Solomon Burke, RIP


Soul great Solomon Burke died at a Netherlands airport over the weekend. Burke is one of my favorite vocalists, so I'm going to indulge in a bit of appreciation.

Depending on whom you believe, Burke was either 70, 72, 74. Given his 400+ pound frame, that he lived that long is something of a blessing. Good for us that he did. Thanks to a late-in-life career resurrection, Burke has over the last decade released three of the best soul albums in a generation. I'll also argue that he had the best voice in American popular music, and it only improved with age. Burke's weight gave his characteristic timbre more heft and depth, while age added a warm, weathered texture you don't hear in the more polished sound from earlier in his career. His last five albums (with one more posthumous release on the way this month) showcase his incredible range, and an artist with with an innate ability to phrase and inflect to animate the words he's singing. He was kind of a Sinatra of soul (not that he didn't have enough nicknames, many of them self-bestowed) in that like Sinatra, Burke wasn't merely a great technical singer, he was also a master interpreter.

Signed to Apollo records in his teens (a great story in itself), Burke got his start in the music business with a series of country recordings (his first record was a Pasty Cline song), eventually moving on to gospel, blues, jazz, and of course soul. He embodied Americana music as well as anyone else I can think of, in part because he made great records in all of its component styles (save, as far as I know, for bluegrass). Here's Burke's first big hit, "Cry to Me", released in 1962.

After a series of minor hits, Burke followed the now-cliched plight of the 60s R&B vocalist. He was exploited by managers and labels, toured endlessly, and found himself in financial straits after unknowingly signing away the rights to many of his songs. But the cliches stopped there. Burke never bottomed out. Instead . . . he started businesses. He sold concessions at his own shows, eventually expanding to prepare and sell meals to other touring black musicians barred from eating at segregated restaurants in the south. He'd later run a drugstore, and eventually own and run several California mortuaries. He was also ordained as a minister in the 1970s, and also preached part-time for much of the rest of his life. He lingered on the fringes of the R&B charts for most his career, but continued recording, starting businesses, preaching, . . . and propagating. The man died with 21 children, and 90 grandchildren.

Burke's resurgence began in 2001 when he signed singer/songwriter Joe Henry to produce his next album. A fan of Burke since childhood, Henry recruited music titans like Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Nick Lowe, Brian Wilson, and Elvis Costello to write songs tailored for Burke. The result was the 2002 release Don't Give Up On Me, which I'd submit is the best soul album of the last 25 years. Henry's spare production gave Burke wide latitude to interpret the words of rock's greatest songwriters, material much more suited to his rich voice than the Lieber and Stoller-style puppy love songs he'd recorded for the better part of his career. Burke recorded the entire album without rehearsal. He showed up at the studio, sat down with the band, and churned out a Grammy-winning album. No Depression called it an "almost entirely seat-of-the-pants improvisation." It's a stunning collaboration.

From that album, here's "Fast Train," a Van Morrison-penned song that fans of The Wire will recognize from the montage that ended Season Three.

Burke's next great album, Nashville, returned him to the old-school country that launched his career. The 2006 release is a collection of country standards (and a few new songs) produced by Buddy Miller, and features Burke with backing vocals from country icons like Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, and Patti Griffin. A neo-soul singer recording a modern album of country standards sounds at first like a tough sell. But Nashville worked. The styles converge rather beautifully. Here's Burke and Welch performing "Valley of Tears" at a concert at Nashville's Belcourt Theater to celebrate the album's release.

I only saw Burke perform live once, in 2003 at The Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia. He was an ostentatious, almost cartoonish showman. He performed all his shows as you see him above, in three-piece suits, under hot lights, dabbing his brow with silk hankerchiefs, even as his weight ballooned and his health deteriorated. He sang from a giant wooden throne, sometimes holding a scepter, and managed to turn the mere act of standing up, which he only did a couple times per night, into an emotional statement that brought the audience to its feet. Between songs he'd sermonize, hand out roses to women in the audience, give lovemaking tips, and boast of his copious offspring. He closed his shows by inviting the women in the audience on-stage to dance behind him. But it was hard to be put off because of that damned voice. It's still probably best vocal performance I've ever heard in person.

Burke didn't have the name recognition of Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, or Jackie Wilson, but he outsang them all. Probably more important for his own place in music history, he outlived them all, which allowed him to collaborate with the likes of Henry and Miller to turn out some remarkable work toward the end of his life.

