Solomon Burke, 1940–2010

The preacher who was ‘King of Rock and Soul’

Solomon Burke’s career enjoyed a renaissance following his 2001 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a resurgence marked by touring with the Rolling Stones, recording with Eric Clapton, and playing at the Vatican for Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. So it’s probably fitting that when he died this week, at age 70, at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, he was en route to another gig.

Burke “personified the term ‘living large,’” said the New York Daily News. A rotund giant of a man, in his later years he performed while seated on a throne, and he was known for taking the stage wearing a crown and carrying a scepter, befitting a man billed as “the King of Rock and Soul.” According to his grandmother, he was always destined for great things. A dozen years before his birth, she had a vision of founding a church called Solomon’s Temple, whose preacher would lead a spiritual revival. “He had much to live up to,” and he started early, delivering his first sermon at age 7 and hosting a radio show at 12. At the time of his death he was the archbishop of the House of God for All People’s Church in Los Angeles.

Although Burke never attained the stardom of James Brown or Al Green, he was a favorite of black audiences and white aficionados, including Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler, who called him “the greatest soul singer who ever lived,” said the London Independent. Wexler co-wrote his most famous recording, “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love,” which became a highlight of the movie The Blues Brothers. Another Burke classic, “Cry to Me,” drove a pivotal scene in the film Dirty Dancing. A versatile singer, Burke also sang country tunes so convincingly that the Ku Klux Klan once invited him to perform. “They were cool,” he recalled. “They even gave me my own sheet.”

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Married three times, Burke fathered 21 children, giving him a powerful incentive to maximize his income, said USA Today. He ran a chain of mortuaries in his native Philadelphia, and “he even sold popcorn between his own sets at the Apollo,” Harlem’s famed music showcase. His record sales got a late-career boost when he won a Grammy in 2003 for his album Don’t Give Up On Me. His final album, Hold on Tight, is scheduled for release this month.

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