Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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Solomon Burke: The Last Soul Man

Solomon Burke
Solomon Burke Solomon Burke Solomon Burke Solomon Burke

A bona fide soul music pioneer, Grammy-winning Rock & Roll Hall Of Famer Solomon Burke celebrates his 70th birthday year this year with his pan-European ‘Year Of The Dream Love Tour’ plus a new album ‘Nothing’s Impossible’ - whose 12 tracks significantly also mark the last work of legendary Memphis soul producer/writer Willie Mitchell, who sadly died in January of this year.

Today a 30-stone ladies’ man with 21 children and 90(!) grandchildren to his name, Solomon Burke was born in March 1940 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Beginning his adult life as a preacher in his hometown before moving on to host a local gospel radio show, his breakthrough as a secular recording artist occurred after signing with the legendary Atlantic label in the early-Sixties. Where - from 1961 to 1968 - he would release 32 singles (six of which became US Top Ten R&B hits) and six albums.

Drawing from his roots in gospel, soul, blues and country music, Burke quickly developed his own style at a time when both R&B and rock were in their infancy - with arguably his best-known song being the enduring 1964 standard ‘Everybody Needs Somebody To Love’. Which - almost immediately covered by British rockers The Rolling Stones the same year - has also since been recorded by the likes of fellow Sixties soul icon Wilson Pickett and, probably most famously, actors John Belushi and Dan Akroyd in the 1980 global movie smash ‘The Blues Brothers’.

A more lasting career renaissance meanwhile occurred in 2001, upon Burke prestigiously becoming inducted into The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame before a year later finally winning his first-ever Grammy Award for his album ‘Don’t Give Up On Me’, a project which found him singing new songs penned specifically for him by such top-rank artists as Bob Dylan, Van Morrison and Elvis Costello.

Having to date sold over 17 million records, today the man referred to by Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun as “probably the greatest soul singer” still remains musically active and relevant while continuing to resonate with a ever-broadening international fanbase. Indeed, having outlasted almost all his legendary Sixties contemporaries, the iconic Burke can truly be seen as the last soul man standing. As this larger-than-life early architect of American popular music happily discusses - in raspy yet well-spoken tones - his current pan-European tour, new album, and pioneering four-decade-plus career with a highly-attentive Pete Lewis.

PETE: You’ve titled your current European summer tour ‘The Year Of The Dream Love Tour’…

SOLOMON: “I just feel it’s important that by touring we constantly keep the contact, and that we constantly keep reminding people that everybody needs somebody spreading the word of love and joy and peace and understanding - while at the same time letting people remember that this life is the dream that we make it and that, if we don’t believe in OURSELVES, we have nothing to believe IN! So we should continue to build a dream, continue to work on it, and know that nothing is impossible... You know, that’s basically what this ‘Dream Tour’ is ABOUT. We’re basically saying that your dreams can come true when you work on them, and make them come true. Because nothing happens for a dream until you wake up, and you start being active and make it WORK for you.”

PETE: Speaking of ‘Nothing Is Impossible’, that’s also the title of your forthcoming new album…

SOLOMON: “Well, that actual title comes from the SONG ‘Nothing Is Impossible’, which was created by the album’s producer - the late, great Willie Mitchell. He and I had been knowing each other for a series of years but had never got the chance to operate and work together - though we’d always joke and talk about what we were gonna do when we DID. And, when we finally DID meet together in the studio - for this album - it was like ‘INSTANT RECORD’! The first day we met we did three songs - and the next thing I know, a week later I was back in Memphis with him doing the REST of the album! So, with Willie having sadly passed this last January, this album is very much dedicated to his memory, as well as being dedicated to the memory of the solid soul base that has taken me from the Fifties up until the present day. And by that I’m referring to all of my colleagues that are still with me AND those that are gone - the Otis Redding’s, the Wilson Pickett’s, the Joe Tex’s, the Ben E. King’s, the Don Covay’s, the Percy Sledge’s... You know, that solid sound-base that we simply cannot forget.”

PETE: So how would you break down ‘Nothing Is Impossible’ musically?

SOLOMON: “To me it’s basically the Willie Mitchell soul/blues/R&B/pop sound. Because no-one could put all that together better than Willie could. He could take a blues record, put strings behind it, and make it ‘I’m Still In Love With You’ - you know, turn it into an Al Green special! He had the special knack of DOING that. Which is why his music is played on the radio and airplanes and elevators all over the world! You know, every day you hear a Willie Mitchell song. And so it was just such an honour to work with him. Plus we had so much FUN!”

PETE: You were born in Philadelphia in 1940, and your grandmother was a major early influence on your singing. How do you now recall the early days musically?

SOLOMON: “Well, back in those days of course radio was very popular and TV was very minute, very small... So our favourite things to listen to on the radio were country & western, plus people like Nat ‘King’ Cole; Perry Como; Frank Sinatra; Count Basie; Duke Ellington; Dinah Washington; Muddy Waters; Hank Ballard & The Midnighters... The list goes on! And I actually started recording in 1954. Which is when it was direct-to-disc, and you made the record - the master - on the spot.”

