ACL Fest Interviews
Solomon BurkeFriday 5pm, SBC stage
After years of critical acclaim with immortal showstoppers like "Everybody Needs Somebody to Love" that never cracked the Top 20, Solomon Burke got one of the biggest breaks of his life in 1987. The film Dirty Dancing plucked his heartbreaking "Cry to Me" for its hugely successful soundtrack, and suddenly, Solomon Burke was hot.
Ask the 64-year-old soul singer about such things, and he'll oblige lengthily and almost apologetically about the good fortune in his life, crediting it to God. Solomon Burke isn't just a singer, you see, he's a practicing bishop in the Church of the House of God for All People in Los Angeles, where he oversees a chain of mortuaries. For a man who does all that and sits on the board of the world's greatest soul singers, Burke is as humble as he is amiable. Is there an irony to being a man of God playing to the secular audience?
"Where else are the people that need the message the most? In my church, everybody is saved. At least that's what they say," laughs Burke. "So what good is preaching to the choir? I need to take the message to the highways and byways of life. To every street corner and temple. Every hall and every club wherever people are willing to hear love."
Burke, like Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin, crossed over from gospel to popular music with seemingly little effort. Yet, his childhood in Philadelphia shaped his world, as did his family. He hosted a gospel radio show before he turned 13, but the encouragement to sing came with a life lesson.
"When I was a little boy, my grandmother, who is my greatest influence and is still with me spiritually every moment of my life, would say, 'You want to sing? OK, we got cleanup time, pick-up-our-room time, do-our-schoolwork time, and we have career time. You do all the other things, you can have career time.' So I had to do all the chores before I could sing.
"My grandmother would tell me, 'Son, make your mother a fire because she likes the way you make a fire.' So I'd go get the coal and wood and paper and build a fire in the stove down in the basement and put more coal on it. Today, you want heat, the kids push a button on a computer. My son will say, 'What rooms do you want heated, Dad?' and I'll think, 'What? You're gonna run out and get the coal and wood and build a fire in the stove?'"
Burke's years on Atlantic Records in the Sixties built his reputation as a master vocalist. His silky, sensual vocals influenced contemporaries like Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett, and even today, he's referred to as "old school" soul, more a crooner than a shouter. After Dirty Dancing revived his career, he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2001.
"There I was, the self-proclaimed king of soul, standing in the hall of rock & roll! And I'm wondering how I got there!"
Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, and Van Morrison might have some answers. The three were among songwriters who contributed to Burke's stellar 2002 release, Don't Give Up on Me, on Fat Possum Records.
"When I first heard the name 'Fat Possum' I thought, 'Oh, Lord Jesus ...' because I'd been approached two weeks earlier to sponsor a baseball team; they wanted me to put on a bear costume as their mascot. I said I'd give a donation because I didn't want to do the bear thing. Now, I got a guy saying he wants me to be a fat possum, and I thought, 'Is this animal month?' Come on! I literally ran from the guy for two days."
Don't Give Up on Me brought Burke well-deserved notice in the new millennium, updating his classic approach. It's a time-honored style that keeps his profile high in Europe, where he spends more than half of his touring time. In making his music relevant to a newer audience, Burke regards his life sagely.
"I am 64 years old and God has allowed me to have 21 beautiful children 14 daughters and seven sons. I have 71 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren. Every moment of my life is spent trying to give back something that's been given to me. The gift of life and love is all around me. Any pain or problems I got through are a test.
"My message has always been the same. Learn to love, learn to care, learn to share. Understand that pain will come, understand that suffering is part of the price we pay, but we can turn things around, and never give up on each other. Or on ourselves. As long as there's a tomorrow, there's always a chance."