Born c. 1938 in Philadelphia, PA; father of 21 children. Addresses: Record company--Varèse Sarabande Records, 11846 Ventura Blvd., Suite 130, Studio City, CA 91604.

Enduring soul legend Solomon Burke was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001 for a recording and performing career that was nearing the end of its fifth decade. Burke enjoyed a string of hit singles in the 1960s and was--along with Sam Cooke and Otis Redding--considered one of the pioneers of modern soul, an outgrowth of gospel and early rock 'n' roll. "Lots of people have copped his mannerisms," remarked Philadelphia Inquirer music writer Tom Moon, referring to Burke's memorable vocal style, "but none has yet caught the compassion, the immersion, the sense that behind the song stood a real person who was aching inside."

Burke was born c. 1938, the eldest of seven children in a deeply religious west Philadelphia family. Both his mother and uncle were ministers, and Burke stepped up to the pulpit himself at the age of nine. He enjoyed some success as the "Wonder Boy Preacher" on the East Coast revival circuit over the next few years, but when he entered his teens, his interests turned to music. He wrote his first song, "Christmas Presents from Heaven," in December of 1953. He recorded it, and when it garnered local airplay on Philadelphia radio stations, it made the teen a star at his junior high school. In 1955 Burke won a talent contest and was signed to Apollo Records. He cut singles for the label that did well, and performed at its showcase Apollo Theater in Harlem. There were questions over royalties, however, and Burke, like many artists of his era, believed he was being cheated out of his due by fraudulent business practices. He quit in 1957.

Burke left the music business to study mortuary science, but his singing career was unexpectedly revived in 1960 when the editor of Billboardmagazine championed executives at a new label, Atlantic, to sign him. After his first recording session for them, Burke couldn't even stay to hear the finished tape because he was moonlighting as a snowplow operator and was due at work that night. Over the next few years, Burke worked closely with Atlantic's famed producer, Jerry Wexler. He also became the first soul performer to cut a country-and-western single, "Just Out of Reach," which was released three months before Ray Charles's first foray into the genre.

"The Bishop of Soul"

Burke and Wexler--who later went on to make stars out of Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett--collaborated on a number of songs, 19 of which made it onto the Billboard Hot 100 chart. "There were great vibes in those days," Burke recalled in his interview with Moon for the Philadelphia Inquirer. "People were always coming by, walking in off the road just to see what was going on at the (Atlantic) studios. You'd do everything live, all within two or three hours."

Burke's hits included "Cry to Me," "Just Out Of Reach (Of My Two Empty Arms)" and "Everybody Needs Somebody to Love," which was recorded by the Rolling Stones in 1965. Tracks like "The Price" and "Got To Get You Off My Mind" also became standards. Moon called them "songs that mixed the cadences of gospel and the buoyancy of pop with the confessional directness of the blues." Burke's trademark crown symbolized his status as the "King of Rock and Soul"; still an active minister, he was sometimes hailed as the "Bishop of Soul" as well. Live audiences were awestruck by his performances. His magnetism translated onto vinyl as well, the torrid evangelical delivery still evident. Down Beat magazine writer Frank-John Hadley reviewed of some of his classic soul records and noted that Burke seemed to sing "as though his storytelling offered wisdom absolutely crucial to the listener's life."

Atlantic released two LPs of Burke's work: King Solomon and I Wish I Knew, both of which were issued in 1968. By then, however, soul was losing ground to other forms of pop music, and Burke quit the business once again. He made occasional forays into the recording studio over the next few years, but remained largely forgotten except for appreciative soul musicologists and a small but devoted legion of fans. He became minister of his own church, ran a successful chain of mortuaries, and occasionally cut a gospel or blues album, such as 1981's Lord, We Need a Miracleor Soul of the Blues, released in 1993. Down Beat's Hadley termed Burke on this latter recording an "inspired and exhilarating singer" with "a dignified emotional magnetism." Burke also enjoyed some success in film as a character actor, most notably as Daddy Mention in The Big Easy, released in 1987.

Burke seems to be a showman no matter what his medium. Philadelphia Daily News writer Mark de la Vina remarked that "[t]he man can convince you that the world is flat." De la Vina noted that their conversation ranged from Burke's appearance on American Bandstand the day that Dick Clark debuted as its host to "how he was banned from the Apollo Theater in New York for trying to sell porkchop sandwiches and magic popcorn at his shows; or how he was dubbed the King of Rock & Soul in the early '60s and was later offered $10,000 by James Brown to hand over his title and the crown Burke wore on stage."

Lean Years

Burke continued to tour, though he often played small shows at intimate venues. A genuine renewal of industry interest came in 1995, when he played the Jazz Aspen Snowmass Festival. From the stage, he noticed one couple enthusiastically singing along to all his hits; they came to see him after the show and introduced themselves. The husband was Jim Fifield, president and CEO of EMI Music, a genuine fan who told Billboard writer Melinda Newman "I had all his recordings." Fifield was instrumental in finding a new label for Burke on a Virgin subsidiary, Pointblank Records. It released an album of new material, Definition of Soul, in 1997. Coproduced by Burke and his son, Selassie, the record was described by Newman as "a collection of songs that mines vintage soul territory of love lost and found, and the attendant miseries and pleasures." The album also featured "Everybody Has A Game," a duet with Little Richard, whom Burke told San Francisco Chronicle writer Lee Hildebrand he had "always idolized.... To me, [Little Richard] was a superstar of superstars."

Much to the surprise of many, one of Burke's tracks on Definition of Soul was cowritten with Wexler. "My relationship with Jerry Wexler is like a two-way street," the singer told Newman in Billboard. "There's one side where I'm angry for a lot of things that didn't go down and one side where I'm very grateful that he was there, because he did develop Solomon Burke to a certain point and then he stopped.... But you can't keep anger inside because then good things don't happen." His minister's faith displayed itself in other ways: a few tracks featured racy--but never explicit--lyrics, a balance that had long been a hallmark of Burke's style. "My kids will say, 'Dad, what are you saying? You're a religious man,'" he said in the interview with Newman. "But I say, that's a reality. I got 21 children."

Honored by New Generation

Burke thanked those 21 children, 58 grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the spring of 2001. Others who took the stage that night to accept their honors were Michael Jackson, Aerosmith, and Paul Simon. Burke was introduced by Mary J. Blige and made a characteristically royal appearance in a velvet and ermine cape.

Two of Burke's children are also morticians and run branches of the family business in California and North Carolina. Burke himself has made southern California his home for many years. From there he serves as bishop of his own nonsectarian religious denomination, the House of God for All People. "The secret of longevity is people," Burke told Moon in the Philadelphia Inquirer interview. "I learned a long time ago that big people get their records for free. The little people are the ones you pay attention to--the janitors, the cooks, the cab drivers. They're the ones who have been with you through the thick and thin. You need to thank those people, make them feel special." He recalled meeting a man who had one of his records on the long-defunct eight-track cartridge format and told the singer "he wore it out. He wanted to know where he could get it transferred. Those are the kind of fans I like."

by Carol Brennan

Solomon Burke's Career

Began preaching at age nine; toured on revival circuit at age 12; wrote and recorded first single, "Christmas Presents from Heaven," 1953-54; signed with Apollo Records, 1955; signed to Atlantic Records, 1960; also signed to Savoy, Rounder, Black Top, and Pointblank labels.

Solomon Burke's Awards

Induction, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 2001.

Famous Works

Further Reading


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