Solomon Burke—who died in the Netherlands on October 10 from natural causes, aged 70—was once hailed as the best soul singer of all-time by producer Jerry Wexler. Obviously, that assessment is open to debate, although it’s not one I would have cared to argue about with the legendary Wexler. Certainly, Burke deserved his status as one of the bona fide greats thanks to his richly soulful performances on the likes of “Cry to Me,” “Tonight’s the Night,” and, of course, “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love.”
Wexler might also have nominated Burke as soul’s most colorful singer. Who else can claim that, during an early lull in their career, they took a job in a mortuary? And who else brought sandwiches on tour so he could make some money on the side selling them to hungry musicians? It was also not unknown for the so-called “King of Rock and Soul” to appear on stage wearing a cape and jewel-encrusted crown.
James Solomon Burke was born in Philadelphia on March 21, 1940. By the age of 7 he was already earning himself a reputation as the “Boy Wonder Preacher” for sermonizing in church. By his teens, Burke was hosting his own gospel radio show and recording for the Apollo label. But his career fell apart after a dispute with his manager. It was then that Burke decided to attend mortuary school and subsequently went to work for his aunt, who owned a funeral parlor business.
In 1960, Jerry Wexler signed Burke to Atlantic Records and he enjoyed a string of hits including “Everybody Needs Somebody To Love,” which the Rolling Stones covered on their second album. Burke also found success with the song “Got to Get You Off My Mind,” which he was initially inspired to write after hearing about the fatal 1964 shooting of his friend, fellow soul singer Sam Cooke.
Burke enjoyed less success in subsequent decades, although “Everybody Needs Somebody To Love” featured prominently in the 1980 Blues Brothers movie and “Cry to Me” accompanied some memorably “unclean” choreography featuring Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey in 1987’s Dirty Dancing.
In 2001, Burke was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the following year he released the Joe Henry-produced Don’t Give Up On Me, which won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album and proved that Burke’s vocals were as soulful as ever.
According to Burke’s official website, the singer passed away at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam where he had just arrived for a sold-out show.
I’ve embedded some of the soul legend’s best tunes below. Please do check them out.
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