Writing about music for a living, you jump at the chance to do certain interviews. Lots of times your expectations are dashed within the first few minutes – when the artist who’s so persuasive on record turns out to be a jerk in close quarters. But you play the game and make nice with the handlers because every once in a while, you encounter a legend who is somehow bigger than the sales statistics or the highlights of the dossier, more interesting as a storyteller and a human being, more than generous in the tetchy ritual of question and answer.
Solomon Burke was one of those.
I was lucky enough to talk with him at length several times, and each time came away not just enriched, but genuinely moved. The Philadelphia-born soul singer – father of 21, grandfather of at least 50 (accounts vary), owner of a string of hit songs and a chain of mortuaries – died over the weekend in Amsterdam. A significant slice of music history went with him.
Burke was one of the singers signed to Atlantic Records when soul music exploded in the 1960s, and though he didn’t sell as many records as labelmates like Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett, he was always the revered one, the singer who could be counted on to bring down the house every night. He recorded a country tune several months before Ray Charles “went” country, and was decades ahead of Prince in his blending of the sacred and the profane.
Burke’s method was simple: He’d sing as though preaching, confiding about love trouble in a way that gave romance the aura of a divine calling. Building his case through un-showy gospel cadences, he phrased with the devastating confessional directness of a blues singer, his casual delivery seizing on – and magnifying – the urgent swing of Atlantic’s house rhythm section. When Burke would talk about the Atlantic days, he focused on the characters who were part of so many sessions – the singers, the musicians – and also the atmosphere of spontaneous creation that prevailed every day. “You’d do everything live, all within two or three hours. King Curtis (the great saxophonist) would come by, other guys would just jump in…..People were always walking in off the road just to see what was going on at the (Atlantic) studios…..Guys would say “Let me get some of that.” They weren’t thinking about money. They were interested in the feel of it, the soul.”
We talked about the unfairness of the music business. He’d had more than his share of down times, and yet kept any lingering bitterness hidden, for the most part. He knew he was well loved by soul-music scholars and a coterie of rabid fans – his “people” included a truck driver who wore out an old 8-track, who came backstage holding it, trembling, wanting to know if he could get it transferred to cassette. Burke knew that other artists revered him – for a long time, it wasn’t a true Van Morrison show unless the Irish songwriter invoked Burke at least once. And when Burke began his comeback in the late 1990s, he was gratified that record executives were saying things like “he should be as famous as Otis Redding,” and moved that several well-known artists, including Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello and Tom Waits, wrote songs for his late masterpiece Don't Give Up On Me (1000 Recordings, pg. xxx). That album is an excellent starting point for an exploration of Burke, but don't stop there, because in terms of soul music, an anthology covering the "King of Rock and Soul's" Atlantic years is downright essential
Waits’ entry, “Diamond In Your Mind,” tells of maintaining a steely inner focus in the face of adversity. It resonated with Burke as soon as he heard it, he recalled in 2002: “It really hit hard, that song. We’re taught as Americans that diamons are one of those very important things to own, but, really, you’ve got to keep the biggest diamond in your mind. You have to keep going forward.” He pointed to his own experience: “Look at me. I’ve never been number one. I’ve never even been in the Top 10. But I’m here, and I know I’m number one in God’s book because I always kept that diamond in my mind.”
In every interaction I had with Burke, he’d drop some bit of metaphysical or spiritual insight, a thought borne of pure humility and grace. And then he’d launch into a discussion of the business that revealed him to be an astute, even shrewd, navigator of the music industry shark tank. Once, he got going about the offers he repeatedly declined to perform on “Soul Revue” stages on the oldies circuit. Starting in the 1970s, he almost always turned these gigs down, he explained, because he’d watched some of the singers of his peer group burn themselves out playing state fairs. Years before his return to secular stages, he realized that his market value would be lower if he’d traveled all those oldies-circuit miles. “When I present myself in public, I want people to see Solomon Burke at his best,” he said. “I knew that if I dedicated myself to singing the same handful of old songs every night I would wind up with no voice left, and to me that spelled trouble – I watched too many people lose their gifts over the years….I know I’m old. But I also know I’m still good.”
And, for a remarkable half century, he was.To the end.