PETE: You of course signed with Atlantic Records in the early-Sixties. How do you look back on being at such a legendary label during arguably its most influential time (1961 to 1968)?

SOLOMON: “Those years with (Atlantic Records senior executive) Jerry Wexler were a great lesson - a lesson that taught me a lot of right and a lot of wrong! You know, without it there wouldn’t BE a Solomon Burke known in Europe for songs like ‘Cry To Me’ and ‘Down in The Valley’. But at the same time, we’re still working TO THIS DAY on collecting our royalties for ‘Everybody Needs Somebody To Love’! So I guess the main thing it taught me was that I need to learn MORE about this business! Which is why I advise young people entering into this business today to STUDY it, and not just jump into it because you think you can sing or you think you can write, or because you have a band. Instead, understand the importance of the BUSINESS end of it! Don’t just sign a contract without reading it and having a lawyer go through it. You need to know every in and out that you possibly CAN! Because that’s what’s gonna make things work for you and, in the end, carry you through to longevity. I mean, I could go on and on - and probably teach a CLASS about this! Because to me working with Jerry Wexler was a university in ITSELF!”

PETE: You left Atlantic in the late-Sixties and signed with Bell Records for the 1969 ‘Proud Mary’ album - a period that tends to be looked back upon today as a career low…

SOLOMON: “We left Atlantic because we weren’t being treated properly and so many things had been done that, as I said before, have still not been overturned to this day. And so, after we were told by Atlantic that we’d never get another hit, that my career was over, and that I should go back to my preaching and selling pork chops, I signed with Bell Records, went to Muscle Shoals Studios with my partner Tamiko Jones, and recorded the song ‘Proud Mary’. But then, when we brought the master back to Bell, they were angry and were like ‘You’re CRAZY! Why have you recorded a song that’s already Number ONE?’!... So we explained to them very clearly that ‘Proud Mary’ by Credence Clearwater Revival was a Number One POP record, and it wasn’t a SOUL record. And, that, if they released my version, it would sell as an R&B record... Which it eventually DID - after we ended up giving the record to Ike & Tina Turner! You know, they basically took what I’d done with the song, released it themselves... And I need not tell you what happened NEXT! I mean, to this DAY the song’s writer - John Fogerty - thanks me, because his cheques never stop coming!”

PETE: Then, in the early Seventies, you moved on to MGM Records…

SOLOMON: “Yes, MGM was a GREAT blessing for me. Because they took me in not just as a producer, but also as a full-on partner for their Rhythm & Blues department. Which meant I had unlimited space to record my (1971) album ‘The Electronic Magnetism’, as well as being able to work with their artists like The Osmonds and The Sylvers. Plus our first MOVIE cheques came from MGM, as they opened up the doors for us to do film soundtracks like ‘Cool Breeze’ in 1972. You know, with them we were able to perform for The President of The United States, go on tour - and just do a lotta things we’d never done BEFORE. Then from there of course we moved to ABC Records for the (1974) album ‘I Have a Dream’.”

PETE: You of course also received a massive career resurgence in the early 2000’s, by prestigiously becoming inducted into the The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame…

SOLOMON: “That happened because of (Atlantic Records’ founder and president) Ahmet Ertegun. He basically said ‘Solomon, I’m gonna try to right some of the wrongs. I want you to be part of this history’... And I’m still very grateful to him - and the Ertegun family - for stepping up and saying ‘No matter what. Because of your patience, we want you to be in the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame’… Which was WONDERFUL! I mean, I’m looking at the trophy while I’m here speaking to you right now - and it still makes me feel very proud and honoured.”

PETE: So what else is generally in the pipeline right now for Solomon Burke?

SOLOMON: “Right now I’ve just got so many ideas and thoughts. Because there’s still so much for me to DO, so many different phases to go INTO… Like I haven’t done a rock album yet; I haven’t done a classical album yet... Plus I’d love to do a JAZZ album! You know, going back to the Count Basie and Duke Ellington-type sound for me would be something TOTALLY new and exciting… Plus I’ve even got a group of young men in Spain that I’ve adopted as Godchildren, who are called The Solomones! And they have an incredible record coming out next month that has ‘Everybody Needs Somebody To Love’ on it in Spanish! Then my dear friend Jools Holland and I have been writing some songs together… So yeah, the fun’s just going on - and there’s still a lot of things to be DONE! Because you can’t STOP! You must keep moving, you must keep pressing on, and you must keep showing your talents. So that, every time you present something different to the people, you have something really exciting that will instantly make them WANT to be interested!”

You can read more excerpts from Pete Lewis’ fascinating interview with ‘The Last Soul Man’ Solomon Burke, including his memories of working with the late legendary Memphis soul producer/writer Willie Mitchell - in our special printed edition of Blues & Soul

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