Solomon Burke – The return of the king
“Al Green owes me a breakfast!” With that simple declaration, R&B veteran Solomon Burke launches into one of his many spirited anecdotes.
It was a Saturday, in October 2002. The night before, in support of his then-new album Don’t Give Up On Me, Dr. Burke had headlined the annual King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena, Arkansas, an hour south of Memphis. The phone rang: Al Green on the line.
“‘Oh, Bishop, baby, I’m so glad you’re in town,'” says Burke, imitating his excited musical colleague and fellow man of God. “‘I want you to come by my church tomorrow, and we’ll give you breakfast. Bring the band, bring everybody. Oh, it will be wonderful, you and me, together!'”
The next morning, at nine o’clock, Burke, accompanied by musicians, crew and family members, rolled up to the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Memphis, where Green was ordained as pastor in 1976 and has been preaching ever since. Only there was no sign of the great Hi Records hitmaker. But Sunday services begin at 11, so Burke and his entourage waited patiently.
“At 9:30, the church starts to fill up,” recalls Solomon, chuckling. “10 o’clock rolls around, still no Al Green.” Two hours later, their host remained absent. One of the senior parishioners asked Burke if he would like to address the congregation. “So I wind up preaching, while waiting for the good Reverend Al Green to show up. Oh, we had a glorious time, ended up having service until 3 in the afternoon. But the whole time, I’m hungry as I could be, and not a chicken leg in sight!”
Truth be told, Al probably owes Solomon more than a platter of biscuits and gravy right about now. Because when Burke’s back-to-basics comeback album won the 2002 Grammy Award for Best Soul/R&B Vocal Performance, it signaled a shift in listening tastes that has proven beneficial to his soul music peers.
No longer were seasoned titans of yore expected to confine their efforts to the gospel circuit and county fairs. Shortly after Burke’s victory, Green was back in the spotlight, too, with I Can’t Stop, a disc that won praise — and racked up sales — by returning Green to his southern soul roots. This year, the late Ray Charles, who left Atlantic Records shortly before Burke signed on there more than four decades ago, trumped Green Day and Kanye West at the Grammys for Album of the Year.
And it’s not just the old guard that has prospered. Could Joss Stone, the skinny British blonde who sings like she was devouring the Dusty Springfield catalogue while other kids downed their Fruit Loops (“You can’t tell me that little girl didn’t grow up next door to Etta James,” jokes Burke), have stormed the charts and MTV without this change of climate? Probably not.
But Burke is not sitting around waiting for thank-you notes. He counts his blessings every day, and that is a bounty aplenty. Besides, he has other, more pressing matters to attend to. Like promoting the Don Was-produced Make Do With What You Got (on Shout! Factory), the second of his 21st-century releases to reaffirm that Burke is still, truly, “the King of Rock & Soul.”
Before he was “the King of Rock & Soul,” or “the Bishop,” Solomon Burke already had a title. Born in Philadelphia on March 21, 1940, Solomon was billed as “the Wonder Boy Preacher” by the time he was 7 years old. Legend has it that his grandmother, Eleanora A. Moore, presaged his abilities several years before his arrival, even going so far as to have him preordained as a minister in the family’s House of God for All People church. Adorned in a robe and crown, the youth held sway with his sermons and songs not only over their congregation in the City of Brotherly Love, but also (by the time he reached age 12) to the listeners of radio station WDAS, who tuned it to hear his program, “Solomon’s Temple.”
“My ministry was nurtured by God and grandmother,” Solomon says. “My grandmother was my focus in my life, my mentor, instructor, and guide. She was an individual [who] people in those days recognized as a seer. People listened to her, no matter what she said. My grandmother could be very comical, but she was also so powerful that having a conversation with her was just like being lifted out of time and space.”
Solomon may not have inherited his grandmother’s ability to see the future, but his own gifts as a storyteller are as mesmerizing (and, often, hilarious) as those ascribed to Mrs. Moore. Regardless of how perfectly his tales do or do not align with the facts as others have recorded them, you want to believe Solomon’s version most every time, because his convictions and faith run deep and strong.
Mrs. Moore prophesied young Solomon’s future in great detail, and although the words she chose were sometimes cryptic, Burke claims her visions have all come true. But when she passed away in the mid-1950s, he suddenly felt terribly alone. “I was totally lost,” he remembers, his voice dropping so that he almost sounds like that wounded adolescent. “I was so confused, and had nothing in the world to do, except wonder how I was going to get through this tragedy.” So he did what came instinctively: He went to church.
Around the corner from the mortuary where his grandmother’s body lay, a local gospel DJ was holding services. When Solomon walked in, she acknowledged him. “I heard your grandmother just passed,” she said. “Would you honor us with a song?” Burke remembers borrowing a guitar from another worshiper and steadying himself to sing “Oh, Ship Of Zion”. “As I was tuning the guitar, I started ministering to the people,” he recalls. “And the Lord was dealing with me in his miraculous way.” As his sermon grew in animation, the congregation rose to meet his enthusiasm. “By the time I got on board that ship, the whole church was on board with me.”
At the conclusion of his performance, a woman, heavily adorned in a mantle of stone martins, came running up the aisle and threw her arms around Burke. “He’s mine, he’s mine!” screams the Bishop in imitation. His new acolyte? Bess Berman, owner of Apollo Records. It seems this particular service was also a talent competition. “I didn’t know that, but the Lord had entered me in the contest.” That very evening, he signed with Apollo.