- by Joe Nolan
Solomon Burke embodies the contradictions inherent in soul music as much as any other icon of the genre. An utterly sincere performer, Burke is one of the most deftly versatile vocalists pop music has produced.
Burke is also a larger-than-life character whose biography is a mishmash of pathos and put-on, blues and balderdash. And like any great prophet, Burke’s origins begin in mystery.
Depending on the source, the date of Burke’s arrival on the earthly plane is cited as either 1936 or 1940. According to Burke, he came to his grandmother in a dream 12 years before his birth, spurring her to found a Church - Solomon’s Temple, The House of God for All People - in anticipation of its coming leader. Burke would preach his first sermon at the age of seven.
According to legend, the biblical King Solomon built his wondrous temple by binding Asmodeus, king of the demons, into service with the signet ring that bore his magical seal. Asmodeus, usually identified as a spirit of lust, was thus compelled to employ his 72 legions of demons in the building of the Temple. This same impulse - to raise praise to the highest by mingling with the debased - is also at the heart of the art of Solomon Burke.
“Part of my belief is to be able to serve God anywhere at any time and still come out saved, so I could be around people with cocaine, pot, booze, and it wouldn’t mean a thing to me, even as a kid. My leadership was beyond question.” * - Solomon Burke
In 1955, Solomon Burke recorded “You Can Run (But You Can’t Hide), “a minor hit that is co-credited to ex-heavyweight champion, Joe Louis. Recorded for the small Apollo label out of New York, Solomon’s hit - although all but forgotten today - established him as the first recorded soul singer.
Regina Bearden, VP of Marketing at the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau, helped to establish an online Soul Timeline in celebration of Memphis’ 50th anniversary of the music. The timeline cites Burke as the first recorded soul singer.
“The key word there is recorded,” she states. “That idea comes from Sweet Soul Music, the book by Peter Guralnick.”
According to my reading, Guralnick’s book doesn’t definitively state that “You Can Run’” is the first recorded soul song, but his chapter on Burke is one of the most important critical documents about the performer, and it certainly establishes Burke as the first significant soul singer, serving as a kind of bridge between the trailblazing efforts of Ray Charles and Sam Cooke, and the commercial success of the Stax label in Memphis.
This “in-between” status of Burke’s may partially account for the fact that he never achieved enduring super-stardom, despite the fact that he is arguably the best vocalist the genre would ever see.
After his time with Apollo, Burke was injured by a moving car and decided to quit music. He graduated from mortuary school and joined a successful, family funeral home business. But it wasn’t long before his talents lead him back to music - and to his most fertile period - on Atlantic records.
On Atlantic, Burke found a home, not only for his soul singing, but for the entire potential of his seemingly unlimited vocal range and style, from raucous R&B and country, to gospel and soul. His first big hit came with the recording of “Cry to Me,” a song which has achieved new life in the last ten years, becoming a staple on movie soundtracks. Hits like “Cry’” and “If You Need Me” established his lasting career, and are widely known for keeping Atlantic in the black from 1961-1964, when only Solomon’s steady power was keeping the lights on.
Since leaving Atlantic in 1969, Burke has maintained a recording and touring career, supporting 21 children and 14 grandchildren - all the while maintaining a church that claims over 40,000 members nationwide. He has seen the heights of fame and has experienced at least two trips into “the pits of hell,”* but still takes to the stage in his crown and cape, nightly claiming his throne as the King of Rock and Soul, not unlike his ancient namesake.
In the ’80’s Burke recorded a best-selling, Grammy Award winning gospel album. Burke has recently appeared on national TV in support of his latest disc “Nashville.” The CD has been critically acclaimed and marks a welcome return to the gospel-influenced country recordings Burke cut in his early years on Atlantic.
*Quoted from Peter Guralnick’s Sweet Soul Music. Harper and Row, 1986. Find out more about Solomon Burke at www.thekingsolomonburke.com.
Joe Nolan is a poet, musician and freelance journalist in Nashville, TN. Nolan writes about visual art for the journal, Number, published by the University of Memphis. Find out more about his projects at www.joenolan.com.