It’s conventional wisdom that modern soul music arose out of the marriage of the sacred and the profane that occurred in the 50s when Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, and others melded traditional gospel with secular lyrics. The revolutionary music that resulted was a source of widespread enthusiasm, but it also bred consternation, and not only among the faithful: even veteran bluesman Big Bill Broonzy, about as undevout as they came, was uneasy with it.
Yet African American music has always been distinguished by a commingling of worldly and religious impulses. Many slave spirituals were actually communiques of resistance, a New World version of the venerable talking drum; the dances of shamans and priestesses in New Orleans’ Congo Square were a major factor in shaping both the form and the rhythmic content of jazz; the ecstasy and emotional release that characterize jazz and blues have direct links to the transcendent spirituality of African ritual and the African American Christian church.
Considered from a cross-cultural viewpoint, this isn’t surprising. Western Christianity is somewhat unique among major world cultures in its insistence that godly and worldly passions be irrevocably at odds. In many primal societies, both on the American continent and elsewhere, sacred rituals are routinely punctuated with joking and ribaldry, and healers or medicine men may be openly acknowledged as part priest, part con artist. The gods and spirits themselves often have very human lusts and desires and can be appeased through worldly gifts. In this light, the fusion that led to soul music was both inevitable and indigenous in ways that even its practitioners might not have appreciated at the time.
Yet the tensions that surrounded soul in its infancy still exist. The popular image of the soul singer as secular preacher, reaching for transcendence and salvation through earthly passion, is a romantic simplification of what’s often a wrenching dualism for the artists. Loving the music yet fearing for their souls, many soul singers straddle the chasm, vowing to someday divorce themselves from worldly success and temptations and despairing in their inability to do so. That tension can make for riveting music, but there’s often genuine torment beneath the histrionics.
Through this maelstrom of doubt and spiritual tension strides Solomon Burke like a 20th-century fusion of Bacchus and Moses. Rather than grapple with the contradictions, he’s made a career of embracing them, apparently daring both God and man to deny him his full portion of spiritual and worldly pleasure. Burke, the self-styled Bishop of Soul, is nothing less than the living incarnation of the marriage of eros and agape.
It’s all the more remarkable when one realizes the seriousness with which this exuberant free spirit takes his art. Since the beginning, Burke has approached music with a sense of mission and an uncompromising determination to succeed on his own terms. His first recordings, starting in early 1955, were on the Apollo label. After several impressive hits on Apollo, he suddenly disappeared from the music world following a dispute with his management and the record company.
He returned to recording in 1960 for the Singular label, then signed with Atlantic. There he got hold of a country-and-western weepie called “Just out of Reach” and transformed it into a soul classic, his voice completely transcending the banality of the material to attain a dramatic fusion of romantic and spiritual yearning. In the process he virtually redefined the standards of excellence in soul vocalizing. It was the first in a string of over a dozen hits on Atlantic between 1961 and 1965, one of the most dazzling runs of commercial and artistic success in the annals of R & B.
Although he never regained that historic stride, he’s remained a dominant force, recording for Atlantic until the late 60s, then achieving a series of moderate successes on MGM, ABC, and various smaller labels through most of the next decade. The 1980s saw a series of gospel LPs and a gospel Grammy nomination, and then a couple of albums on Rounder that revitalized his secular career in both the U.S. and Europe.
That, however, barely scratches the surface of the Solomon Burke legend. He’s also an ordained minister who preaches miracle healing and has variously described his Los Angeles-based House of God for All People as the “Church of Let It All Hang Out” and world headquarters for the philosophy of “truth, love, peace, and get it on.” There are more than 160 member churches throughout the country, and Burke’s collection plate sometimes seems as portable as his ministry; he once interrupted a recording session to perform a prayer service for a woman in the hallway and came back into the studio fanning himself with a handful of hundred-dollar bills.
His money-making schemes have included a fly-by-night herbal-medicine and drugstore business (immortalized by Atlantic Records’ Jerry Wexler as “Notions, Lotions, and Potions, Roots, Fruits, and Snoots”), a chain of funeral homes, and an outrageous plot to inundate the Apollo Theatre with 10,000 boxes of “Soul Popcorn.” He claims to have fed an entire band on a tour through the south by appealing to the generosity of kindly old ladies whose residences he located by driving slowly through alleys and looking for well-fed dogs. And there’s always been that magnificent voice, cutting through the poses and the flimflam with a virtuosity and power that are as overwhelming now as they were when he first started. (See Peter Guralnick’s Sweet Soul Music, from which most of this history was gleaned, for more on the Reverend Doctor Burke.)
Nothing quite prepares you for the force of Solomon Burke’s show. Since 1964, when he was crowned “King of Rock ‘n’ Soul” by Baltimore DJ Rockin’ Robin, his stage accoutrements have included a flowing cape, a crown or other ornate headgear, and even at one time an entourage of midgets strewing flowers in his path. Such grandiosity would seem vulgar or embarrassing in almost anyone else, but for Solomon Burke it’s just the beginning. As soon as he opens his mouth you realize he’s got the chops to back up even his most extravagant affectations.
