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Solomon Burke - A chat with the King of Soul
By Jeff Tamarkin
Solomon Burke is larger-than-life in more ways than one, and after more than 50 years in the business the tag “King of Soul” still fits him like one of his snazzy tailor-made suits. He first came to the attention of the masses in the early 1960s when he recorded such classic R&B hits for Atlantic Records as “Just Out of Reach,” “Cry to Me,” “If You Need Me” and Got to Get You Off My Mind.” The Rolling Stones covered “Cry to Me” and another early Burke hit, “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love,” and brought his music to an even greater audience.
Many of his contemporaries are gone, or have at least faded from view, but Solomon Burke is not only still among us, he’s produced some of the most amazing music of career in recent years. His albums of the past decade, such as Don’t Give Up on Me and Nashville, show an artist who is still growing, still putting his all into everything he does.
Solomon Burke still performs regularly and when he stopped in Switzerland in 2003, the cameras were rolling, capturing the magnificence of this legendary R&B artist in all his glory. The King Live at AVO Session Basel finds Solomon reprising those hits that made him a star and taking on a number of great songs from within numerous genres, all of which he instantly makes his own.
Music journalist Jeff Tamarkin spoke with Solomon, who is also an ordained bishop, about today, yesterday and what lies ahead.
Why did you choose to release a performance from Switzerland on DVD?
Solomon Burke: Because Switzerland is part of my heart. It’s just such a wonderful response there: great people and a wonderful time. It’s not about me, it’s about the people.
It seems to me that Europeans are more respectful of classic soul music than Americans are these days. Do you feel that way?
SB: I don’t know if it’s more respectful or that they enjoy it so much more. They feel dedicated to what they believe and what they want to do, what they like and don’t like. They respond with pride and with reaction. It’s such a great audience participation that it’s actually me coming to the show. I feel like we’re all one group. It’s like a family reunion; you’re coming to have wonderful times with family and friends and people who really care. This is what love is about and what sharing and caring are about. You have to see it to believe it.
Is it that way in all of the other places you perform?
SB: God has blessed me to be able to travel to all these places all over the world and express my heart and soul in music. The joy that I’m receiving is the blessings that come from the audience. It’s all races and creeds and denominations and all ages, from kids to grandmas to fogies my age. It’s wonderful seeing people enjoy themselves. Isn’t that what it’s about? If you go to a ball game or a concert or a show, you want to feel like you really enjoyed it. It’s not just the hot dogs, you know?
One of the songs you performed at this concert was Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come.” That song served as a civil rights anthem in the ’60s and it’s still very moving today. What does it mean to you?
SB: It was a message then, and it’s a message stronger today, because God knows we need a change. We need a big change, and a whole lot of understanding. If we ever needed to love each other, and see the change come, this is the time.
You were with Sam Cooke on the day that he was killed. What kind of person was Sam?
SB: He was one of the gentlemen of music. He was an incredible businessman. He had a great idea—he was planning his own TV show, Sam Cooke Cooks. I remember his manager saying how excited they were about that. I said to him, “So, you gonna cook on the show? You can come over and bring some greens and cornbread!”
You also did “Georgia on My Mind.” What was your relationship like with Ray Charles?
SB: My relationship with Ray Charles was knowing a man who was more than a genius. He was an artist of dignity, someone who gave his heart and his soul to music and to his performances. The music that he gave us is something that will live forever. “Georgia” is just the tip of the iceberg of the Ray Charles classics. “Drown in My Own Tears,” “What’d I Say.” “I’ve Got a Woman.” I could sing Ray Charles for two or three hours and just enjoy myself.
Maybe that can be your next album, Solomon Sings Ray!
SB: There are certain songs that are just meaningful to people and can take people’s minds away from the daily problems and bring them into a musical mode: singing along or humming along and thinking about something positive. That’s what I want to do.
You sing songs by Tom Waits and Brian Wilson, and on your Don’t Give Up on Me album you had songs by Van Morrison, Elvis Costello and Bob Dylan. How do those songs find their way to you? Do people tell you about them or do you do a lot of listening on your own?
SB: Those were songs given to me to record by those artists. I’m just honored that these artists even considered to write these songs for me. I’ve had the privilege of doing these songs and them being part of my life.
On your album Make Do With What You Got, you recorded a song by the Rolling Stones, “I Got the Blues.” Was that your way of returning the favor for them recording your songs “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” and “Cry to Me” on their early albums?
SB: I don’t know if it was a favor (laughs). But I tried.
What did you think of their versions of your songs?
SB: I still love them. Every time that check comes in… (laughs) I love the Stones! You know, the Stones took me to a level I couldn’t reach and opened doors that could not have been opened if they had not opened them for me around the world. This is a blessing. I wish they would cover every record I did! (laughs)
The way they’re going, they may do that yet.
