Before his death in 2010, powerful baritone Solomon Burke was one of the most colorful personalities in the music business. For 55 years, Burke released 38 studio albums and had 38 charting singles. But he never had that one magic hit that would have elevated his name to the ranks populated by his friends like Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, or Joe Tex. Still, after he signed with Atlantic Records in 1966, he became the very embodiment of classic soul music. In fact, the term had been coined especially for him so he could assuage his church who thought R&B was the devil’s music. “Soul” was a concept they could live with. As a result, Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler called Burke a “vocalist of rare prowess and remarkable range. His voice is an instrument of exquisite sensitivity.” Wexler added that Burke was, in fact, the best soul singer of all time.
In addition, Burke’s personal life was like no other. As a child preacher who wore a cape, he was one of those charismatic voices who spread the word of the Lord in tent revivals around the South. Burke fathered his first child at age 14 and would go on to sire 14 daughters and seven sons. He was an entrepreneur with fingers in all manner of enterprises, including owning a chain of funeral homes. As a result, Burke wasn’t always popular with his compatriots. For example, combining food sales with his music tours, one story has it that Burke sold food backstage to fellow musicians at inflated prices, angering the likes of Sam Moore (of Sam and Dave.) Reportedly, after 1966, the Apollo Theatre banned him for life because of his insistence he be given all food concessions on the nights he performed. On the other hand, his expansive work in his church and his charity efforts are an impressive legacy that survived his passing.
And that’s merely skimming the surface of a biography of a literally larger-than-life singer. By the time Burke earned his First Grammy Award win for “Don’t Give Up on Me” (2002), Burke was so heavy—weighing between 350 to 400 pounds—he had to be wheeled onstage where he presided over his concerts singing from his gold throne. As shown on the new DVD, Live At Montreux 2006, it’s clear Burke had become a living bridge between gospel music, in both style and substance, rock, the devil’s R&B, and the showmanship of a performer who had been doing it all before James Brown began wearing his own cape.
Burke’s 2006 Montreux performance was typical of all his concerts which were, on one level, secular offshoots of his revival preaching. In the church, Burke and his fellow pastors worked their congregations with dynamic theatrics and audience participation, especially getting their audience moving up and down the aisles. Likewise, in the Montreux casino, Burke stage-managed everything around him as he, clad in a purple suit and red tie, never left his throne. But, beginning with his opening number, “Baby What You Want Me To Do,” Burke sent his horn section into the aisles where they disappeared from the recording mics. But they certainly roused the sitting audience. In short order, Burke shares the story behind how his song “Cry To Me” was used in the film, Dirty Dancing, and Burke begins to invite couples to come dance on stage. Then, after having all the ladies in the house come down and accept a free rose from baskets, Burke sings “Diamond In Your Mind” by Tom Waits.
From that point on, Burke goes through a catalog that allows him to tell stories and sing the songs of the performers he knew. In particular, he tells about the time Otis Redding put in a homemade pool and invited friends to come by for a fish fry. Calling the gang the “Soul Clan,” Burke sings bits from Redding’s “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay,” Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me,” and Wilson Pickett’s “In The Midnight Hour.” Burke gives his band the go-ahead to rock out with the medley of “Johnny Be Goode/Lucille /Tutti Frutti.”
Other songs associated with other artists include Ray Charles’ “Georgia On My Mind” and Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.” But Burke also offers healthy portions of his own recordings. Claiming his label refused to allow him to record a song with political overtones and that his band doesn’t know the song, Burke sings an a cappela version of “So Close and Yet So Far” which segues into Burke’s 1966 “”I Wish I Knew (How It Would Feel To Be Free)” and one of his biggest hits, “Down In the Valley.”
Naturally, Burke sings many of his favorite gospel numbers like “The Lord Will Make a Way Somehow/This Little Light of Mine,” “May the Good Lord Bless and Keep You,” and the grand finale, “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love/When the Saints Go Marching In.”
Throughout the show, it’s astonishing how a man confined to a throne can mesmerize an audience while being very generous to his players. While not the best show band you’ll ever hear, the group included Sam Mayfield (lead guitar), Moyes Lucas (drums), Milard Jackson (keyboards), Jack Guitar (rhythm guitar), Stony Dixon (bass), Daniel Moretto (trumpet), Joshua Lempkins (trombone), Carl Vickers (trumpet, saxophone), and Pierre Paolo Valero (alto saxophone). All get their moment to have a featured solo. Backing vocals were from Kiana Reese and Burke’s youngest daughter, Candy Burke. At one point, after telling her she can’t do any rap, Burke lets Candy sing one song, a passable version of “I Will Survive.” In short, the Solomon Burke show comes from a full stage of active musicians surrounding a full-throated singer who is clearly the soul general of everything around him.
For those who never saw a Solomon Burke concert, Live At Montreux 2006 is an excellent demonstration of a very unique performer. Visually, the camera captures the man in the middle, the players seemingly everywhere on the stage, and an audience completely caught up in (and often part of) the proceedings. As many have said before, Burke was a criminally underappreciated singer, well known in many circles but never getting a more mainstream reception. Do yourself a favor. Whatever generation you hail from, whatever musical genres are your taste, you need to experience Solomon Burke at least once. Forget America’s Got Talent, American Idol and other current broadcasts of musical wannabes. None of those voices can match the influence, history, vocal delivery, or stage presence of a man known by many names: “The King of Rock ‘N Soul,” “The Bishop of Soul,” “King Solomon,” “The Wonder Boy preacher,” and “Lord Solomon.”