Soul Survivor

Four decades after his first record, Solomon Burke is still in the studio -- and still in God's arms

The rain and the cold don't stop Solomon Burke. He's an hour late for a rendezvous in the parking lot of a red-ribboned church in Los Angeles, and he hastily apologizes for his tardiness. But Solomon Burke has been out doing God's work, and God doesn't work on a journalist's schedule.

From the front passenger seat of his black Lincoln Continental, Burke extends a huge, friendly hand. Clad in a pinstripe suit and wearing an ornate black-and-silver khoufi on his head -- though not the crown he often sported during his 1960s Atlantic Records heyday as the "King of Rock 'n' Soul" -- Burke explains he's been out all day at his churches. We must hurry now, he says, or we'll be late to the next stop. "Climb in," he urges his small entourage -- which consists of his wife, his assistant, his European booking manager, one of his daughters and a singer who works as Burke's opening act. "This," Burke proclaims, "is a special journey."

Although his first album for Virgin-Pointblank, The Definition of Soul, came out not long ago, marking the first time in close to 30 years that he's been on anything approaching a major label, Burke isn't here to promote a record. After all, records come and go, and he doesn't even own a piece of most of his albums -- the famous ones and the unknown ones, the important singles and the journeyman debris. They belong to record-label executives who conned him out of his royalties in the '50s and '60s. They belong to friends he helped out by recording for them, only to watch them sell his music out from under his nose. They belong to the fans who stuck with him through the number one hit singles and those that didn't even make the charts. And they belong to history, to a yesterday erased for Jesus's better tomorrow.

Always the kind and gracious host, Burke will answer any question, but these days he's moving too quickly to sit still. To talk to the great man you must keep pace; fall behind, and he's long gone -- to church, to a business meeting, to some festival-circuit concert, to his Beverly Hills home, to anywhere but here.

"If you'd have come with us this morning, you'd be worn out," he says as we pull out of the church parking lot. "You'd be exhausted."

Burke makes the rounds the second and fourth Sundays of every month, popping into four Los Angeles-area churches to lend his moral and spiritual support. Sometimes he'll get up to preach and maybe even sing a hymn, but most of the time he just offers encouraging words from the back pew. There are about 20 churches affiliated with his United House of God for All People denomination in California, and Burke shows up at all of them on occasion.

The church we're headed to this night -- the United House of Prayer for All People in the shadow of downtown L.A. -- is special to Burke. It was founded 70 years ago by his godfather, a Portuguese man named Daddy Grace, and Burke refers to it as "my roots ... my inspiration ... part of my life."

"Daddy Grace was dynamic, he was colorful, charismatic, just magical," Burke says. "He had the marching bands, he had the guards, he had the long fingernails painted red, white, blue and gold ... He was a fabulous man with a great message of deliverance for the people, and my charter is based on his charter. It's the one true church in America that I can truly say does everything it says it's gonna do. There's no hanky-panky, no wishy-washy. It's a church."

When Burke walks into the United House of Prayer this Sunday evening, the sanctuary is half full; it's a youth service, and little kids line the walls and dance in their seats. Most of the adults in the pews are women; the few men in the hall are seated up front, part of a brass band of preachers sitting on their cushioned thrones. Statues of lions greet visitors at the front entrance, and angels guard the building from the rooftops. Inside, the sanctuary is painted white and filled with some of the most amazing music this side of heaven, horn blasts and gospel shouts that would no doubt put a smile on Daddy Grace's face.

This evening's program features several youth choirs and vocal ensembles; some of their voices are tentative, others soaring as they perform spirituals and hymns in front of the great Doctor Reverend Bishop Brother Solomon Burke, who has 21 children and 44 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren of his own. They know him not as a soul music hero but as a man of God whose presence seems to warm the entire room. Young men and old women overcome by the spirit fill the aisles, raising their heads and hands to Jesus. Burke even stands to dance, shaking and quaking his 60-year-old, 300-pound-plus frame as if it were a third the age and half the size.

When the woman leading the program finally cajoles Burke to come to the front and say a few words of inspiration, he almost bounds to the microphone. "I'm just blessed," he tells the crowd, his words greeted with choruses of hallelujahs and amens. This is the place where Burke is most happy, preaching to the converted. "I'm more free" behind the pulpit, he explains later. "I'm more at ease." In fact, he says, he's even considering retiring from the secular stage to fulfill his destiny as God's messenger. His next album, which he plans to record this year, will be a gospel record, and after he tours the world for The Definition of Soul, he very possibly will hang up his cape and crown for good.

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