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(Solomon Burke together with Heikki Suosalo)


A big man, a big voice and now... a big void.  Solomon was phenomenal.  He belonged to that special group of classic soul artists, who were both thoroughly soulful in their delivery of music, and immensely talented in more genres than one and who had a style of their own.  They were original, individual and usually instantly recognizable.  Unfortunately that group has become more and more thin lately. 

  I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Burke and talking to him over the phone numerous times.  He was an ideal interviewee.  He could describe his music, recording sessions and fellow musicians in a lively and profound way, and often he would come up with piquant stories. 

  Solomon lived a rich and eventful life.  He was born in Philadelphia on March 21, 1940.  His grandmother, Eleanore, founded a church for him.  Solomon: “The church existed twelve years prior to my birth.  I came into the church at the age of seven... I became the pastor and the spiritual leader of the church at the age of twelve.”  As Wonder Boy Preacher Solomon had a radio broadcast called Solomon’s Temple for seven years.


  By the time he was fourteen, Solomon had founded a spiritual group of his own called the Gospel Cavaliers.  In 1955 he went to a local program alone – the other boys didn’t want to go – sang The Old Ship of Zion, and was signed on the spot by Bess Berman to the Apollo Records.  In December 1955 in New York they cut six songs, but the first single – Christmas Presents from Heaven/When I’m All Alone – was released only in early ’56, so ironically it just missed the festive season.  So   Solomon was actually fifteen, close to sixteen, when cutting it.

  Solomon still released nine singles on Apollo, and you can read some of his comments on those recordings in the latter half of the interview at Soul Express.  One of those singles was a mellow spiritual called You Can Run, But You Can’t Hide, which is credited to Joe Louis.  “The song was not written by Joe Louis.  Mr. Bernstein and other writers wrote the song for me, and they used the title without the permission of Joe Louis’ agency.  We were sued by Mr. Louis.  His wife was his attorney and manager, and we had to relinquish the copyright to him.”


  Solomon's last and best Apollo single, You Don’t Send Me Anymore/Always Together, was released in 1961under the pseudonym of Little Vincent.  “My father’s name was Vincent.  I figured that if I can make a song by the name of Little Vincent, maybe I could just thank him.”  Already before that, in the late 50s, after a disagreement about the money with his manager at the time, Solomon hit the rock bottom in his life – “how low is low?” – which meant living in the streets and begging.  Enter Babe Shivian.  “Babe Shivian was my manager, who was like a knight in shining armour.  He came into my life at a very special time, not to take but to give.”  Solomon went back to school, graduated from college and became a mortician.

  Under Babe’s guidance Solomon also hooked up first with Singular Records for two singles (and five more tracks, which were unearthed later) in 1960 and finally with Atlantic, signed in ’60 by Jerry Wexler, who was looking for a heavy replacement for Ray Charles and Bobby Darin, who had just left.  That was the beginning of an eight-year fruitful period for Solomon with six albums and thirty-two singles on Atlantic.


  I’m not going into details about those recordings, because the whole 2-part Solomon Burke feature with an interview – 15 pages altogether – is available in our printed papers in # 4/2000 and # 1/2001.  However, I chose some pieces of information on certain songs.

  Just Out Of Reach (rel. in 1961) – “They weren’t happy with my rendition, because I felt I had to talk.  We did it several times and I kept talking on the record.  Mr. Wexler said ‘I don’t think that’s gonna work.  At that time Mr. Paul Ackerman and others said ‘leave it in.  We don’t know what we’re doing anyway.  This is something new we’re trying.  No black artist has ever done country music before, so let’s see what’s gonna happen’.  That was the turning point of my career – after that, international artist worldwide.”

  Down in the Valley is an old folk song known as Birmingham Jail.  “I rewrote the song on a train.  I put my own feelings and words to it, and was lucky enough by the grace of God to capture the song, when it was in P.D., able to have a copyright on it.”

  There was a battle on If You Need Me between Solomon and Wilson Pickett, and here Solomon has a story that slightly differs from Jerry Wexler’s version.  “Wilson sang the song for me in a bus on a tour.  I loved it so much that I got Wilson to do it.  Atlantic refused to sign him at that time, so we got Wilson to release the song on the Lloyd-Logan label.  We were the best of friends.  As a matter of fact, I promoted his record and he promoted mine.”

  The Price is a magnificent deep soul song.  “The song was written live at the Apollo Theater.  It’s a dramatic, drastic story.  It wasn’t something that was prepared.  I had received some uncomfortable news from Philadelphia concerning my wife, my family.  I had to go on stage at that moment.  I could not respond to what was going on and I just told my band just to play the vamp and I would think of something.”

  Got To Get You Off My Mind – “It was written in California the night of Sam Cooke’s death.  I learned of Sam Cooke’s death after leaving him two hours prior to that.  At the same time I learned about my wife wanting a divorce.  A special delivery letter was at the desk waiting for me in the hotel... so all of these things came about very quickly and very drastically.”


  For the bio Solomon also told colourful stories about some of his fellow colleagues.  When asked about James Brown, he hits back jokingly “who is James Brown?”  “James is one of the greatest entertainers in the world.  He is a perfect example what you can do, if you believe in God and believe in yourself.”

