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.
Standing before the congregation, Burke launches into "The Lord Will Make a Way Somehow," his deep, rich voice turning a spiritual into the most moving of soul music. Burke was born into the church, the son of God-fearing, churchgoing folks, and when he wraps his golden vocal cords around the song, it's like turning on a thousand stadium lights -- the church is electrified, horns and hand claps and shouts and stomps and praise Gods and oh yeahs accompanying every syllable. It's a moment that transcends denomination and color, for devout follower and heathen alike.
"If you understand that, then you understand me," he says after the brass band tears through the Dominoes' "Tears of Joy." "I was born with those trombones and tubas playing. They never heard me cry because there was no need to cry; it was joy. This is all I know. You really had to experience that to really understand the definition of soul and what everything else connected with me is about because it's God first, and everything else follows. That's just it."
It is not enough for Solomon Burke to be a legend. He was friends with so many of them -- Otis Redding, Sam Cooke and Joe Tex to name a very few -- and has watched as lesser men than he were awarded the appellation. Anyone over the age of 60, it seems, is deemed a legend simply by virtue of sticking around. The word doesn't mean much to him. "I knew a lot of legends," he sighs, "and they're dead."
Burke doesn't even have his own spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, an honor bestowed on far lesser performers. But though he refers to myriad disappointments in his life, he brushes them all away. "It hasn't all been great," he says, "but it's all been worthwhile ... I've had my ups and downs. It's been some rough times. I sit back and I watch my music being stolen from me, my royalties I'll never receive. I've had to eat that, bite the dust and bite the bullet. Watch my songs be played in movies and never receive the checks and never get the credit. But God gives you the credit."
Rather than dwell on the past, Burke prefers to think about his new "moment," as he often calls it, delivered by God -- and Jim Fifield, the CEO of EMI Music, who heard Burke perform in 1996 in Aspen, Colorado, and offered him a contract not long after. In a business filled with opportunists looking to sign the next big thing, Fifield signed the original big thing long after Burke had given up hope of ever being on a real label.
"Men my age don't get record deals," Burke says. "Women have a chance because if you're good-lookin', a record company will sign you. You know how it is. My legs are great, but it wasn't my legs that did it."
No, it was his voice that did it, that high and low and deep and beautiful voice that has lost none of its force since the days when King Solomon ruled the charts with such songs as the immortal "Everybody Needs Somebody to Love," "If You Need Me," "Cry to Me" and the number one "Got to Get You off My Mind." Back then, Solomon Burke was a beautiful young man, an angel who hadn't yet quite figured out how to keep the devil at bay. Burke ruled the burgeoning soul music scene: He was a regular at Harlem's Apollo Theater, a friend to then-unknowns such as Joe Tex and Wynonie Harris and others who'd become soul pioneers.
Burke had been a star since the age of 12 -- a radio minister who toured tent revivals. His grandmother and mother were both ministers, and Solomon was the next link in the holy chain. He delivered sermons from the pulpit when he was a child, sang on the radio in his early teens, formed a band called the Gospel Cavaliers and set himself on a course for greatness while still a very young man. He started recording in 1954 for the New York-based Apollo label -- "I've been recording for 43 years and a few minutes," Burke now deadpans -- for which he released a handful of now-obscure singles. It was enough to get Burke on national television, score him the occasional regional hit and give him a taste for something bigger.
Burke recalls that in 1957, he figured he was getting stiffed by his label and demanded more money. Instead, he was forced to leave Apollo. As Peter Guralnick recounts in Sweet Soul Music -- the one book to acknowledge Burke's genius and influence, for which Burke remains eternally grateful -- Burke went back to his hometown of Philadelphia, where he was reduced to begging for street-corner change. When he hit his lowest point, chasing a coin down a sewer, Burke decided to go back to school and become a mortician -- and indeed, he owns a mortuary in Philadelphia even now.
In 1960, Burke wound his way back into the music business, landing in the arms of Jerry Wexler, among the most influential producers of the soul music era -- and such a good friend of Burke's even now that he was lured out of retirement to lend a helping hand on The Definition of Soul. From the get go at Atlantic, Burke proved he wasn't to be categorized. His first record for the label was a country-western throwaway, "Just Out of Reach (of My Two Open Arms)." Burke took the hillbilly jingle and wrung the sugar and sweat out of it, turning it into a desperate plea for love and understanding; listen to the song even now and you feel this young man's pain, his desire to love even if he doesn't yet know what love really means.
