by Alan Swyer
There are words and phrases so familiar, it’s easy to believe they’ve been around forever. Though the term Soul Music feels that way, in truth its genesis actually owes to one specific person: a singer named Solomon Burke. In the pre-Amazon, pre-download days of actual record stores, music was divided into categories: Classical, Pop, Opera, Show Tunes, Jazz, Blues, and so forth. Under ordinary circumstances, Solomon’s music would have been labeled Rhythm & Blues. But nothing was ordinary about Solomon Burke, who, in addition to being a star on the Chitlin’ Circuit, was also a minister. That was at a time when the Black clergy considered R&B to be the Devil’s Music. So Atlantic Records had to coin another term: Soul Music. But like so much in Solomon’s life, the birthing was murky, with Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler claiming responsibility, while Solomon insisted it was he himself who told the company, “I want to be called a Soul singer.”
Though I’d long been a fan of hits of his like “Cry To Me,” “Got To Get You Off Of My Mind,” and “Everybody Needs Somebody To Love” (later covered by the Rolling Stones), it was thanks to Solomon’s religious calling that he and I first met.
The event was the funeral of one of the great influences on Ray Charles: singer-pianist Charles Brown, whose “Merry Christmas, Baby” is a beloved holiday classic in hip circles. As I did for most music funerals, I drove my friend Mable John, a wonderful singer who, like Solomon, was also a minister. Upon reaching the funeral home on a 100-degree day in Los Angeles, we discovered that the air-conditioning was broken. Worse, the proceedings were delayed because the clergyman slated to preside – Bishop Solomon Burke – had not yet arrived. Fifteen minutes of sweltering ensued, with people nearly passing out.
“If he’s not here in five more minutes,” I whispered to Mable, “you’ve got to take over, or else it’ll be a mass funeral.”
With under two minutes to go, in stepped a giant of a man who gave new meaning, both literally and figuratively, to the term “larger than life.”
What followed was beyond memorable. Backed by Charles’ band, singer after singer stepped to the microphone: Little Jimmy Scott, Ernie Andrews, Bonnie Raitt (who helped Charles’s Grammy-winning comeback), Ruth Brown. Then came Little Richard, who announced that he was far too broken up to sing. Instead he told of how, as a youngster, he tried to dress like Charles Brown, do his hair like Charles Brown, play piano like Charles Brown, and sing like Charles Brown. “But one day,” Richard then announced, “I looked at myself in the mirror and said, Richard, you’ll never be Charles Brown. So I’ll be Ruth Brown!”
That unforgettable moment was overshadowed by a side of Solomon Burke largely unknown to secular audiences: fire-and-brimstone preaching that seemed to shake the firmament.
I was still reveling in what I’d witnessed when, along with Mable and other mourners, I approached the open casket. Suddenly, Solomon reached out and pulled me toward him. “I’ve been wanting to meet you for some time now,” he whispered. “Can you come by for lunch tomorrow?”
On the way to his house the next day, I couldn’t stop thinking about the many ways “larger than life” applied to him. Above and beyond his size – roughly 300 pounds at that point, but much more in the years that followed – there was the fact that he’d taken the Bible’s advice to “Be fruitful and multiply” literally, fathering twenty-one kids. And, as the godson of the great Black evangelist Daddy Grace, he started commanding the pulpit in his grandmother’s church at the age of seven, leading to his being known as “The Boy Wonder Preacher,” which in turn led to his being on the radio as a young teen, as well as traveling in a tent revival show. Plus, he was the driving force behind the Black supergroup – the Soul Clan – which included Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Joe Tex, Don Covay, Ben E. King, and Arthur Conley.
Over fried chicken and cole slaw, while family members came and went, Solomon pointed a finger at me. “I need somebody like you in my corner.”
Though flattered, I shrugged. “Not sure what I can do.”
“That’s not what Ike says. Or Billy Preston. Or Mable. Plus anyone close to Ray Charles is someone I want on my side.”