  “We didn’t get along too well.  We had a lot of clashes and a lot of funny incidents.  James thinks that I spent all of my money buying a train in Atlanta, Georgia, to come through on a concert.  We had a record called Goodbye Baby, and James was the star of the show and I was the co-star.  Back in those days we did challenges like who’s gonna steal the show – the battle of the stars.  James was back in his dressing room getting his rollers in his hair and getting ready to come on and I went on right before him.  In the song there’s a little line that says ‘I see that train coming down along lonesome tracks’.  We’re in the black stadium in Atlanta, and just as I said that, a train came down behind the stadium.  Just at that moment!  And James went crazy.  He said ‘this man bought a train.  He’s trying to steal the show with a train’.  Of course, the audience went up, because they thought it was such a perfect timing for the train to come down saying ‘uu-uuu’.”


  After Atlantic, Solomon co-produced with his manger and fiancée at the time, Tamiko Jones, an album titled Proud Mary for Bell Records.  “We went to Muscle Shoals and recorded Proud Mary, which they didn’t like at all.  They thought it was stupid to record a song Proud Mary, which was already on the charts.  I was explaining to them that it was a very big record, but it’s a very white record, a pop record.  We will redo the record, open up the doors for it to get on the r&b charts and make the black stations to play the record... It was a Solomon Burke record made in Muscle Shoals.  We proved that we can make a hit record without Jerry Wexler eating sandwiches with us.  This record was a hit without anybody’s help.  Proud Mary was only promoted by Tamiko Jones and myself.”

  Solomon hooked up next with MGM/Pride for the next three years, and his first album – The Electronic Magnetism – in ’71 is one of the most underrated ones in his career.  “I think it’s one of the greatest albums I ever did.”  The three follow-up albums were Cool Breeze, We’re Almost Home and History of Solomon Burke, which alongside new songs  included six re-recordings of his Atlantic sides with new arrangements and fuller orchestration.

  Under a deal between MGM and ABC, Solomon’s next project called I Have a Dream was released on ABC in 1974.  “...once again this record was black-balled.  This album was dedicated to Martin Luther King.  You will never hear this record played on any station during the Martin Luther King celebration, because this record was banned.  It was too direct, too much of a message – and it wasn’t black enough!  MGM gave me all the freedom to do this album.  I used live musicians, forty strings.  I did everything that I wanted to do.”

  After two albums for Chess (1975-76), one single on Amherst (’78), one album on Infinity (in ’79, one side produced by Michael Stokes and the second by Swamp Dogg) and one single on Soul Town in ’81, Solomon had four albums released on Savoy in 1981-84.  “I did three albums for Savoy.  Those records were reproduced and purchased by Malaco.  I have never been under the contract to Malaco.  We never received any royalties from any of those records that were ever done by Savoy.”  We also have the complete Solomon Burke discography available.


  In 1984 Rounder released an exciting live recording that was cut three years earlier.  “Soul Alive! was done live at the Phoenix Club in Washington D.C.  That tape we had sitting around and I think I gave the master to my son, Selassie.  He was like sixteen years old at that time.  He said ‘dad, this old tape, what do you want me to do with it?’  I said ‘it was something I recorded live on a Willcox recorder.  It’s only two tracks’.  He said ‘can I go into the studio and play with it with the new sixteen-track’.  Can we put it up on three or four tracks and hear what happens’?  ‘I don’t think that’ll work, son’.  We did that.  You can’t believe the sound’!”

  After one more album, A Change Is Gonna Come in 1986, Solomon parted ways with Rounder.  “Not happy with Rounder as far as the promotion, getting your royalties... In the beginning it was a very beautiful relationship, but then it didn’t continue the way we would have liked to continue.  I felt it was time to move.”

  The final 80s album, Love Trap, was followed by Home Land in 1991, and it contains one of Solomon’s hidden gems, a powerful, almost breathless, preaching gem called Stayin’ Away.  Two following 90s albums on the Black Top label feature Solomon on familiar, old r&b tunes (Soul of the Blues) and blues standards (Live at the House of Blues).  The Definition of Soul (on Pointblack in ’97) is practically created inside the Burke family.


  Solomon comments his three next albums - Not By Water, But Fire This Time, Christmas All Over the World and the magnificent Commitment in my 2000 interview with Solomon Burke, when he turned sixty.

  Solomon went on to regain his throne in the 2000s by releasing strong CDs on Fat Possum and Shout! Factory, by being inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame and receiving numerous other awards.  I met Mr. Burke after the release of his ’02 CD, Don’t Give Up On Me, and you can read Mr. Burke’s comments here.  The CD won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album.

  His latest album is probably the best traditional soul album of 2010.  We discussed Nothing’s Impossible five months ago.

  Solomon meant a lot to me, so it was heart-breaking learning about his passing on October 10.  Luckily there should be an autobiography in the pipeline and at least one more gospel CD from this giant of a man.


  After writing my tribute above, I learned that another long-standing soul man, General Norman Johnson, passed away on October 13.  Please read my interview with General Johnson about his career way back in 1994.

Best regards


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