Big Philly Style
King Of Rock ’N’ Soul Solomon Burke Returns To The City Of His Coronation
“Berry Gordy told the promoters that if they wanted to book the Marvelettes they’d have to take this other group, too,” recalls Burke, who returns to Baltimore this week, by phone. “That other group was the Supremes. Imagine that. All six of these acts on one bill for $2. I think it was $1.50 on weekdays.
“I loved the Royal,” he continues. “Right across the street was Moms’ Soul Cooking. Moms Taylor made the best strawberry shortcake you ever had in your life; she had strawberries that looked like they came from heaven. That was Sam Cooke’s favorite, and Sam one time took Moms all over the country so he could eat her cake. Musicians would eat on credit at Moms’ and then leave town without paying, but she would show up in Chicago with your bill.”
Over the winter of 1963-’64, Burke had released “You’re Good for Me,” the fourth of his 14 top-20 R&B hits. Never a bashful person, the rotund singer was eager to raise his profile. So he hatched a plan with DJ Fred “Rockin’ Robin” Robinson, an old friend from Philadelphia who had become the top jock on Baltimore’s R&B station, WEBB (1360 AM).
When Robinson introduced Burke at the Royal on opening night, he knighted the singer the “King of Rock ’n’ Soul.” Robinson even conducted an official coronation, placing a golden crown on Burke’s processed ’do, wrapped a crimson cape across his broad shoulders, and placed a golden scepter in his right hand. These royal objects were of flimsy materials from a local costume shop, but they were effective under the spotlights.
“I’ve never given that crown up,” Burke says. “Nobody came by and said, ‘We’re going to repo the crown.’ We’ve hung on to it and we’re trying to keep the royalty going.”
When he sang his 1962 hit “Cry to Me” there could be little doubt about his right to the throne. Over a push-and-pull New Orleans rhythm, Burke purred consolation to a woman left alone by her man. And what might that consolation consist of? The answer came on the third chorus when Burke deserted Bert Berns’ teen-pop melody and broke loose into a combination of shouts, growls, pleas and promises, moans and groans, that was part gospel testifying and part sexual release: “Don’t you feel like cry-y-y-y-ing? Don’t you feel like a cry-cry-a-cry-cry, cry-cry-a-cry-cry, cry-y-y-y-ing?”
No wonder Mick Jagger (who recorded “Cry to Me), Tom Petty (who also recorded the song), and Van Morrison (who recorded “Goodbye Baby”) all took Burke as a vocal role model. No wonder producer Jerry Wexler (who also worked with Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, and Wilson Pickett) declared Burke the best soul singer of all time. No wonder Burke was voted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001. No wonder Morrison, Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, Nick Lowe, and Brian Wilson all contributed new or unreleased songs to Burke’s 2002 project, Don’t Give Up on Me.
Don’t Give Up won a Best Contemporary Blues Album Grammy (Burke’s first statuette) and kicked off a late-career renaissance for the King of Rock ’n’ Soul. He was invited to take part in the Feb. 7, 2003, show at Radio City Music Hall to celebrate Martin Scorsese’s PBS miniseries The Blues. Burke’s two songs, “Turn on Your Lovelight” and “Down in the Valley,” became highlights of Antoine Fuqua’s Lightning in a Bottle documentary of the concert and the two-CD set released this year. Those songs remind us that Burke had roots in Southern blues, even though he grew up on the streets of Philadelphia.
“Every Saturday our family would sit down around the big Philco and listen to the music until we fell asleep,” he remembers. “We heard B.B. King and Muddy Waters, Big Joe Turner and Ivory Joe Hunter, Bessie Smith and Joe Williams. So I grew up on the blues, even in Philadelphia.
“We all have the blues sometimes; someone we love or think we love doesn’t love us,” Burke continues. “What I try to do in my music is show how you can come out of the blues and turn the page in life. Someone has to keep the message positive. Someone has to say when you come to the crossroads in life you have to make the right turn. You can’t stand there; you’ve got to keep moving on.”
Dr. John, the house pianist for Lightning, wrote a new song specifically for Burke, “Make Do With What You Got.” “I liked it so much that I made it the title of my new album,” Burke says of his 2005 Shout Factory album. “His grooves are so groovy, and his stories have such a natural taste to them, that they always fit into your life somehow. I like the way this song says your life is not half-empty; it’s full, and you can succeed with what you’ve got if you’ve got enough determination.”
For the Don Was-produced Make Do, Burke takes songs from Morrison, Dylan, the Rolling Stones, the Band, and Hank Williams and gives them his regal rock ’n’ soul treatment. And unlike Don’t Give Up on Me, which was purposefully kept minimal, with little more than acoustic guitar, organ, and brushes behind the singer, Make Do blasts forth with a big-band sound.
“With this album we’ve put the horns back in my music,” Burke says. “I was lucky to grow up in a church with horns and drums, so I have a bass drum in my heart and a trombone in my soul. I love going to the high school and colleges and hearing those marching bands, because it’s a natural sound. You feel it. It’s the soul, baby.”
Three of Burke’s 21 children (daughters Eleanor, Melanie, and Stephanie; he also has 74 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren) live in the Baltimore area, so he’s looking forward to his visit. He’s bringing a 10-piece band, five horns and a five-person rhythm section. And he’s bringing his royal cape.
“Oh yeah, I have to have the royal cape, whether it’s the red one, the gold one, or the purple one,” he says. “Did you ever notice that the guys in the capes last the longest? Batman’s got a cape. Superman’s got a cape. James Brown had to get a cape. Even Queen Elizabeth has a cape. I hear she has a new record coming out next week.
“I used to have a midget who stood behind me when I took off my cape, and then the cape would walk offstage by itself, but the midget retired,” he continues, pausing to laugh. “They used to call me the Boy Wonder Preacher at my grandmother’s church—you know why? Because I was a little boy, and I still wonder why they ever let me preach.” A harder laugh. “But you have to be a boy wonder before you can become a Batman and wear a cape.” More laughter. “Man, I’m funnier today than I’ve been since I paid my taxes.”
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