by Travis Atria
Out of Solomon Burke’s seventy years, I only knew him for the duration of a forty-minute phone call. But, they are hard minutes to forget. He came on with his deep baritone: “Well, good morning, good afternoon, good evening. They had me going crazy all morning talking to Japan, Germany, Beirut—I decided, I don’t know where I’m talking now, so I better cover it all.” He let out a deep, long laugh after that, something he did often during the interview. Then, he asked how the weather was by me and how my family was doing. I have interviewed more than 150 artists from every genre and generation, and he is the only one who ever asked about my family.
Burke was literally and figuratively bigger than life, weighing more than three hundred pounds with an almost endless supply of tall tales to tell. When I interviewed him for Wax Poetics just four months ago, he was fresh off a tour of Japan and his voice literally boomed out of the phone. It was obvious that the man had a gift. He could easily strike you spellbound telling any one of the stories of his uncommon life, speaking with the sonorous cadence of a preacher, leaving you almost swaying along. The man had charisma in the literal sense, meaning a special magnetism conferred by God. Perhaps it is even stranger, then, that his work never found a mainstream audience in the way that contemporaries like Otis Redding and Sam Cooke did.
Burke was born in his grandmother’s house in Pennsylvania while a church service thundered downstairs. When he was young, she had a vision of his life. “My grandmother told me of the things I would do in life,” he told me. “That I would travel the world and see things I had never seen before; that I would be able to perform for millions of people and not see them; that I would be able to go places that I had never been and may never go again; that I would have a large family.” She was right.
He was a preacher by age seven, had his own radio ministry by age twelve, and recorded his first single at age fourteen. He was a mortician, worked at an insane asylum, was homeless, and bounced around record labels before signing a contract with Atlantic Records in the 1960s. However, he never had that big hit. He came close with “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” in 1964, but most of his life’s work went under the radar. Late in his career, his albums began garnering more critical acclaim, but the opportunity for superstardom had already passed. His last album, Hold on Tight, is set for release this month.
His death at age seventy in an Amsterdam airport, apparently of natural causes, is more than just a passing of one artist. In a way, it is a passing of a generation of artists who came from the church to radically change popular music, the music business, and in the process, race relations in America. It is the loss of an entire library’s worth of information about soul music in its heyday. It is the loss of a man who was with Sam Cooke the night he died, a man who knew Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, a man who felt the sting of segregation and fought back with music, a man who had the balls to play a full set at a Ku Klux Klan rally one night and then perform for an all-Black audience the next, a man who worked at a meat market with Chubby Checker, a man who fathered twenty-one children—the stories go on and on. Sadly, there will be no new ones.
In the end, I keep thinking back to something he said to me in our interview: “I have no talent. Everything I have is on loan to me by the grace of God.”
He made good use of that loan. But they all get called back sometime.
Editor’s note: Look out for Travis’ feature on Burke in an upcoming issue of Wax Poetics.
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