Fresh Air Remembers Soul Singer Solomon Burke



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Solomon Burke, the Grammy Award-winning soul musician known as the "King of Rock and Soul," died Sunday at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, where he was scheduled to perform a concert. On his website, his family wrote, "He was on his way to spread his message of love as he loved to do."

Burke was responsible for penning "Tonight's the Night," "Everybody Needs Somebody To Love," -- covered by the Rolling Stones and Wilson Pickett, among others -- and "Cry to Me," immortalized in the 1987 movie Dirty Dancing.

Born in Philadelphia, he began his career as a preacher, delivering his first sermon when he was just 7 years old. His earliest recordings, for Apollo Records, had clear gospel influences, but before long, Burke was signed to Atlantic Records and started incorporating more secular themes.

After being named the "King of Rock and Soul" by a radio D.J. in 1964, he often performed in royal regalia -- complete with scepter and robe -- and sat on a golden throne during performances.

Though he never achieved the levels of fame achieved by Marvin Gaye or James Brown, Burke's silky voice and articulation patterns influenced an entire generation of musicians -- Mick Jagger has said that he tried to imitate Burke's phrasing on his songs, and Atlantic producer Jerry Wexler onced called him "the best soul singer of all time."

In 2001, Burke was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, alongside Aerosmith, Michael Jackson, Queen, The Flamingos, Steely Dan and Ritchie Valens. His induction started something of a career resurgence -- he released four new albums in the past decade and recorded songs with The Blind Boys of Alabama, Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton and Zucchero. His final album, Hold on Tight, is due to be released later this month.

Burke is survived by 21 children, 90 grandchildren and 19 great-grandchildren. Fresh Air remembers the soul singer with excerpts from a 1986 interview.

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(Soundbite of music)


Soul singer Solomon Burke died yesterday at the age of 70. In the 1960s he was known as the King of Rock and Soul. He played that title to a hilt, performing in a jeweled crown and a robe, carrying a scepter. Burke is one of the singers who led the rise of soul music in the '60s. In fact, Peter Guralnick's book, Sweet Soul Music," attributes Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records, as saying that Burke's hits, like "Just Out of Reach" and "The Price," helped keep Atlantic alive from 1961 to '64.

Burke was a preacher long before he became a soul music star. He grew up in Philadelphia, where he started preaching at age seven and conducted a radio ministry at age 12. In the 1970s, after his string of hits, when he was disillusioned with the music industry, Burke founded his own church and recorded only gospel music.

I spoke with Solomon Burke in 1986 after he had returned to soul music and was trying to make a comeback. Heres his 1963 recording, "You Can Make It If You Try."

(Soundbite of song, "You Can Make It If You Try")

Mr. SOLOMON BURKE (Soul singer): (Singing) You can make it if you try. You going to make it if you try. You going to make it if you try. Oh, yeah. Yeah. You going to make it if you try.

Sometimes you had to fall. So tell me sometimes you just want to cry. It make you feel so bad sometimes, you feel like want to lay down and die. Yeah. Yeah. You going to make it if you try. Ummm.

GROSS: In 1986 I asked Solomon Burke about another song, his 1964 recording, "The Price."

You recorded something called "The Price" for Atlantic Records.

Mr. BURKE: Classic.

GROSS: It's a great record.

Mr. BURKE: Classic.

GROSS: And you really sound like a preacher on it. I mean the beginning sounds to me like youre preaching.

Mr. BURKE: I am a preacher.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So it made me think that yeah, there really was a connection between what you were doing as a preacher and what you were doing as a singer.

Mr. BURKE: Well, it certainly is. The connection is that my ministry never stops and I have taken my songs and put it into my ministry and I have taken my ministry and put it into my songs.

GROSS: Do you want to say anything about the day you recorded this or your memories of this session?

Mr. BURKE: The day "The Price" was made it was recorded first live on the stage of the Apollo Theater. And the band had no idea of what we were doing so I told them to keep repeating what they were playing and dont stop. And I personally had had some personal problems with my life and I came on stage and I was very furious, and I just went on almost in a rage, and I started singing this song. And I realized that I had given up so much for the love of one woman and my love life was being crushed at that point. That was a day a lady fell out of the balcony after listening to this song. And the guy back stage, Mr. Henry, came back and says God, you should record that song. I never heard it on any of your recordings. And we went and recorded the song two days later. "The Price" is such a true song because if youve ever been in love and youve ever been hurt by love, you realize the price you pay.

GROSS: Let's hear it.

(Soundbite of song, "The Price")

Mr. BURKE: (Singing) After I hung up my heart for you, darling and I said, if you ever need me all you had to do was call. I stood up and I told the whole wide world that you were good for me, baby. Yes, then you laughed and you called me your personal clown in front of all your friends.

(Soundbite of laughter)

You walked away and you left me standing up like a fool. I couldn't even go to my friends or my relations. All I could do was stand up and hang my head in shame. You see what you cost me.

You cost my mother, the love of my father, sister, oh, my brother too. Oh, yes, you did. You see now what you've cost and I know just what I lost. And I know what the price I paid, I paid, I paid for loving someone like you. Oh, oh.

All I can hear my friends saying, I told you. I told you. And I can hear my mother say fool, I told you. See what you lost. Oh, yes you do. You back and you wonder sometimes. No, no, no, no, no. And I see the price I paid, I paid for loving someone, someone, someone, someone like you. Baby.

GROSS: There was actually a coronation ceremony for you where you were coroneted the King of Rock and Soul, right?

Mr. BURKE: Yes, weve had three of them, but the original one was in Baltimore. Rockin' Robin brought me into Baltimore - to the Royal Theater - and on that show it was the first performance, which is really history and every time Diana Ross sees me she mentions it. It was her first performance, her first show, and we had the Marvelettes and the Supremes - a new group called the Supremes. And we were crowned the King of Rock and Soul.

GROSS: Did you actually dress in kingly garments for your performances?

Mr. BURKE: Still do. Still do.

GROSS: What do you wear?

Mr. BURKE: Well, we have maybe 10 or 15 different robes, royal regal robes. Some are probably too expensive to even wear on stage. The insurance companies won't allow us to wear two or three of them anymore. And then the crown was made up in England. And...

GROSS: Was it a jewel-studded crown?

Mr. BURKE: Oh yes, absolutely. You can't do a crown any other way, you know, it has to be right. And it was right. It was a copy from the royal crown, King Henry VIII's crown. And it was fun, it was really fun. We'd put it on, it would come in a crown case and we had a case, an old wig was all converted and lined with velvet. And we'd have a little midget who use to travel with me, sings like Sam Cooke, and he would walk behind me and when I would throw the robe off, he would walk off the stage and you can actually see the robe moving by itself, you know, right off the stage.

GROSS: So you still wear things like that now?

Mr. BURKE: We still wear the robe and we bring it out for certain occasions, special occasions, because people long to see that. People say, did you ever see Solomon with the robe and the crown ,and did you ever see him when he rolled out the carpet and the whole thing? And they come to see that. They actually want to see that.

GROSS: Solomon Burke, recorded in 1986. He died yesterday in Amsterdam, where he had just arrived to perform a sold-out concert. He was 70.

You can download Podcasts of our show on our website,

I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of music) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.