SB: They’re amazing, aren’t they? I tell people to see these artists; this is part of your heritage.
What do you remember most about Ahmet Ertegun?
SB: (imitates Ertegun’s nasal speech and accent) Let me tell you about Ahmet, man. (laughs) I loved this guy. He was the executive’s executive. He put his mouth and his money in the same place. He came from the country of Turkey and he worked hard and stayed with it. He said, “I want to make my dream come true and put this music everywhere I can.” And he did that with the Atlantic label, from the Stones to Bobby Darin to Ruth Brown, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Herbie Mann, the Coasters, the Drifters, LaVern Baker, Big Joe Turner, Ivory Joe Hunter, Chuck Willis. Come on. We could be here all week! He made a mark with every one of them, and I’m so thankful that I was in that group. I was closer to Ahmet Ertegun after leaving Atlantic. We just became friends and he’d call me to do things. I would always remind him, “Hey, don’t forget those royalties you owe me!”
Did you ever get them?
SB: Things changed for the better. You go on with life. You don’t stay on the same old broken-down truck.
When you first signed to Atlantic, Jerry Wexler wanted you to become a country singer, correct?
SB: He pushed me in a country direction because they thought they’d get rid of me (laughs).
Didn’t work, did it?
SB: No, it didn’t.
And now, 40 years later, you’ve finally done a country album, Nashville.
SB: Oh, yeah, and I really did it in honor of being the first black artist in America to record country music and be played on the radio. Herb Jeffries was one of the first black country artists in America, but never got the airplay. He had his own movies but was never nationally or internationally proclaimed as an artist to be played on the radio.
What drew you to country music?
SB: It was, and still is, the most dominant music in America. If you come from the Ozarks or Tennessee or Texas, of course you sing country music. But me coming from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, that was a joke! (laughs) But I loved listening to Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. Gene Autry was my favorite cowboy, and as a little kid we would ride the brooms and put on little cowboy hats. My grandmother would always say, “Listen to the songs. Listen to his singing, listen to his diction.”
Being a man of faith, were you ever reluctant to sing certain secular songs?
SB: It was very important for me to be careful with the songs I sang. Me being an elder in my church, there’s a certain respect that I have to have and have to show. So I was always very careful to choose the right words and say the right things. You can always say something without saying it wrong. You can always portray a story or a picture if you really believe in it. I made an album called Music to Make Love By, which I thought was a sexy album. I just loved making love with the music, and telling that story of love. I’m the father of 21 children and I have 86 grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren.
That’s incredible! What is your number one parenting tip?
SB: Love you one another. Be fruitful and multiply. That’s what I was told many years ago as a child and I did what I was told. I’ve been obedient as much as I could. I’m very blessed. I have 14 daughters and seven sons. My youngest daughter controls our company and manages me. I’m so proud of my kids. We have our ups and downs but you go through life and make things work.
The way you’ve been going, for 50 years, you’ll probably outlast the music industry itself.
SB: Ah, you’re very kind.
What is the biggest change you’ve seen?
SB: The telephone. When I was a kid the telephone was on the wall and you wound it up. Now we’re at a stage where people don’t even talk anymore. They just text. Famous people don’t even answer their phones. I still have to answer mine.
What about the changes in recording technology?
SB: Oh, the recording technology has come such a great way that we’re actually turning it around trying to duplicate the old way. We’re going back to simplicity. You can record on one mike with two musicians and get such a pure sound.
You recorded the Nashville album in producer Buddy Miller’s living room, right?
SB: We recorded it in the house. Buddy was a complete genius. Unbelievable producer and great writer and incredible musician.
What are you planning for your next record?
SB: I’m going to keep on till I get it right. You just have to find the right songs and not overdo it. I’ve been recording since 1954, almost six decades, and it’s been just a joy. We’ve come from 78s cut direct to disc and now it’s direct to DAT. The technology is always changing—from the CD and now the iPod. I predict in five years everything will be on a chip. You’ll just buy a chip of the artist, push a button and be there.
One thing that hasn’t changed is you’re still the best-dressed man in show business. Who makes your suits?
SB: Well, thank you! I work very hard putting those suits together. I have a tailor here in Los Angeles. I think it’s important when I perform for people to try to look my best. I’m not the skinniest guy in the world, so it takes a lot of material!
And what about that throne? Who made that for you?
SB: The thrones are made in different cities, wherever I go. Each state and each country represents its own throne. On our web page you can see the different thrones from around the world.
One last question. After all these years you’re still called the “King of Soul.” What does that mean to you?
SB: It means we’re just gonna have to keep on and try to improve upon my ability to make people happy, to keep reaching out to souls and put forward the word of peace. That’s what it’s all about. Everybody needs somebody but we all need love and peace.