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The influence of Solomon Burke

Published:Sunday | January 13, 2013 | 12:00 AM
Solomon Burke, one of the pioneers of soul music, gestures to the audience after being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in this March 19, 2001 file photo taken in New York. Burke died at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport in October 2010. He was 70. - AP
Rolling Stones

Sam Cooke, who we featured in last week's Music Diaries, may very well be the main catalyst behind the emergence of the soul music genre, described as 'a kind of slow-tempoed music, incorporating elements of rhythm and blues and gospel music, popularised by American Blacks.'

Cooke had, indeed, set the stage for Soul music with recordings like his 1965 posthumous release A Change Is Gonna Come, the placidly delivered Bring It On Home To Me in 1962, and the ever popular Cupid in 1961.

The first, and probably the most important of the early pioneers of soul music, that could be said to have taken the baton from Cooke, was Solomon Burke. In a genre that certainly produced the most romantically charged music, Burke's voice, with a discernible tremor, proved the ideal complement. Born on March 21, 1940, to the sound of gospel music in an upstairs room of a Philadelphia Church, Burke like Sam Cooke, was immersed in gospel during childhood. By his early teens Burke had begun preaching in his father's Philadelphia Church, sometimes doubling up as vocalist.

Staying with the Church, Burke began his adult life as an ordained minister, preaching in a Philadelphia Church and soon moved on to hosting his own radio gospel show from his own Church - Solomon's Temple.

It was about this time that he signed a recording contract with the giant Atlantic Recording Company and began recording secular songs.

Although Burke followed Cooke in terms of moving into secular music after his gospel beginnings, there was an important difference.

Burke became the most unique personality in the entertainment business during the 1960s by being able to combine his religious and secular life in a way no one else could.

Successful soul ballads

Even as an ordained minister, Burke still found time to record and release several successful soul ballads, which made him into one of the greatest soul singers of the time.

Yet, ironically his popularity never matched that of those he influenced like James Brown or Marvin Gaye.

Burke joined Sam Cooke, as one of the most important links between gospel and soul music in the 1960s.

But whereas Cooke brought a cool intensity to R&B balladry, Burke's soul music often focussed on a harsher and more directly emotional version of gospel. His approach earned for him the title, 'King of Rock and Soul'.

The overtones from his gospel background, can be heard on his self-penned Atlantic recording, The Price and his Dunhill release, I Have A Dream, based on Dr Martin Luther King's anti-apartheid philosophies.

Burke, in fact, made his recording debut with Atlantic Recording Company on September 4, 1961, with a song titled, Just Out Of Reach Of My Two Empty Arms, a romantically soulful ballad which ran in part:

Love that runs away from me,

dreams that just won't let me be,

blues that keeps on bothering me,

chains that just won't set me free.

Too far away from you and all your charms,

Just out of reach of my two empty arms.

Prior to his signing with Atlantic, Burke had secured a degree in mortuary science, but his interest in music was paramount. Citing his main influences as Elvis Presley, Roy Hamilton, Nat Cole and the Church, he unleashed a string of soul classics that included Cry To Me (1962), which hit twice, first in the 1960s, and again in the 1980s, when it appeared in the soundtrack of the film Dirty Dancing.

He added the Wilson Pickett-penned, If You Need Me in 1963, and his self-penned, Got To Get You Off My Mind in 1965.

They all demonstrated his ability to sing with total control, whether passionately crooning or savagely preaching about lost love. Got To Get You Off My Mind, was in fact Burke's last top-10 hit, which signalled a drift away from the slower gospel feel, and carved out a permanent niche for him in the pop music world.

Writing or co-writing most of his material, Burke recorded for various companies after leaving Atlantic in 1968, having only two successes with Proud Mary and Midnight And You for Dunhill Records.

His strong influence on other artistes is revealed by the many who covered his songs, and their appearances in several movies: Otis Redding had a version of Down In The Valley, Wilson Pickett and Jamaican's Slim Smith covered Everybody Needs Somebody To Love, while The Rolling Stones covered the latter as well as Cry To Me and If You Need Me.

Burke continued to preach during the 1980s, while recording two of his last major works - The Albums, Soul Alive and A Change Is Gonna Come. They confirmed a renewed interest in 1960s soul, and his pre-eminent position as one of the best soul singers of all time.

Renewed interest

Burke also found time to put to use the degree he secured in mortuary science by running a funeral parlour business in Los Angeles, while continuing in the music business during the 1990s, alternating soul singing with preaching.

He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame in 2001, and won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album the following year.

These honours sparked a renewed interest in Burke and he toured extensively for the next few years, appearing in several movies and as special guest at various functions.

As a pastor, Burke must have based many of his sermons on Genesis 1:28: "And God blessed them and said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply", as it was reported that he had some 21 children.

An amazing man, Burke was reported to have done his final recording at the age of 70, an album in collaboration with Willie Mitchell, quite appropriately titled, Nothing's Impossible, which was released on April 6, 2010.

His last performance was on September 4, 2010, and he was due to perform in Amsterdam, Holland on October 12, but fate had other plans. He died on an aeroplane from Los Angeles, that had just landed at an Amsterdam Airport two days earlier.