Solomon Burke, Legendary Soul, Blues and Gospel Singer, died today

It is with immense sadness that we report that the legendary singer, Solomon Burke (aged 70), has died this morning in Schiphol Airport, Holland.  Burke was en route to a gig with the Dutch rock band De Dijk scheduled for Tuesday.  He was due to release an album of 13 of their songs (translated into English) this month, called "Hold On Tight".  The cause of death is unknown but other news reports say that he collapsed on the plane that had just arrived from Los Angeles early this morning and couldn't be rescuscitated.

Burke was undoubtedly one of  the finest soul singers of all time, unfortunately not getting the same respect during his lifetime accorded to people like James Brown, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke and others, including Ray Charles (of whom it was said that Burke paved the way for).  He was once hailed by Jerry Wexler (Producer for Atlantic Records) as "the greatest soul singer of all time."  Wexler also wrote in his memoirs that:

“Solomon was churchy without being coarse, his melisma subtle and restrained, his voice an instrument of exquisite sensitivity.”  'His skills remain intact, ringing emotional depth out of every gentle sigh or thunderous holler. (Bill Carpenter)' 

Besides possessing a magical voice Burke was also a songwriter, his most well known songs being 1962's "Cry To Me", brought to prominence in the 1980s film "Dirty Dancing" and the classic 1964 track "Everybody Needs Somebody to Love" - most famous to the general public via Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi's cover version in the 1980 film The Blues Brothers (though also covered by The Rolling Stones and Wilson Pickett.).  

He was born in Philadelphia, on March 21, 1940, "to the sounds of horns and bass drums" at the United Praying Band The House of God for All People in West Philly.  He once said:

“The only thing I don’t know is what key I was crying in when I came into this world,”

Not surprisingly he began his adult career as a preacher as well as hosting a gospel radio show.  More surprisingly he was also a trained undertaker and owned a mortuary business.

In the 1960s, he signed with Ahmet Ertegun's Atlantic Records - home to Ray Charles. His first hit record was a cover version of the country song "Just Out Of Reach".

He had a large back catalogue of albums (too many to mention here) and had released 7 in the last 10 years alone.  Burke sold at least 17 million records in his career. His repertoire was equally immense, Burke recording almost prolifically in the genres of Soul, Blues, Rock, Gospel and Country with equal skill, comfort and command in all.

In 2001 the self-proclaimed King of Rock & Soul was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. This was followed by his album "Don't Give Up On Me" (the title track of which still sends shivers down my spine) where he sang songs by such artists as Van Morrison, Brian Wilson, Elvis Costello,Tom Waits and Bob Dylan.  The album gave a new impetus to his career and the following year, in 2003, Burke was named best contemporary blues album at the 45th Grammy Awards in 2003.

His subsequent album ("Nashville") showed him collaborating with people like Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris (2006); 2007’s "Make Do With What You Got" included songs by Dr. John, Keith Richards and Mick Jagger, to name a few, while "Like A Fire" (2008) had Burke’s brilliant interpretations of songs by Harper, Keb’ Mo’, Eric Clapton and Jesse Harris.'  Not for nothing did Tom Waits say that he was “one of the architects of American Music.”

Burke's live performances were highly anticipated and hugely praised by all who witnessed them as the, admittedly very large, singer sat on his specially constructed throne and held court clutching red roses which he would periodically present to the ladies in the audience.  He might have been majestic in presentation but his concerts were the essence of humility.  Burke and his band would play without set lists, instead performing whatever the audience wanted to hear.  As his website says:

“The thing I most enjoy is the people, the audience, just the thrill of being out there making personal contact and having the deeply spiritual experience of sharing music with so many grateful fans,” says Burke. “The band truly feeds off the vibrations of the people ... It's like turning back the hands of time instantly. We can be in the middle of singing something from my recent "Like A Fire" album, and they'll call out "Stupidity" from 1957 and we're back 50 years!"

Over the last few years he actually increased the amount of live gigs he did around the world notching up over 130,000 frequent flier miles in 2009 alone. In 2008 he played Glastonbury's Jazz World stage, and on July 24, 2009, Burke played at the Open-air stage in Charlton Park for the WOMAD Music Festival.  This year he celebrated his 70th birthday in March 2010 and toured Japan for the first time in May 2010, before his "Year of the Dream Love Tour" across Europe in July and August 2010, including dates in Spain, Italy, Germany, Norway, Belgium, Serbia, Bulgaria. Switzerland and England where he performed in Gateshead, Exeter and London's Jazz Cafe, spending all of the gigs seated in his specially made throne.

Burke was also the patriarch of a huge family of 21 children (14 daughters, 7 sons), 90 grandchildren and 19 great grandchildren.

The last words we can leave to Solomon himself:

"What’s fun is that the audiences in both Europe and America range in age from five years old to my age and older, and the kids know these songs,” he adds. “They think I’m a big black Santa Claus, and I love them."

"Loving people," he said at a recent performance in London, "is what I do."

In an interview with The Telegraph, Burke said:

"As long as I have breath to do it, I'll sing."

Sadly for us the larger than life Solomon Burke will sing no more.


Glyn Phillips

"Don't Give Up On Me" - on Jools Holland's show:

"None Of Us Are Free" - Solomon with The Blind Boys of Alabama