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Solomon Burke

Biography

Solomon Burke
Beth Herzhaft

With his big, powerful voice and fervent but controlled emotionality, Solomon Burke was one of the early pioneers of soul music, though his contributions were not fully recognized until the new millennium, when he belatedly won his first Grammy.

By the age of nine, Solomon Burke (b. March 21, 1940, Philadelphia, PA) was a preacher and choir soloist at his family's Philadelphia church, the House of God for All People. At twelve he began hosting his own gospel radio show, "Solomon's Temple," and touring the gospel circuits billed as the "Wonder Boy Preacher." In 1955 he began recording both religious and secular music for Apollo and Singular before signing with Atlantic Records in 1960.

At Atlantic Burke made some of the first soul records by setting his gospel "preaching" style in song forms borrowed from R&B, rock & roll and other secular music styles. His second Atlantic release, the country song "Just Out of Reach (of My Two Open Arms)" (Number Seven R&B, 1961), was his first hit single. Burke called his big-beat dance songs "rock 'n' soul music" and won crossover popularity with "Cry to Me" (Number 44 pop, Number Five R&B, 1962), "If You Need Me" (Number 37 pop, Number Two R&B, 1963), "You're Good for Me" (Number 49 pop, Number Eight R&B, 1963), "Got to Get You Off My Mind" (Number 22 pop, Number One R&B, 1965) and "Tonight's the Night" (Number 28 pop, Number Two R&B, 1965). He had two more R&B Top Twenty records on Atlantic, "Keep a Light in the Window" and "Take Me (Just as I Am)," in 1967. He was a major influence on Mick Jagger, who covered Burke-related songs "You Can Make It If You Try," "Everybody Needs Somebody to Love," "If You Need Me" and "Cry to Me" on early Rolling Stones albums. Otis Redding also covered Burke's R&B variation on the traditional folk ballad "Down in the Valley."

In 1969 Burke moved to Bell Records and hit with a cover of John Fogerty's "Proud Mary" (Number 45 pop, Number 15 R&B, 1969). In the Seventies Burke recorded with uneven results for MGM, Dunhill and Chess Records, and enjoyed a couple of R&B hits including "Midnight and You" (Number 14 R&B, 1974) and "You and Your Baby Blues (Number 19 R&B, 1975). In 1981 he toured with the Soul Clan, which included Don Covay, Wilson Pickett, Ben E. King and Joe Tex. That year he also returned to his gospel roots, releasing the Grammy-nominated Take Me, Shake Me. He made his film debut in The Big Easy (1987).

His return to the music limelight began with his induction into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame in 2001. The following year he released Don't Give Up On Me, which included tracks written for him by an all-star cast of songwriters including Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe and Brian Wilson. Produced by singer/songwriter Joe Henry, the CD won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album. Its success led to subsequent collaborations with numerous artists, from the Blind Boys of Alabama to Junkie XL. In 2004 Burke performed "Down in the Valley" and "Turn on Your Love Light" for the blues documentary Lightning in a Bottle. The following year he released the glossier, Don Was-produced Make Do With What You Got. Burke then came back with another gritty, left-field collection, Nashville (Number 55 country, 2006), a set of country-soul songs featuring guest spots from country singers and players including Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and Buddy Miller. In 2008 Burke released another set featuring songs written for him by famous fans: Like a Fire (2008) included contributions from Eric Clapton and Ben Harper. For a time, Burke owned a West Coast chain of mortuaries (several of his kids remain in the family business). As of 2008 he was the father of 21 and grandfather of 88.

Portions of this biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).

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