He is the 300lb preacher for whom the term 'soul music' was invented. Now his latest album, containing songs penned for him by Bob Dylan, Tom Waits and Elvis Costello, is being hailed as the best of 2002. Nigel Williamson meets Solomon Burke
Friday December 20, 2002
Solomon Burke is 62 years old, has 21 children and 68 grandchildren, weighs more than 300lbs and heads his own evangelical church with 168 missions across America and a congregation 40,000 strong. And, according to many good judges, he has made the best album of 2002.
His huge frame heaves with laughter. "Well, that's what they're saying. I don't know if it's true. I'm overwhelmed. I'm very blessed and, at my age and my weight, I'm just grateful to be around. Look how good God has been to me."
Burke is dressed in a dark, flowing robe. Propped next to him against the wall is a huge stick, about the thickness of a muscular arm: he's a bishop in The House of God for All People, and this is his crook. He waves it occasionally to emphasise a point, and snacks all the while on a whole chicken.
In the 1960s, when Atlantic records was the brand leader in soul music, Burke was one of the label's leading acts. Among his fellow artists at Atlantic were Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding and Percy Sledge. Yet, asked who is the finest singer he's ever heard, Atlantic producer Jerry Wexler, who worked with them all, always answers without hesitation that it is Burke.
It's a judgment shared by many soul aficionados, although the reign of King Solomon was relatively brief. By the early 1970s, as musical fashions changed, his popularity was in decline. He was feted as a soul survivor and one of the last of the best. By the end of the 1990s, and with contemporaries such as Otis Redding, Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson all dead, he was reduced to recording gospel records for his own label and selling them through his church.
Then, last summer, he re-emerged with an album prophetically titled Don't Give Up On Me. Released on Fat Possum - a tiny label based in Oxford, Mississippi - and recorded in just four days, it boasted a host of songwriters of unimaginable quality. There was a song Bob Dylan wrote for him. Brian Wilson also donated a song, as did Tom Waits and Nick Lowe. Van Morrison wrote him two. Elvis Costello wrote a song and then flew in at his own expense to hear Burke record it. There were so many great songs, in fact, that Burke didn't even get around to the one Carole King had written for him.
So, with the last of the great 1960s soul singers performing a bunch of songs written for him by 10 of the world's finest living songwriters, it is unsurprising, perhaps, that a poll of music critics in next month's Mojo magazine has voted Don't Give Up On Me the album of the year.
In London to record an appearance on Jools Holland's Hootenanny, Burke is clearly enjoying his comeback. "This label approached me and said they had an idea. But they said they had no idea how to do it," he says, his booming voice betraying the many years he has spent as a preacher. "They said they were going to ask a bunch of superstars to write songs for me and knock on doors and windows until they got them." At first he was suspicious. "I looked at the name of the record company and said, 'I ain't going to be on no label called Fat Possum.'" A fat advance, however, was more to his liking - particularly when the cheque didn't bounce. "Because, I tell you, I've had a few in my career that did," he says.
Having signed up, he heard nothing until three months later, when label boss Andy Kaulkin asked him to visit the studio. As he pulled into the parking lot, he saw a gonzo punk band were leaving: "There was a guy with green and blue spiked hair. Another guy with tattoos all over his face and one with a bone through his nose. I told my chauffeur to lock the door." He called Kaulkin on his cell phone and told him he wasn't getting out of the car. So Kaulkin came down to the parking lot carrying a mail basket containing 15 special delivery packages. "I wound the window down and he told me to pick one," Burke recalls.
The first package he pulled out contained a demo of Stepchild, the new song written by Bob Dylan. "Whoa!" Burke roars. "Bob Dylan! Then Andy told me, 'Take the basket home, listen to everything, and pull out a dozen songs.'" But Burke declined. "I said, 'Do you know what, man? I don't want to hear them. You pick them out. Bring them to the studio in three days and I'll sing them like they're surprise Christmas gifts to me. And I'll sing them instantly. I don't want time to think about them."
It was an unconventional approach, but three days later they began recording. "Bam! Bam! Bam! One after another. Unbelievable stuff," says Burke. On the third day, they told him Elvis was there to see him. "Now, I don't allow drink or drugs in the studio because I'm doing God's work. They think Elvis Presley is here? I knew then they were on drugs. I was thinking, 'How did I get mixed up with these people? Let me out of here.' Then this cool little guy walks in and says, 'My name is Elvis Costello.' "
The only problem was that, at this stage, Burke had still not heard The Judgment, the song Costello had written for him. "He'd flown all that way and he couldn't believe I hadn't even listened to it. I thought he was going to take the song back. Oh, Jesus. I thought, 'You dummy. You've blown it.' " But instead of taking the song back, Costello offered to sing it for him there in the studio. Burke then cut the song in one take.