Despite my assumption that the talk would turn to business, instead the two of us had a ball. We took turns doing bits by Pigmeat Markham and Moms Mabley, spoke about the microphone tricks everyone stole from Joe Tex, and expressed our shared appreciation of sadly unheralded singers like Archie Brownlee of the Blind Boys of Mississippi, Big Mama Thornton, and Slim Harpo.
Then suddenly, Solomon burst into laughter. “Speaking of Moms Mabley,” he reminisced, “once-upon-a-time I got to open for her. Three nights at a club down South. Friday, when I finished, she told me I was great and had me do two more encores. The next night, she insisted I include those in my set, then sent me out to do a couple more. Come Sunday, she begged me to do all of ’em, then got me to do another two. So up comes the angry club owner, who says, ‘Okay, Moms, time to get your butt on stage.’ ‘What time you got, son?’ Moms asked. ‘A couple of minutes past twelve.’ ‘Well,’ said Moms, ‘guess it’s time to hit the road.’ ‘But you’re booked for Friday, Saturday, and Sunday!’ he said. ‘Yeah,’ said Moms, ‘but if it’s after midnight, it must already be Monday!’ That, Solomon informed me, was one of his first big lessons about show biz.
It wasn’t until I was about to leave that Solomon again grew serious. “I mean it,” he said.
“Things have been tough lately, and I could really use your help.”
“Not sure what I can do,” I told him, “but you got it.”
The next day a call came from Solomon, which was also true the days that followed, each with a reminder of something from his past, or news that a musician we both appreciated had passed away, or just to check in. Then came an invitation for lunch at a deli he liked.
“So what can we do together?” Solomon asked while waiting for our pastrami sandwiches.
“Nobody’s got better stories than you,” I replied. “If we sit every so often in front of a tape recorder, one of these days we’ll have enough for a book.”
“Did I ever tell you about what happened after my first Atlantic releases?”
When I shook my head, Solomon launched into a tale about how, before Ray Charles’ great “Modern Sounds In Country & Western,” Jerry Wexler persuaded him to record “Down In The Valley” and “Just Out Of Reach Of My Two Empty Arms.” Their success led to a well-paid outdoor booking in the South. What sounded promising took a strange turn when Solomon and his band showed up to find not an arena, or even a stage, but an empty field. More troubling, when the guy who hired him took one look at Solomon, his eyes nearly bulged out of his head. “See those trees,” the promoter said, pointing to a cluster nearby. “Go set up behind ’em. And play nothing but those two songs over and over and over.”
Having traveled too far to turn around without a paycheck, Solomon did as told, then nearly freaked when guys in sheets started showing up for what turned out to be a Ku Klux Klan meeting.
“That’s why,” I said, “a book makes so much sense.”
“Gotcha,” countered Solomon. “But I can’t feed my family on ‘one of these days’. I’ve got to find some money soon.”
“Well,” I said, “I’m doing a rewrite on a script that I’ll direct. How about if I write a part for you?”
“Except I’m no actor.”
“You’re in ‘The Big Easy.’”
“That’s proof!” Solomon said with a chuckle.
“And if I make you as a preacher in a church?”
Solomon nodded and smiled. “God sent you to me.”
“Can I ask a question without you getting mad?”
Again Solomon nodded.
“Is that from Solomon the clergyman, Solomon my new friend, or Solomon who has a reputation as a hustler?”
Solomon studied me for a long moment, then burst into laughter. “All of ’em!”
Solomon was an absolute joy during two days of filming in a Black church: warm, gracious, charismatic, and at all times a good sport. Then came the aftermath, when I received notice that he was expecting payment for publishing rights regarding the song he performed on-screen with the choir.
Immediately, I phone him. “About money for the song,” I said. “It’s been paid.”
“I never got a check.”
“Because it was written by Rance Allen.” Dead silence followed until I spoke again. “Got something to say?”
“Can’t blame a guy for trying,” Solomon mumbled softly.
“Yes, I can,” I said and hung up.
Undaunted, Solomon called the next day, twice the day after, and three times the day after that until I finally picked up. “We okay?” he asked.
“I don’t know.
“You know I love you.”
“That’s some funny way of showing it.”
