Solomon Burke — “the King of Rock ‘n’ Soul” — was one of the last great exponents of the pinnacle of Western civilization known as soul music. Burke died in an Amsterdam airport in 2010 at the age of 70.
Burke was the surprise hero of Peter Guralnick’s Sweet Soul Music and the subject of a brilliant chapter of the book. (Guralnick named songwriter Dan Penn the “secret hero” of the book. Why? As KFAI’s Pete Lee patiently explained to me: “Because he wrote the songs.”)
Guralnick quoted the judgment of Atlantic Records mogul Jerry Wexler — a man who worked with Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding and others — when asked to name the greatest of the great soul singers: “Solomon Burke with a borrowed band.” John Hinderaker and I saw Burke perform at a fundraising concert at the Fine Line club one evening in downtown Minneapolis in 1990 or so. Burke had a borrowed band that night; I thought we had the privilege of hearing Wexler’s judgment vindicated.
Burke’s aptly named Soul Alive! recording of 1984 (remastered and reissued in expanded form in 2002) displayed him in his element while providing a moving overview of his career. In one of his latter-day recordings — Nashville, produced by instrumental virtuoso Buddy Miller — Burke recalled the beginning of his career with a return to the country music scene. He was joined by such appreciative artists as Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, and Patty Griffin in a memorable outing.
Early in his career, in “Everybody Needs Somebody To Love,” Burke preached: “There’s a song that I sing, and I believe that if everybody was to sing this song, it would save the whole world.” It’s the spirit that informs most of his work. In the video below Burke is backed by a church-inflected organ while he sings the title song Dan Penn contributed to 2002’s Don’t Give Up On Me.