Although Costello was the only writer to visit the studio while the record was being made, every song was cut in similar fashion, usually on the first take. "Nobody said, 'That second line, man. Can you go back and do it again?' That was it. Just like in the old days."
I wonder if he has ever felt a conflict between his roles as churchman and secular soul singer? "They're all secular songs," he says. "But I give them a spiritual power and make them positive. Like sermons. I listen to those songs and say 'How did they write that?' It was God's will." He admits, though, that there was a line in Tom Waits's Diamond in Your Mind that caused him a problem. "It said something I wasn't comfortable singing. So I wanted to add in a line about prayer. And the record company told me, 'You don't change a Tom Waits songs. You just can't do it.'" Burke insisted on contacting Waits anyway: "Waits said I was right. Nobody could believe that he let me do it."
Burke has been the spiritual leader of The House of God for All People - also known as Solomon's Temple - all his life. "My grandmother had a dream 12 years before I was born and founded the church in anticipation of my birth. So the myth was born before I was." Dalai Lama-like, he was made a bishop on the day he was born, in 1940. By the time he was seven, "the wonder boy preacher" as he was known, had delivered his first sermon. "I realised being a bishop was good," he says, "because bishops got two or three pieces of chicken when everybody else only got a leg."
The day that changed his life came at Thanksgiving in 1954, when his grandmother gave him a guitar as an early Christmas present. ("It was a little acoustic she hid in a pillowcase under the bed," he says.) Within two weeks he had written his first song, Christmas Presents from Heaven. The grandmother died shortly afterwards, so it was the only song of his that she heard. "She was my greatest encouragement," he says. "She would make me listen to the radio: classical, country, jazz, Paul Robeson, Count Basie. And she told me to copy them and learn to phrase and project a song. She was my teacher. I never had no music training." He launches into a mock-operatic scale so loud that the walls seem to tremble. "She gave me the promise of a new life, not just as a singer, but as a person alone in the world with nothing but Jesus. All the great singers came out of the church. Jackie Wilson. Sam Cooke. Brook Benton. Your first duty is to give it to God."
Every third Sunday of the month he preaches in Los Angeles at a church he calls the Miracle Theatre. "So many younger stars today fail to realise God is their saviour," he says. He prays every day for Whitney Houston, whose mother Cissy was one of his early backing singers. "She makes me cry when I see her because I know she knows better and her mother raised her better. The devil has a hold of her soul right now. And I'm asking God to turn that around for her because I don't want to see her lost. She's living in another dimension so we're praying for her."
When he signed to Atlantic in 1960, Burke objected to being marketed as a rhythm and blues singer - because of its reputation as "the devil's music". Instead, they settled on the phrase "soul" after he had consulted his church brethren and won approval for the term. Thus a musical movement was born. As "the King of Soul" he produced a string of classic singles, including If You Need Me, Goodbye Baby and Everybody Needs Somebody to Love. The latter was covered by the Rolling Stones on their second album in 1965, although Burke only got to meet them for the first time this year, when supporting the group on its current American tour. After he left Atlantic in 1968, he recorded a fine cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival's Proud Mary, which gave him another hit. But although he continued recording, his deep soul style was rapidly overtaken by funk and disco and, later, rap.
Unsurprisingly, he's not a fan of hip-hop, which he sees as symptomatic of a godless society. "They're on their way to hell. The young people are projecting what they hear and see, because there's no more grandmothers to say, 'I'm going to bust your legs if you don't behave.' In those days, if I did something wrong, any adult could correct me. They'd take me home to my grandma and she'd punish me.
"That doesn't happen now. If you say something to one of these kids on the street now they may shoot you. They got three places to go. Street. Jail. Grave. I demand that my grandchildren have respect for their elders."
If Jerry Wexler rates him the greatest soul singer of them all, who, I have to ask, does he rate highest? "Otis Redding and Joe Tex," he answers without hesitation, then continues: "But we can go on and on through Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, Little Richard, Bobby Bland. I had the privilege of working with them all."
· Don't Give Up On Me is out now on Fat Possum Records. Solomon Burke appears on Jools Holland's Hootenanny on December 31 and plays the Festival Hall, London, on January 31.
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