Some months later, in referencing that kind of behavior, a friend asked why in the world I put up with Solomon. “Because,” I replied, “my life would be much poorer without him.” Proof of that came two Sundays later when I accompanied him and some of his family members to a mass choir in a huge church. Choirs from five different congregations had spent months rehearsing together, and the result was more exciting than any secular event I’d ever attended.
Once it was over, Solomon phoned in a to-go order at M&M Soul Food. When we got there, he gave his ten-year-old grandson money to pick up our order. Instead, he came back to the car shaking, without the food.
“What happened, Kenneth?” Solomon asked.
“Some strange man said things to me.”
“Let’s go,” Solomon said to me, as though I was a tough guy. Together we strode toward the restaurant, only to have the perpetrator step out as we neared. Time stopped as he and Solomon faced each other.
“Solomon?” murmured the other guy.
“Richard,” Solomon said.
Immediately the entire neighborhood started pointing and screaming, “Solomon Burke and Little Richard!” and “It’s Little Richard and Solomon Burke!” as the two stars hugged.
“We need to get together,” Solomon announced early one Monday morning. He’d been offered the chance to do a low-budget album with an interesting angle. Ostensibly, it would feature songs written especially for Solomon by Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Elvis Costello, and other luminaries, though I suspected that each had pulled some unproduced oldie out of a drawer. Other than the small fee he’d be getting, three things troubled Solomon. First, the plan was to record live in studio, which he hadn’t done in years. Second, he was to have no input – not the material, not the choice of studio, nor the musicians. Third, he couldn’t see himself recording for a company called Fat Possum.
First and foremost, I explained, Fat Possum was a hip new label that could lead him to an entirely different audience. Next, recording live in studio was what yielded his most iconic records. As for no input, I suggested that he demand one additional musician – someone of his choosing who could play a Hammond B3 organ. That way, I explained, if other aspects were deficient, there would still be a church-like feel.
“Who could we get?” Solomon wondered aloud. “Why not Billy Preston?”
That pleased Solomon. “If they say yes, I’m in.”
When I arrived at the recording studio, Solomon was a nervous wreck. “I-I can’t do this,” he mumbled.
“Did you see the musicians? It’s just a bunch of white kids.”
“But they worship you.”
“To them you’re the King of Rock & Soul, complete with cape and throne.” Of course, the throne he used on stage had to be rented for him for an additional fee. But still….
Flattered, Solomon breathed a sigh of relief. “But where’s Billy Preston?”
I got on the phone in search of Billy, as did Solomon’s daughter Victoria. It turned out he was in intensive care at Cedars-Sinai Hospital with kidney problems.
“What’ll we do?” asked Solomon, again growing frantic.
“We’ll get Rudy,” I said referring to a wonderful organist named Rudy Copeland.
“But Rudy only plays in church,” Solomon said.
“Rudy only plays with you, in church,” I explained. “He plays Blues and R&B with others.”
“Honey,” Solomon said to Victoria, “tell Rudy to drive his ass here as soon as he can.”
“Whoa!” I exclaimed. “You’re forgetting that Rudy’s blind.”
“Call Mrs. Rudy!” said Solomon without missing a beat.
Minutes later the producer came toward us with a large-format book of photographs called “Memphis Blues Again,” featuring Black artists who performed there in the fifties and early sixties. “Look at some of these,” he said to Solomon, flipping through pages. “And look at these of you as a young man.”
“That’s amazing,” Solomon said. “Where’d you get it?”
“At a bookstore.”
“On Ventura Boulevard.”
Solomon’s eyes narrowed. “Tell you what,” he said. “Alan and I’ll be right back.”
“Where’re you going?”
“To get a copy before they sell out. But don’t worry, Alan’s a fast driver.”
“But we’re ready to record.”
“And if we stop for a bite, it won’t be a long one.” Solomon told me he was going to pee, then would meet me at the car.
Ashen, the producer turned to me. “What the hell do I do?”
“Give him the goddamn book!” I said, aware that if he’d come to Solomon with the book as an offering, everything would be fine. But instead, Solomon was destined to treat him as a sucker.