Given that this is a libertarian forum, I'll close with "None of Us Are Free," a moving, modern-day civil rights anthem from Don't Give Up on Me, featuring Burke and the Blind Boys of Alabama.

Rest in peace.

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  1. Oh, lame. King Solomon’s always been a favourite of mine; good choice using None of Us Are Free, which is an amazing song.

    1. It is an inspirational song, but it is also the theme of the Bush II second inaugural. Unfortunately, John Quincy Adams didn’t inspire any anthems.

      1. I wasn’t referring even to the lyrics so much as to the performance, which I think is a joy to listen to. And I’m sure some weirdo garage band from Boston has written a J.Q. Adams anthem. 😉

  2. I have to quote my favorite part of that No Depression profile:

    When the Blues Brothers movie hit cinemas in 1980, Solomon learned that, despite the inclusion of “Everybody Needs Somebody” in the film, he wasn’t acknowledged in the final credits. “They thanked Wilson Pickett and Jerry Wexler for the song!” he exclaims.

    Burke’s attorney advised him to wait until they were sure the movie was a smash. And when it was, they picked up the phone. “We started calling, and [the producers] said, ‘We thought Solomon died.'” Burke lets out a mighty laugh. “Well, he has risen…and he would like a check!”

  3. Great tribute.

    “Don’t Give Up On Me” is endlessly astonishing. I didn’t know that it was recorded without rehearsal. Makes sense, now.


  4. First time I’d seen that video with Gillian Welch. Can’t believe he pulled it off, but… well…

    Thanks, RB, nice post.

  5. I’m hungry as I could be, and not a chicken leg in sight!”

  6. Hauntingly beautiful.

  7. He was my favorite of the ’60s soul singers. What a voice.

  8. That’s what sucks so bad about today, modern times, now, we keep losing all the great originals and there is no one coming up to replace them. In twenty years it will be all an unoriginal, unimaginative sludge of commonality.

    The great old guys, see them if you can. Soon they’ll all be gone, and our world will suck a little bit more.

  9. I know that I will be in a minority here, but I’m a bit tired of Reason’s constant hagiographical writing about sub-standard musicians. De gustibus non disputandum est, and I realize that there is no a priori reason that one should prefer any particular type of music over the sound of a jackhammer. That being said, I will merely express my opinion about this and other so-called musicians praised by various authors on this blog: Popular music as a whole, including the work of Mr. Burke, is simplistic twaddle, and nothing near the works produced by canonical composers like J.S. Bach or Dvorak, to pick but two masters. Harmonically static, melodically vapid, and rhythmically repetitive, popular music is music made by non-musicians for non-musicians. Take most any popular song and compare it to, say, a symphony by Beethoven (or to a symphony by a much lesser composer, such as Michael Haydn). In every respect, the music is so much more simplistic and monotonous, the construction so lacking in refinement and variation, that it is like comparing a child’s fingerpainting with a work of Raphael. Please, cease with this silly praise of sub-standard musicians; actually study music, learn the science of harmony, analyze melodic structures, and once you have gained an understanding of the art, let us evaluate the merits of the music alone (i.e., of ordered tones sounding in a particular temporal space).

    1. You must be a real hit at parties.

    2. I’m guessing ten years ago this guy was complaining that the Velvet Underground lacked Yngwie Malmsteen’s chops.

    3. Bach is so perfect that he’s boring.

    4. Looks like someone is trying out his William F. Buckley, Jr. costume for Halloween.

      1. It’s called “pop” music for a reason, and it will always have more fans than so-called “serious” (orchestral) music, simply because it is simplistic. Interestingly, one may love the music of the great composers and pop music, but the reverse is less common. How many gangsta rappers are familiar with Beethoven’s Seventh?

        1. I take offense to the idea that music like this is “simplistic”. Burke adds texture to these songs that only comes from natural talent and constant experimentation. This component is far more complex than the formulas Heresiarch wishes to apply to music.

          Heresiarch is just a turd who is too full of himself to actually enjoy music.

          1. There are all kinds of “pop” music, some of it more “simplistic” than others, but it’s popular because it is so accessible and not too intellectually demanding. Of course, as in all popular art forms, a few of its practitioners do it much better than the rest. But who would argue that the standard, repetitious 12-bar pop format is the intellectual equivalent of a three-movement, 80-instrument symphony? It’s possible to enjoy both, of course.

            1. I can admire the intellectual prowess of a composer, but I think if that intellectual component has any relevance to whether you appreciate a song, then you have kinda missed the point.