At East of the Ryan a few weeks ago, there were doubts early on as to whether Burke still had it in him to deliver the goods. He stayed out of sight, apparently hesitant to leave his dressing room, as his band and a warm-up singer named Mr. D. churned out a series of soul and R & B standards. People began to wonder if Burke was tired, if he’d abandoned his professed lifelong abstinence from alcohol and drugs, if he’d finally begun to sag under the weight of his physical and spiritual excesses.
When Burke finally appeared, it took about one note from him to dispel all doubts. He grandly took off his cape, descended from the stage, and began to sway his enormous bulk back and forth. Putting the microphone to his lips, he unleashed a full-bodied, high-tenor scream that combined the force and tonal control of a saxophone with the passionate intensity of a gospel preacher.
The effect was spellbinding. Burke slid effortlessly from that patented cry to a sensual, aching whisper, occasionally dipping into a rich baritone as if to add an exclamation point to his high-flying exuberance. Listening to Burke one felt that there was no end to the intricacies of shading and dynamics, the soaring extravagances and understated subtleties of which he was capable.
Burke has often spoken of his affection for country music, and he sometimes seems to owe nearly as much to that tradition as to the black church. He borrows extensively from the C and W canon for his material, and both his timbre and harmonic ideas are often reminiscent of country gospel. Burke can incorporate all four harmony parts of a gospel quartet in the course of a single song all by himself and still make the material hang together.
But more than almost any other performer, Burke must be appreciated for more than just his musical abilities, awesome as they are. His mere physical presence is as overpowering as his voice. One might not expect a man as huge as Burke to be sexy, but he is: he’s got a plump, almost baby face and a soft, round body that seems to beg to have arms wrapped around it. At East of the Ryan he effortlessly maneuvered that massive body from table to table and created a riveting sense of intimacy, making eye contact with the ladies and murmuring seductively, “This is our party; this is our night!” between verses, turning the relative sparseness of the crowd to his advantage. When he wriggled his shoulders slowly and proclaimed “Your big daddy gets lonely sometimes,” the supplicants came running from every corner of the room and crowded around to touch, hug, and kiss him as he sang.
Everything about Burke promises pleasure, and it’s a promise he offers up as a gift of both body and soul. “You got to give it to her when she wants it!” he preached. “The way she wants it! And as much as she wants it! If you can’t get your legs moving, get your arms moving! If you can’t get your arms moving, get your–well, I better stop now ‘cuz I’m gettin’ happy! I’m gettin’ happy! Thank you Jesus!” I can’t think of another male R & B artist who can be so sexual yet so unthreatening, without a hint of macho aggression. It’s partly due to his fluffy corpulence–how can you be threatened by a man built like a cumulus cloud? But it’s also largely because, for all his unrepentant carnality, for all his paeans to the joys of sex and his revival-style lectures on lovemaking, Burke is entirely devoid of salaciousness. If a gospel group hadn’t already appropriated the name, he could bill himself as the original Mighty Cloud of Joy.
Then of course there’s the surreal grandiosity of the show itself. Everything Burke does is excessive, beginning with that air-shattering voice, the nonchalant virtuosity with which he pulls off the most audacious octave leaps and spur-of-the-moment elaborations on a melody. He doesn’t hug his female admirers as much as envelop them in his fleshy force field; they virtually disappear in his arms while he croons to them. He doesn’t have his faithful following of flower-strewing midgets anymore, but he doesn’t need them: at East of the Ryan, a woman emerged from the audience and reverently dropped rose petals on Burke’s head as he sang.
Burke even manages to make sweating into a personal ritual: his son, King Solomon Haile Selassie, follows him in lockstep throughout the show and dabs at his face with a handkerchief. Meanwhile Burke pours on the glorious excess, pushing things beyond incredulity to a level where rational thought is virtually suspended, where his claims for healing and salvation seem plausible, and where his dual role as minister of God and celebrant of the flesh doesn’t seem strange at all. He doesn’t merely envision glory, heavenly or otherwise: through the sheer power of his talent and the force of his spirit and imagination, he constructs a starry throne and ascends to it in front of your eyes.
Perhaps the most revealing measure of Burke’s gifts is the immediacy with which he imbues everything he sings. At East of the Ryan he drew largely from his own recorded legacy of more than 30 years, yet there was little nostalgia in the air. From the sweeping magnificence of “Down in the Valley,” his opening number, through the lovely and seductive reading of Joe Tex’s “Meet Me in Church,” and finally in the tormented salvation plea “The Price,” Burke brought everything into undeniable sharp focus.
“The Price” may have been the high point. It’s said that Burke improvised it one evening onstage at the Apollo; it’s one of the most remarkable soul songs ever written. The song’s agonized litany of accusations (“You cost me my mother, the love of my father, sister, my brother . . . “) would be a gut-tearing scream in the hands of any other singer, but when Burke sings it he transforms it into a testament of hope through the uplifting power of his delivery. This is what soul music was meant to be.
As if to atone for his initial delay, Burke seemed ready to sing all night and into the morning; he sat in a chair, then on the stage, conversationally taking requests from the audience, continually promising more, more, more, and then delivering it with dedication, insouciant ease, and undiminishing power. It was nearly 5:00 Sunday morning when he finally wrapped things up with a soaring version of “Silent Night.” At last the loyal Selassie draped Burke’s cape over his shoulders, and then he was gone. “I can go straight to bed now and not worry about tomorrow,” said a sleepy, satisfied-looking woman sitting across the table from me. “I’ve already been to church.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Barclay.