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The Late, Great Solomon Burke

The King of Rock and Soul, Solomon Burke, passed away last month. And though his passing was acknowledged by major media outlets, it didn’t generate the kind of notice that comes with the death of a superstar. That’s not surprising given that, where sales are concerned, his heyday was nearly a half-century ago. But Burke was the kind of artist whose impact is gauged less in quantifiable sales rank than in enduring influence and plain old good times generated.

And he was one of the greats! No less an authority than legendary producer/label exec Jerry Wexler called him the greatest soul singer of them all – and Wexler worked with Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin.

Burke experienced a bit of a bump in 2002 with the Joe Henry-produced Don’t Give Up on Me, a critically hailed album featuring songs provided by admirers ranging from Bob Dylan to Tom Waits, Elvis Costello to Van Morrison. (A track from that album appears on the Starbucks compilation Lifted: Songs of the Spirit.)

Don’t Give Up on Me had the feel of a career capper – an achievement after which an old pro takes his final bow and steps out of the arena. It wasn’t, though. He continued to make worthy, ambitious albums and tour. Indeed, he died in Amsterdam, where he was booked for a sold-out show. I saw him a handful of years back, appearing with a crack revue that included some of his offspring. (Burke left behind 21 children, 90 grandchildren and 19 great-grandchildren.) Wearing a crown and cape, he sat in a throne, a nod to his regal standing as well as a place to rest his enormous body. And he sang with the kind of power and grace that made him the King way back when.

My favorite Solomon Burke story traces back to the golden age of soul, when he and the likes of Otis Redding, James Brown, Wilson Pickett and Joe Tex battled for supremacy. A certified mortician and ordained minister when he wasn’t in the studio or onstage, Burke didn’t believe in wasting time – or a captive audience. As told in Peter Guralnick’s Sweet Soul Music (invaluable to anyone interested in classic R&B), the thrifty showman stocked up on sandwiches, candy and other sundries before hitting the road, offering them at a markup to his entourage. They may have waved him off at first, but Burke patiently pushed his goods, raising the price as the miles passed and eventually pocketing what he considered a fair profit – even if the horn section felt a little exploited.

I suspect even they figured Solomon earned every penny he got.

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