              Heresiarch wishes to take something that is infinitely complex and tied into the interactions of millions of people going by their own subjective interpretations and simplify it down to a set of symbols. He then wants to say that HE understands music (even though he only understands the symbols) and that we are the simpletons.

              He is Krugmanning up music, and I can’t stand it.

          2. It’s an interesting if affected comment and reminds me of the “Three Tenors” who tried to make it in Pop music some years ago. My recolelction is that they made a video of a collection of Sinatra cover that I expected to blow me away. It was dreadful — as if these guys had never had a genuine emotion intheir lives. And it was all stuff Sinatra did with one hand behind his back.

            To denigrate the talent of Pop musicians is easy and almost always wrong and wrong headed.

            1. Its all about people trying to explain something that really defies description.

              Just drawing off of what I am listening to right now, I can’t describe all of the emotion that Sonny Boy Williamson evinces out of Nine Below Zero or explain why the way his voice wavers when he sings “and she put me down for another maaaaaaan” gives me a thrill.

              I think there are two groups of music listeners: those that don’t care why they can’t explain that component of music, and those who pretend that that component doesn’t exist.

            2. I saw “Porgy and Bess” at Chicago’s Lyric Opera last year and it took me a good hour to get comfortable with the fact that opera singers were trying to sing jazz (and I’m assuming the performers were selected specifically because they could handle such a score; I could only imagine how bad it would have been with more conventional opera singers).


      Don’t be such a downer, philistine.

    6. Heresiarch is right. You guys are way too caught up in how music sounds.

      Once you guys learn to block everything enjoyable out of music and treat it like the math equation its SUPPOSED to be, come and talk to us about good musicians.

    7. You’re not just in the minority, you’re a toad.

      You also neglect the fact that all of the composers you mention were inspired by folk melodies (“pop music” back in the day), but that’s probably because you’re a toad.

    8. This reminds me of when my buddy (who both played trombone in our university orchestra AND played bass in our punk band) gave the choir director a ride back to campus. He had a Tom Waits cd in the stereo and when he turned the car on the choir director immediately flipped out, asking, “How can anybody listen to this???” It’s just as ignorant to eschew “popular” music for classical as it is to eschew classical music for popular. And, for the record, there are plenty of people who have studied Bach, Rachmaninoff, Mahler, etc. and can still appreciate the simplicity of a Johnny Cash song with a I-IV-V chord progression.

    9. Just curious, where do you rank West End Blues? Child’s fingerpainting or a work by Raphael?

  10. Great tribute for the King of Rock and Soul. I love this, None of Us are Free.

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  11. Nice piece, Radley; thanks.

    “…I’ll also argue that he had the best voice in American popular music…”
    I don’t envy your side of that argument, given the existence of Aretha Franklin….

    1. I didn’t get that argument either. Solomon had a good voice, but a was a minor figure in soul music.

  12. Go check out Solomon’s collaboration with the Derek Trucks Band; it’s incredible. RIP Solomon.
    And to the Heresiarch, I’m a music major and am familiar with your particular gripe. I would vastly prefer to hear a genius like Solomon Burke allow his music to live and breathe over the years than to hear a two-hundred year old overture that has never been played more than one way.

    1. a genius like Solomon Burke allow his music to live and breathe over the years

      I’m not convinced that a vocalist, however good he is at his work, can be called a “genius.” It’s an overused term, and rather than elevating the merely “good” or even “exceptional” to “genius” status, its overuse tends (or attempts) to pull the truly great down to the level of the average. But are you saying that “classical” composers never evolved during their working years? Or that every symphony orchestra plays every piece of the standard repertoire in exactly the same way? That is no more true than to claim that every vocalist sings every pop standard the same way. It is true, however, that Beethoven and Brahms are no longer writing, and that their works will remain as written. But they are constantly being re-recorded and reinterpreted, within the confines of the score.

      1. I’m not convinced that a vocalist, however good he is at his work, can be called a “genius.”

        That’s an interesting thought. Personally, I associate “genius” with unusual and exceptional mental abilities (as opposed to physical) and as such genius would generally be associated with composers rather than performers (thereby excluding not only vocalists but also pianists, violinist, etc.). Of course, there’s a mental side to performing that complements the physical, but I feel like a “genius” performer would have to do some sort of improvisation or interpretation that clearly distinguishes him/herself from other top performers (think Coltrane soloing or Bach playing off of a figured bass score). Oddly enough, my first two thoughts for vocalists who approach “genius” status are Willie Nelson and Mike Patton, neither of whom really improvise per se but both of whom approach singing in a unique way.

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