By Joel Francis
The Daily Record
Soul legend Solomon Burke died Sunday at an airport in Amsterdam. The 70-year old singer was best known for 1960s soul classics such as “Got To Get You Off My Mind” and “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love,” which was covered by Wilson Pickett and the Blues Brothers.
Although he made his name in the ‘60s, Burke released several stunning albums in the last decade of his life. His 2002 comeback “Don’t Give Up On Me” featured songs written specifically for him by Van Morrison, Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson and Nick Lowe. In 2006, Buddy Miller helmed “Nashville,” an Americana-themed album featuring support from Emmylou Harris and Gillian Welch. 2005’s “Make Do With What You Got” is another crucial piece of Burke’s renaissance.
I never got to see Burke perform. In fact, unless I missed him at the old Blues and Jazz Fest, I can’t recall him even stopping in Kansas City in the last 15 years. I always hoped Bill Shapiro would be able to book him for one of his excellent Cypress Avenue Live at the Folly series. Sadly, it was not to be.
But while I missed out, thousands of fans around the world were able to enjoy the king of rock and soul up close. Writer Peter Guralnick devotes an entire chapter to Burke in his classic 1986 book “Sweet Soul Music.” Plenty has been written about Burke’s musical legacy; the following recollections from the book spotlight Burke’s colorful personality.
Burke was signed to Atlantic Records in 1961, in part to fill the hole that had been left when Ray Charles departed for ABC. Burke had, Guralnick wrote, “a combination of Sam Cooke at his mellifluous best and Ray Charles at his deep-down and funkiest, an improbable mix of sincerity, dramatic artifice, bubbling good humor, multitextured vocal artistry.”
Music was Burke’s love, but he always had a little something extra going on the side. Before signing to Atlantic, the Philadelphia-based singer struggled to bridge the gap between gospel and something bigger. When his first independent singles didn’t perform to expectation, he briefly left the music business to become a mortician, a skill he never completely abandoned. During an early Atlantic recording session, he begged out early to return to Philadelphia where he worked a snow-removal job for $3.50 an hour.
The ability – and willingness – to deliver a wide range of musical styles, from country to soul to gospel, not only made Burke a nationwide star, but disguised his race in a still very-segregated landscape. In “Sweet Soul Music” Burke described a Friday night gig in Mississippi that looked like a dream.
“They had those big flatbed trucks with the loudspeakers hooked up, and the black people was just bringing us fried chicken and ribs,” Burke recalled. “Oh, my God, they got corn on the cob, they making cakes and pies, they got hot bread, barbecued ribs …. Oh, man, I can’t begin to tell you – it looked like the festival of the year!”
Before the band went on, the sheriff instructed them when to take the stage and end their set, and promised protection and an escort back to the highway. When the band went onstage at the appointed time Burke noticed odd lights in the distance.
“All the way as far as your eye could see was lights, like people holding a blowtorch, coming, they was just coming slowly, they was coming toward the stage,” Burke said. “They got closer and closer. Man, they was 30,000 Ku Klux Klanners in their sheets – it was their annual rally. The whole time we played we played that show those people kept coming. With their sheets on. Little kids with little sheets, ladies, man, everybody just coming up, just moving under the lights, everyone dancing and having a good time.”
True his word, the sheriff made sure there was no trouble, and the band departed unscathed – not that they lingered any longer than necessary.
In 1964, radio station WEBB in Baltimore crowned Burke the King of Rock ‘n’ Soul. Burke took the title seriously and began performing from a thrown and wearing a crown. It was his royal cape, however, that caused the biggest problem.
The other reigning king of R&B had featured a cape in his shows for some time, and James Brown took offense to what he considered Burke’s stealing part of the act. The feud came to a head when Brown hired Burke to open in Chicago for $10,000. That was good money for a one-night stand in the early ‘60s, made even better when Burke was told he could use the James Brown Orchestra, saving his own band expenses.
Shortly before show time, Brown’s assistant met with Burke, ensuring Burke had his throne, red carpet, robe and crown all ready to go. Burke confirmed he was ready to go. When it was time to go on, Burke was standing in the wings in full regalia as the introduction started – only the emcee introduced Brown instead.
