The Voices of Solomon Burke

Solomon & Guralnick

Peter Guralnick originally posted this piece on his soul-deep blog: (Check his site out if you love American music.) Guralnick assures First he’s not done writing about Solomon Burke and we’ll keep hoping for more but in the meantime…

Some day I’m going to write an epic narrative (maybe it should be an epic narrative poem) about My Travels with Solomon Burke. The thing about it is, you wouldn’t have to travel far. In fact, you would only have to spend a day or two with Solomon – maybe just a few hours – to have enough material for a film, book, or life-changing experience.

If I were to say that life with Solomon was a three-ring circus, it would be selling his circus short. There’s no telling the number of rings that he could keep going at the same time – or the number of voices. You could be sitting with Solomon, and he might call someone up, someone with whom, let’s say, he might be having certain problems of a fiduciary nature, and he would take on the mien, the manner, the voice of a Dr. Stein, Dr. Burke’s comptroller, explaining that there had been an unanticipated problem with the transfer of funds, or the conversion of foreign currencies, but he could provide full assurance that it had been taken care of. Or under certain exigent circumstances he might become Dr. Burke the brain surgeon, as he did when long-time club owner/manager/booking agent Jimmy Evans had in fact had brain surgery and was incommunicado except to his medical team in Intensive Care. Occasionally he was Solomon Berkowitz (this was more of a joke between friends), confidently throwing in a wide range of Yiddish expressions that he said he had learned from the kosher butcher that his father worked for when he was a kid. Or, on the other hand, he might be a Muslim brother (I can’t remember what name he went by), if the occasion so demanded – you just could never tell.

The first time I had any contact with Solomon was in 1980, just as I was beginning my book, Sweet Soul Music. I had pursued a bunch of false leads, run down a lot of out-of-service telephone numbers, and spoken to any number of people who professed to have no knowledge of Solomon or his current whereabouts. Then J.W. Alexander gave me the name of a man who he thought was still Solomon’s lawyer. (J.W., Sam Cooke’s friend and business partner, had managed Solomon for a minute in the late ‘60s, and still chuckled fondly over their misadventures, all precipitated by Solomon’s penchant for real-life “spontaneity” over any kind of long-range planning.) Anyway. I called the lawyer’s office, didn’t get any further, I thought, than I had with anyone else, and was going out to play tennis one day when Alexandra came rushing out after me, saying, “Peter, there’s someone on the phone who I think has something to do with Solomon Burke. I think he said it was Solomon Burke,” she said as we walked back to the house, “but I think I must have misunderstood.”

Once I got on the phone, it wasn’t hard to understand her confusion. I had seen Solomon perform in little clubs and headlining all-star Supersonic Soul revues – but the voice I heard on the phone didn’t bear any resemblance to the commanding voice I thought I knew so well from records and personal appearances. This voice was the voice of a mild-mannered (for that you can read “white,” if you like) insurance salesman. Maybe an accountant – or a very cautious lawyer. Maybe, it occurred to me, this was a different Solomon Burke altogether.

This Solomon Burke carefully went over the pronunciation of my name, which he had already established with Alexandra. Then he inquired in an exceedingly circumspect and mild-mannered way about the purpose of my call. Still thinking that this must be some kind of a joke, I started to explain that I was writing a book, it was a book about soul music, it was about Southern soul music. “Of course, of course,” interrupted the voice at the other end of the line, suddenly warming to the conversation and abandoning all pretense of polite neutrality. “And how,” said the man who bore the title of “King of Rock ‘n’ Soul” in a newly commanding voice, “could you write a book on soul music without speaking to the King?”

Well, that was it. That was the beginning of my journey. I went down to New York a few weeks later when he was playing Tramps. I met him in the dressing room upstairs, surrounded by a small coterie of friends, family, and long-time acquaintances, and he welcomed me into his world. After the show, which was as inspired as virtually every show I would see over the next twenty-five years (including the one whose second set consisted entirely of a spur-of-the-moment wedding ceremony – remember, Solomon was a bishop in his grandmother Eleanora A. Moore’s Daddy Grace-inspired church, the House of God for All People, which he insisted needed to be rechristened The House of God for All People, Let It All Hang Out), Solomon wanted to cap the evening with a visit to the famous Stage Delicatessen, so we drove uptown – but it was closed. As was every other familiar landmark that he wanted to introduce me to. So, undaunted, we ended up at an all-night diner in Times Square, where Solomon interviewed the hookers who had ducked in out of the cold, asking them with great good humor about their life and work as he used a salt cellar for a microphone and told them they were being filmed by hidden cameras.

It was a great beginning – and it never stopped. I’ve never had more fun – with anyone – than I did with Solomon, even though early in our acquaintance I had to tell him, “I don’t play,” as he sought to draw me into one or another of his intricately imagined schemes. (That’s a word that might perhaps be better spelled another way, one more example of Solomon’s dedication to the improvisational moment – but that’s another story.)

I wish Solomon were here right now. Everyone who ever knew him – well, almost everyone – wishes he were here. Jerry Wexler said of him that he was “the best soul singer of all time, hands-down – with a borrowed band.” But I wouldn’t even put that qualification on it. He was without question the greatest singer of any kind that I’ve ever seen (remember, there’s a lot of singers that I haven’t seen – including, for example, Sam Cooke), one of the most inventive showmen (one of these days I’ll have to tell you about that second-set wedding at Tramps – with pictures, and I hope the participation of Red Kelly and his wife) – also one of the most brilliant, profound, and certainly the funniest person I’ve ever met, onstage or off – which tended to cost him in the pulpit. (“I couldn’t resist the joke, Pete,” he said to me one time after bringing his congregation to a point of mass hysteria, then throwing it all away with a dubious punch line.)

But all of this was secondary to the Experience of Solomon, just being around him, trying to keep up with his brilliant inventions and limitless imagination, just as prevalent in real life as they were in his music. He was a person of the most capacious mind and spirit – and for me, except for one or two unavoidable semantic stand-offs, nothing ever really changed from the moment I first met him and set off on what turned out to be one of the greatest – hell, why not just say it, the greatest adventure of my life.