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Burke, Solomon

soul records singer pop

Burke, Solomon, the original soul singer (b. Philadelphia, Pa., 1936). By the age of 12, Solomon Burke was a bishop in the church where both his grandmother and mother were ministers. Called “The Wonder Boy Preacher,” Burke’s ministry took him all over the northeast and earned him a regular spot on the radio by the late 1940s. He also performed with a group called the Gospel Cavaliers. In his late teen years, he signed on with Apollo Records, singing gospel, R&B, and various other styles. He had some minor successes like “You Can Run (But You Can’t Hide),” and even made occasional national TV appearances. After leaving the label in a money dispute, he moved back to Philadelphia, eventually reduced to begging on street corners. His grandmother took him back in and helped him learn a trade; Burke is a licensed mortician.

One of Burke’s Apollo recordings, “Be Bop Grandma,” brought him to the attention of Atlantic Records. Unable to call himself—as the bishop of a church—an R&B singer (the elders forbade it), he coined the term “soul singer.” His first Atlantic record was the country tune “Just Out of Reach (Of My Two Open Arms).” When radio programmers ignored the record, a chance meeting with the song’s publisher, Gene Autry, got it on some of the stations Autry owned. This started the ball rolling. The tune eventually wound up on the R&B, country, and pop charts (#24). Burke recorded four more top-40 pop hits for Atlantic: “If You Need Me” (#37, 1963), “Goodbye Baby (Baby Goodbye)” (#33, 1964), “Got to Get You Off My Mind” (#22 pop, #1 R&B, 1965), and “Tonight’s the Night” (#28, 1965). He also had 15 R&B hits, including the seminal “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love,” later covered note for note by the Blues Brothers, right down to the “I’m so happy to be here tonight” introduction. Moving on to Bell records in the late 1960s, Burke cut the Memphis soul classic Proud Mary, making the title track a minor hit. He took to performing on stage wearing a purple, fur-fringed robe and a crown: he was the king of soul music.

Burke’s pop and soul recordings became somewhat spotty after that, though some high points include a record with the group Swamp Dogg, From the Heart . He made several strong gospel records for Savoy into the 1980s. He also explored acting, taking a role in The Big Easy and several Italian films. In the late 1980s, Burke signed with Bullseye Records, who recognized his real milieu: live performance. The 1988 album Soul Alive reintroduced the energized singer to contemporary audiences. The band featured several of his 21 children. He followed this up with a stunning studio album, Change Is Gonna Come . His most recent album, 1997’s Definition of Soul, featuring four of his offspring, lives up to the name.

Burke claimed that as of Jan. 1, 2000, he would give up the music business to concentrate on his ministry. His Solomon’s Temple: The House of God for All People has over 300 ordained ministers whose job is to “feed the hungry, educate the uneducated and be God’s workers in the vineyard.” The church has 40, 000 parishioners in close to 200 churches across North America and Jamaica. He also owns funeral parlors in Calif., Pa., and N.C.; two of his children have turned the mortuary business into a franchise.

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