“James came on with his cape, dancing on the carpet. That was funny, man,” Burke said. “He says, ‘Your job, just watch me. Watch the real king.’”
At one point in the show, Brown asked Burke to come onstage and place his crown on Brown’s head. Even though he never performed, the crowd chanted Burke’s name all night.
“(Brown) says ‘Solomon Burke cannot perform because he’s been decrowned,’” Burke said. “I never did find out what ‘decrowned’ meant. But it was, as I say, very amusing.”
It was also an easy way to pick up ten grand. After the show Burke told Brown he’d be willing to do the whole thing over again the next night for a discounted price of $8,000. It was a generous gesture for Burke, who while not exactly cheap, recognized – like Brown – the value of making a buck.
For example, he frequently traveled with a mini convenience store of sandwiches, orange juice, tomato juice and ice water. As the odometer turned on the tour bus, so increased the price of Burke’s goods. Otis Redding’s brother Rodgers Redding remembers one tour with Burke.
“(Burke) always carried stuff like ice water, cookies, candy, gum; even though he didn’t drink at all, you’d go into his room at the hotel and see all this, Courvoisier, different kinds of wine, the whole room would be full of booze. He’d have a hot plate, frying pan, flowers, roses, everything, just for his guests, whoever would come by.
“I remember one tour,” Redding continued, “Solomon was selling his ice water for ten cents, sandwiches for a dollar – everybody just laughed at him. By the time they got halfway there, he was selling that water for a dollar, sandwiches for $7.50!”
Jim Crow laws in the South had given Burke a captive marketplace, but also provided a generous audience in each town. Burke taught his band never to eat out after a gig – the little old ladies would always provide a nicer meal for free in their home than they could imagine at a restaurant. Sometimes they offered more.
“Them old ladies would come out with their biscuits and fresh-baked pies, they’d say ‘Here’s some fresh milk for you, son, just be sure and bring back my thermos.’ Fried chicken, barbecued ribs, ham hocks, collard greens, man it was great,” Burke said. “Then them old ladies would say, ‘Son, would you drive my granddaughter out to the main highway? Don’t you worry none, she can find her own way back.’”
Every facet of Burke’s personality converged when he played the Apollo Theater at the height of his popularity in the mid-‘60s. Playing the famed theater was a dream for most performers, but Burke, as always, wanted a little something extra. He had language included in his contract that gave him control of the theater’s concessions that night. Known for strolling the aisles at intermission and hawking wares, this is what the theater owners thought they were agreeing to. Burke, however, had other plans.
Bobby Schiffman, brother of Apollo owner Frank Schiffman, picked up the story in his other brother Jack Schiffman’s book “Uptown: The Story of Harlem’s Apollo Theater.”
“Solomon arrived … with a cooker on which he fried pork chops to sell the gang backstage, and a carton of candy,” Schiffman said. “I decided to humor him – until the truck pulled up.”
It seems Burke had recently bought into a chain of drugstores and had an abundance of popcorn. He had taken to hauling a trailer of the stuff around to his shows and passing it out. So when the Apollo deal was struck, Burke thought he had the perfect means of ridding himself of the overstocked kernels.
“I had about 10,000 stickers printed up to go on the boxes of popcorn saying, ‘Thank you for coming to the Apollo Theater from Solomon Burke, Atlantic Records Recording Artist. Your Box of Soul Popcorn,’” Burke told Guralnick.
After nearly giving the Schiffman family a collective heart attack, the two parties hastily renegotiated. In Burke’s version of the story, he agreed to take a loss on the rest of his food and cede concessions back to the theater provided he could still distribute the popcorn. In Bobby Schiffman’s version the family bought the popcorn off Burke for $50,000 provided he not sell anything else in the theater that night.
“That’s been my problem my whole life in entertainment: I utilize my educational background and maybe that makes me a little too smart for my britches,” Burke said. “They assumed my intelligence was limited, that my ability to supply a demand was limited. I wasn’t even thinking about singing that week. My biggest shot was: get rid of that popcorn. But it was the greatest publicity thing that I ever did.”