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 yesterday in an Amsterdam airport 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 that magnificent book. Guralnick quoted the judgment of Atlantic Records mogul Jerry Wexler — a man who worked with Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding — 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 private fundraising concert at the Fine Line club one evening in Minneapolis in 1990 or so. Burke had a borrowed band that night; 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 more recent 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. (He discussed the recording in an interview here.)
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 above Burke is backed by an organ that comes straight out of church while he sings the beautiful title song Dan Penn contributed to 2002’s “Don’t Give Up On Me.” RIP.
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