The glow from the recording sessions quickly gave way to the same money pressure as before. It was while Solomon was worried about the future that I got a call from a publicist who was repping an event called The DVD Premiere Awards.
Before he could finish his pitch, I interrupted him. “Forget Ray Charles,” I said.
“Wouldn’t that mean something to him?” he asked.
“C’mon,” I said. “When was the last time Ray said, ‘Not tonight, baby. I’d rather watch a DVD?’”
When he asked if I could help him with Mary J. Blige or Snoop Dogg, I told him that the artist he should book was Solomon Burke. That led to a moment of silence until he asked why.
“Because,” I said, talking through my hat, “he’s going to win a Grammy.”
More silence followed, followed by a promise that he would get back to me.
Though I doubted that, the next day he called again. “Do you really think he’ll win a Grammy?” he asked.
“Guaranteed,” I claimed entirely without evidence, but aware that his attempts to get more current names had failed. Happily, a deal was made.
Three weeks later, the publicist called again. “I’m a fucking hero,” he proclaimed. “He got a nomination.” I resisted hitting him with an I told you so. But that was hardly the end, for some time after that the publicist called again. “I got advance notice,” he exclaimed. “He’ll win!”
I promptly informed Solomon that it was now okay to shake the guy down for the rental of his throne.
Solomon’s Don’t Give Up On Me album opened up doors previous closed to him. Suddenly he was on NPR and on prime-time talks shows, with bookings at venues filled with white audiences. Then came dates both in the US and in Europe as opening act for the Rolling Stones, who were thrilled to bring him back onstage during their set to join with Mick on “Everybody Needs Somebody To Love.”
The downside was that with money being thrown at him in brand new ways, Solomon took to indulging as never before. Quickly, his girth increased to the point where he literally could hardly walk. Undaunted, he went from entering the stage holding a staff to being wheeled on, and using his throne not as a prop, but as a necessity.
“You’re killing yourself,” I told him on far too many occasions.
“I know,” he acknowledged to no avail.
As always, a phone call from Solomon came each and every day, if only to assure me he hadn’t missed one. All the while he promised me that at last we would sit with a tape recorder to memorialize his history and stories.
Then came an April when his manager/girlfriend insisted that not only should they spend a month at her cottage in Maine, but that they should get there by driving cross-country.
“That’s nuts!” I told him in no uncertain terms. “That’s beyond crazy!”
Nevertheless, off they went, with Solomon calling daily from the road, where he owned up to the fact that not only was it cuckoo, but on top of that he was starting to feel under the weather.
“At the next big city,” I said, “please get on a plane and fly back here.”
Instead of taking my advice, he promised that he’d rest and get his health back once they reached Maine. That, sadly, proved not to be the case. Each day he called, he sounded not merely sick, but glum.
That changed, however, when he reported that he would soon be flying to Amsterdam for an exciting festival gig.
“From Boston?” I asked.
“D.C.,” he answered sheepishly.
“What in hell for?”
“There’s a great deal, plus you-know-who wants to spend a couple of days there before we leave. But promise me you’ll come to the show at the Hollywood Bowl once I get back.”
“Have I ever missed one?” I asked.
Unfortunately, the show at the Hollywood Bowl never took place, for Solomon died on board the flight to Amsterdam. At the gathering for close friends and family the night before his funeral, his manager approached me.
“Do you realize,” she said, “that you’re the last person he spoke to?”
“How could you know?”
“Because he told me that it was the last call for boarding, and that if he didn’t move he’d miss the flight.”
After years and years of getting at least one call every day, I still wake up some mornings thinking, “I didn’t hear from Solomon yesterday.”
Sadly, such a call will never come again.
Alan Swyer is an award-winning filmmaker whose recent documentaries have dealt with Eastern spirituality in the Western world, the criminal justice system, diabetes, boxing, and singer Billy Vera. In the realm of music, among his productions is an album of Ray Charles love songs. His novel The Beard was recently published by Harvard Square Editions. His newest film is called “When Houston Had The Blues.”