If there were any justice in the world, the American Heritage Dictionary's definition of giant would have a picture of Solomon Burke next to it. Nothing the 400-pound, 62-year-old father of 21 known as the "King of Rock and Soul" does is small. Burke doesn't have a powerful voice; he has an unstoppable four-octave sonic blast. He doesn't have a reputation as a great singer; he's enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as the greatest vocalist ever. He's not a performer turned preacher; he's a preacher turned singer who is the bishop of a 40,000-strong congregation. When he lost $40,000 in royalties at age 17, he didn't become a bitter ex-child star; he became a licensed mortician (he now owns a chain of funeral homes). Then he restarted his career with an incredible eight-year run with Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler that defined the golden age of soul music. He didn't make a neo-soul comeback record last year; he made the sublime Don't Give Up On Me -- a gorgeous musical tapestry woven by a legion of his famous fans (Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, and Tom Waits among them) that earned a 2003 Grammy Award.
About the only thing that dwarfs his immense talent and accomplishments are the legends that circulate in show business circles. "Most of the stories about me are true," Burke chuckles over the phone from his Southern California mortuary. That may be, but over the course of his two-hour conversation with New Times, it's revealed that even the oft-told stories about Solomon have previously untold wrinkles.
New Times: You started preaching in grade school?
Burke: I started pastoring when I was 12, but I started my ministry in the second grade. I kept all my little friends close. So many of them didn't have a father, so I would tell them we had a heavenly father. Sometimes I would get grief about it. "Let's see your heavenly father get you out of those bad grades! What you gonna do about that?"
New Times: Tell me about the time you cut short your first session for Atlantic Records to go home and shovel snow.
Burke: In Philadelphia, the railroad would pay you $7 an hour if you brought them a crew of three people to shovel snow. Do you know how much money that was 40 years ago? At Atlantic, they asked me: "Don't you want to hear your own song before you go?" I told them: "I'll hear it on the radio! I can hear it on the radio, right?"
New Times: You didn't really shovel snow, did you?
Burke: I brought my three brothers. I was the crew chief. They made $5 an hour, and I took $6.
New Times: And what about the time in the 1960s that James Brown tried to buy your King of Rock 'n' Soul robe and crown?
Burke: That happened when he booked me on a show in Chicago. You have to understand, when you do a show with James, it's like working for Gen. Brown and the Brown Nation. His soldiers talk like this [goes into manic rapid-fire speech]: "Be downstairs right now! Mr. Brown wants you down those stairs!" So I went downstairs, and the same guy showed up 30 minutes later. Then the guy says, "Mr. Brown wants you down right here -- with robe and crown -- stand on the stage!"
Then Bobby Byrd [Brown's backup singer] comes out and says, "Now, Solomon, whatever happens, and no matter what he says, James is on your side, and he's got your best interest at heart."
"Does Mr. Brown want to pay me?" I asked.
Then James came out. He looked at Byrd. "Did you count it, Mr. Byrd?'
"Yes, Mr. Brown!"
"Double-count it, Mr. Byrd! Double-count it!"
They paid me. And then I hear over the PA: "Ladies and gentlemen, the hardest-working man in show biz!"
James says, "Gimme the robe! Gimme the crown!"
"What, Mr. Brown?"
"Gimme the robe! Gimme the crown!"
I said, "When do you want me to go on?"
"You go on after me!"
He takes the robe and the crown, and he dances around for about ten minutes.
And I'm like, what is this? Mohammad Ali week? He comes off, hands me back the robe and the crown, and yells, "Who's the king?"
Bobby Byrd says, "You the king, James!"
He tells Byrd, "Have one made for me tomorrow just like it!"
I said, "Hold it! Can I talk to Mr. Brown? That won't be necessary. You don't have to go through these changes. You don't even have to call my agent. I'm here. Just pay me, and I will personally hand you the robe and the crown every night."
So for a week in the mid-'60s, I made $7,500 a night for bringing him the robe and the crown!
New Times: Where did the idea to give out roses on-stage come from?
Burke: The rose thing came from my grandmother. She cut a fresh flower every day. She told me that the rose represents the women of life. Every rose represents the birth of a beautiful baby girl. There are not enough flowers being given out. People usually only get them at funerals and weddings. I get so angry when the guys take the flowers. We were just in the Netherlands and a guy in the front row just kept taking the flowers. I stopped the show and told him. "Sir, I'm trying to give the flowers to the ladies. If you're too cheap to go to a florist and get your wife flowers, I don't want you taking mine. Put the flowers back! If you need flowers, go to a flower shop!"
New Times: Did you cover your face at a show so they wouldn't know you were black?
Burke: We were the first black act doing country songs. The first one was "Just Out of Reach," and "Travel On" had just come out. We were in the Deep South, and the promoter kept asking me when my boss was going to show up. I was confused. My boss? Did he mean Jerry Wexler? The show was about to start, and he came back and said, "You boys gotta go on! Where's your boss!"
I said what boss?
He said, "Solomon Burke." I said I'm Solomon. The man was terrified -- how many black guys sing like that named Solomon? He said, "You better not be Solomon!" and ran and got the sheriff. The sheriff took my driver's license, and then they put my face in bandages.
New Times: Where was the show?
Burke: Someplace I've gotta go back to. You'd have to beat me with James Brown to get that out of me.
New Times: We're a 100,000-circulation weekly. We can pick up James.
Burke: Oh no! Don't knock the black off me with Brown!
New Times: Did the KKK know you were black when they booked you to play a rally in the early '60s?
Burke: I'm sure they did! Unless Ray Charles is a member! And Stevie Wonder was the booker!
New Times: Has this past year been like a victory lap?
Burke: I'm still overwhelmed. I just got a letter from Elvis Costello [who wrote Don't Give Up On Me's"The Judgment"] thanking me! I should be thanking him! It's being turned into an opera in Italy! "Flesh and Blood" is being turned into a movie title.
This has been a new way -- a reward I don't know if I deserve to receive. I've been learning so much from the three generations that make up my new audience. I see kids at my shows now -- 12, 13 years old. I see the baby boomers. I see my people. It's a mixture of the best people of the world!
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