would record with producer Don Was for 2005's Make Do With What You Got, following that R&B album with the surprising collection of country soul, Nashville, a year later. Recorded in the Music City with singers and musicians like Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, Buddy Miller, and others, Nashville displayed the full range of Burke's talents as a vocalist. Like A Fire, released in 2008, featured two songs given Burke by Eric Clapton to record, while Burke travelled to Memphis to record with the great soul producer Willie Mitchell (best-known for his work with Al Green), releasing Nothing's Impossible in 2010.
The King of Rock and Soul
In spite of growing issues with his health, the "King of Rock and Soul" toured continuously during his later years, mostly to support his L.A. based, non-sectarian Church of God for All People, and a his efforts to launch a private school in South Central Los Angeles. Burke was the patriarch of a large extended family that included 21 children, 90 grandchildren, and 19 great-grandchildren. Sadly, with his profile and popularity at its highest point in decades, Burke died of natural causes in October 2010 while flying to Los Angeles to Amsterdam for a sold-out performance.
Recommended Albums: It seems like everybody and their brother has a Solomon Burke compilation in their label catalog, but Rhino's The Definitive Soul Collection is the only one you need, a two-disc, 30-song set comprised of Burke's Atlantic era gems along with a smattering of tracks recorded for Bell, Chess, and ABC Records in the 1970s. Of Burke's late-career material, Don't Give Up On Me is essential listening, while Nothing's Impossible is a fitting tribute to both Burke and producer Willie Mitchell, two of the giants of soul music.
Solomon Burke - Select Discography
(Click on album titles to compare prices on PriceGrabber)