The Roots of Indie: Solomon Burke
In a column I wrote earlier this week, I made myself a promise: Rather than skimming last weekend's record store haul, I'd slow down and really dig in to my new purchases. I've done just that, so it's been Solomon Burke week in my earbuds.
Let's assume that you haven't met the Bishop of Soul and kick this party off with Burke's best known side, 1964's 'Everybody Needs Somebody to Love':
The casual listener should be forgiven for thinking that this is a Blues Brothers song; after all, the Belushi/Aykroyd version is featured prominently in the 1980 'Blues Brothers' film, and even went Top 20 in the U.K. a decade later. Burke's original peaked at No. 58 on the pop charts back in '64 and No. 4 on the R&B charts the same year.
Such is the mystery of Solomon Burke, one of the most important figures in soul music; better known in many circles not by name but by his songs as they were covered by other artists. Wilson Pickett took 'Everybody' to No. 29 in 1967, and the early Rolling Stones tore through a pretty amazing version, too:
Burke's recording career kicked off in 1955 and continued until his death in 2010, but it's his 1960s run with Atlantic Records for which he is best known. It was during this time that Burke coined the phrase "soul music," and that Baltimore deejay Fred Robinson anointed him the 'King of Rock 'N' Soul' during a run of shows at a local theater. The gag included a crown, cape and throne, all of which became props in Burke's act for the rest of his career.
The throne in particular became a convenient prop in his later years, as weight and ill health left King Solomon wheelchair bound -- but still in possession of that silky voice. Here he is singing 1961's 'Cry to Me,' his first hit for Atlantic and one of his biggest, reaching No. 24 on the pop chart:
By the late '60s, though, Burke's reign at Atlantic was over. This was the soul label during the period, after all, featuring talent like Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, and the aforementioned Wilson Pickett, and as Burke's chart ranking declined so did Atlantic's interest in him. The big man moved over to Bell Records, who during the '60s had some pretty hot artists -- Al Green, Lee Dorsey, and the O'Jays, to name a few -- but it was a label with an identity crisis. During the '70s Bell had huge hits with the likes of Barry Manilow, the Partridge Family and the Bay City Rollers, acts hardly synonymous with soul music.
During his time with Bell, Burke cracked the Top 50 with a cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival's 'Proud Mary,' released in 1969. Even with covers, though, somebody always seemed to one up him. Ike and Tina Turner took 'Proud Mary' to No. 4 two years later -- at Burke's suggestion.
My favorite cut from the Bell era is another cover, 'That Lucky Old Sun,' released as the follow-up to 'Proud Mary' in '69. Fans of Johnny Cash's 'American Recordings' albums will recognize this song in a more stripped down version but with equal amounts of heart:
Burke moved over to MGM Records after that, another label not exactly known for soul. In fact, during the '70s MGM was better known for its country stars, people like Hank Williams, Jr., Marie Osmond, and Jim 'I Don't Like Spiders and Snakes' Stafford (who, by the way, is no relation to James 'I Do Like Solomon Burke' Stafford).
Perhaps if he'd been with a different label, Burke's early '70s output would have found the audience shared by Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield, James Brown, and Marvin Gaye. Cuts like 'Get Up and Do Something For Yourself' are as good as anything those guys put out during the same period:
Burke left MGM in '73, but he never stopped working. For the next 30 years he recorded for a laundry list of labels, but as is often the case the music industry (and thus the fans) kind of forgot about him. That all turned around with his aptly-titled 2002 release, 'Don't Give Up On Me.' That huge voice had weathered but somehow only gained power, and a new generation of fans were ready for him:
After nearly 50 years in the business, Burke earned his first Grammy, a Best Contemporary Blues Album award for 'Don't Give Up On Me.' Kanye West, who had yet to release an album, may have contested the win, but in those heady pre-Kanye days we didn't have to listen to it if he did. (The Grammys weren't the only institution to make things right late in Burke's life. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted the legend in 2001.)
I don't know how to measure Burke's influence on the music that we love. Would we have the Stones? What about Charles Bradley, or Alabama Shakes? Solomon Burke is like bedrock -- you don't necessarily know it's there, but without it the whole bridge collapses. Once you know King Solomon is there you'll sense his presence in your favorite records, and before you know it you can't stop loving him.