" 'Just Out of Reach' was the first country song by a black artist, but the country music was given to me because they had nothing else for me to do," Burke recalls. "At that point, I couldn't do rhythm and blues for Atlantic, and I guess they were trying to find a way to keep me in my recording contract, so they just gave me country. And the country record became a big hit, so they had to continue to give me songs to sing." By the time Burke stopped recording for Atlantic in 1968, he had 15 singles that had made the R&B charts -- one, "Got to Get You off My Mind," went as high as number one, and two others, "Tonight's the Night" and "If You Need Me," came in close seconds -- and 14 that had made the pop charts. Though he never received the acclaim bestowed on such men as Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, James Brown and Sam Cooke, Burke was their equal and then some. Even now, performing at festivals, Burke proves he still has that indescribable, indestructible something that turns sinners into preachers and heathens into believers.
Although the history books make it appear that Burke dropped off the face of the earth after leaving Atlantic, he did continue to record for a series of labels, the output ranging from the sublime to the merely adequate. Like all soul singers who sacrificed artistic and financial control for the opportunity to get into the studio, Burke doesn't know what has happened to much of his work: The 1978 album Let Your Love Flow, which contains the immortal "Sidewalk, Fences and Walls," has been reissued dozens of times without Burke's knowledge or approval.
Regardless, he couldn't be kept quiet: Burke's two albums on Rounder Records's Black Top subsidiary -- 1988's in-concert Soul Alive! and 1993's marvelous Soul of the Blues -- and his hard-to-find gospel records on the Savoy label proved he wasn't quite ready for a place in his mortuary.
That brings Burke back to The Definition of Soul, a family affair that features his sons Solomon Jr. and Selassie and daughters Candy and Elizabeth and Wexler himself -- not to mention Little Richard. And if The Definition of Soul isn't the definition of a legend, if its synthesized strings and prefabricated horns often sound far smaller than the man singing over them, that's because Burke's still got the punch (the closer, "Nobody but You," could well have been cut in one of his churches, Burke howling to a woman or to his God). The speed bag's just gotten heavier, that's all.
"It's a new day," Burke says. "I want the old sound, but my son says you've got to have the new sound with the old sound. The old sound's better to me. I believe in the horns, and I believe in the live bass player, but when you see things work for other artists, you ask yourself, 'What's happening?' ... When we go out on these live performances, the people want to hear the old songs. You wonder, 'What else can I do?' I just can't keep singin' these old songs. I just can't go in the studio and record the old songs over and over again. I've already done that five times."
The service is over, and Burke has steered his entourage into a crowded Chinese restaurant. Burke orders for the table, getting a little of everything and a lot of something. The waiter winds up bringing giant bowls filled with soup and plates heaping with fried shrimp, steamed fish, sauteed scallops, marinated beans -- a feast with enough left over for everyone. But before anyone can touch the food, Burke blesses it: "My father, we thank you for the food we're about to receive and the food we have received. May it strengthen our hearts, minds, souls and bodies...."
Stories have long circulated about Burke's generosity, about how he'll put so much money in the collection plate it'll literally overflow with bills or treat his band as though they were members of his family. Everything about him is larger than life, and his kindness is sometimes equal to his jacket size.
During dinner, he tells the waiter -- his voice reduced to a slight whisper -- to bring him the check of the man sitting at the next table. That man is none other than Ron O'Neal, the legend who was and forever shall be Superfly, and he and Burke go way back. Burke and O'Neal visit for a while, talking business and friendship. Their words are warm, and they shake hands and pat each other's back often.
"I want him to play me," Burke says when O'Neal walks away, referring to the life story he'd someday like to turn into a film.
"My time will come," Burke says, his voice tinged with a little modesty, perhaps more than a little frustration. "A lot of the people in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame are not around. A lot of people that have accomplished a lot of things or gotten recognition, they're not around. So I thank God for the longevity. I thank Him for extending my life and my career little by little, step by step, day by day. When my time comes, if it's for me, it's for me. It doesn't matter to me. I'm happy to see it happen for other people. I'm happy to see it happen for my friends, because I'm blessed. I'm wealthy with God's graces. Look at my kids. They all walk, talk, see, hear, with two legs, two arms, two eyes. C'mon -- I'm blessed!
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Houston, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.