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His Legacy on the Line

With an album of new songs written for him, Burke is trying to reclaim his rightful place in the soul music pantheon. But can the singer leave the safety of the oldies?

August 11, 2002|ROBERT HILBURN

The permit on the dressing room wall at the House of Blues in West Hollywood lists the capacity as 20, but twice that many people are shoehorned into the space--and most will be joining Solomon Burke on stage.

"We need your immediate attention," demands the bear-sized Burke from the rear of the room. "We go on stage in 15 minutes. No drinking water on stage. No chewing gum. No talking. A hundred-dollar fine if anyone talks."

The 62-year-old soul singer, who weighs nearly 400 pounds, has sunk so deep in an oversized chair it looks as if he'll need a crane to lift him out.

Everyone makes a pilgrimage to him--old friends who remember him as the "king of rock and soul" back in the '60s, when sweet soul music briefly ruled the airwaves, an elderly woman who attends Burke's monthly church sermons and "healings" at a converted movie theater in Inglewood.

Part showman, part patriarch, Burke gives each of the guests a big thank-you, a how-you-feeling, some flattery and, always, a closing joke.

"You're so beautiful," he tells Andrea Leonard, the KCRW-FM radio host who will introduce him on stage. "You doing OK? Thank you so much for coming tonight to do this for me ... just don't call me Barry White."

Holding court is second nature to this man, who has had audiences under his spell since his childhood days in Philadelphia. He was such a charismatic preacher that he had his own weekly radio show at age 12.

By the time he was 21, he was captivating R&B audiences with his exquisite voice and showmanship. He took the "king" title so seriously (it was given by an admiring disc jockey) that he walked on stage in the mid-'60s with a bejeweled crown and 15-foot-long cape.

Like many artists from the early days of R&B and rock, Burke complains about shamefully low record royalties, about being forced to give away some of his publishing rights and being cheated by greedy business associates.

Worst of all, however, Burke has been robbed of his legacy.

At one time, Burke was considered one of the greats of soul music, right alongside Otis Redding, Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson. Some even called him the greatest. Asked 30 years ago to name the best soul singer, producer Jerry Wexler, who has been in the studio with Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Redding, declared, "Solomon Burke with a borrowed band."

Yet Burke's name has largely faded from the pop consciousness. He hasn't had a Top 40 pop hit in almost 40 years and he has had a scant presence for years on the U.S. concert circuit.

What happened?

No one may even have raised that question if Burke hadn't been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year. That honor led numerous critics and industry insiders to brush up on their pop history by searching out some of Burke's classic recordings. There they discovered the remarkable purity, passion and range of his voice. (See story, Page 77.)

There's a tendency to think of soul singers as raspy and explosive, but the heart of soul music's mix of gospel and R&B strains is in the sweet, soft, caressing notes. Burke is a master of that soft touch, as he showed on such records as his first Atlantic single, "Just Out of Reach (Of My Two Open Arms)," in 1961.

But he was equally at home with the howling and aggressive soul sound on "Cry to Me," his follow-up hit the next year. It's amusing now to listen to the Rolling Stones' early versions of "Cry to Me" and another Burke hit, "Everybody Needs Somebody to Love," and hear Mick Jagger trying to incorporate some of Burke's phrasing into his vocals.

The key to Burke's resurgence rests in connecting with a new generation of fans. His first step is "Don't Give Up on Me," a just-released album on the Fat Possum label. On it, Burke interprets songs written for him or given to him by such longtime admirers as Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Tom Waits and Elvis Costello. Reviews have been glowing.

The next--and most crucial--step is demonstrating on stage that he's still a vital artist. That's why there seems to be a bit of urgency in the air backstage--a trace of nervousness in his eyes. For the first time in almost 30 years, there's something at stake again. Burke is fighting to reclaim his legacy.

It's not a slam dunk by any means. Burke has been doing the old tunes so long that they have become a security blanket, but his record company, among others, feels he must move into the new material to maximize his opportunity today.

"It's all so exciting," Burke says, ignoring for the moment the issue of old versus new material. "I feel like a man who is finally coming out of exile. Now, they just need to give me all the money."

Burke is a colorful storyteller, and it's hard not to get so caught up in the humor and rich detail of his tales about the old days that you lose track of your main concern: How was it possible for this man to fade from pop consciousness for all those years?

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