"Call me anything," says Burke, with his customary soft chuckle, "just don't call me late for dinner."
It's an old joke, but then Solomon Burke is no spring chicken. Born, according to him, in 1940, Burke was pre-ordained for greatness by his grandmother, who saw him as a spiritual leader while he was still in his mother's womb. Her vision eventually came to pass, and Burke was a fixture in his Philadelphia church by the age of 9, singing and sermonizing. By age 12, he had achieved local fame as "the wonder-boy preacher" and had his own religious radio program.
By 1960, Burke was an orator, an undertaker and a snow-shoveler with 11 kids when he came to the attention of Atlantic Records. He joined the ranks of its legendary roster, which at the time included the Coasters, the Drifters, Lavern Baker, and Ray Charles.
Like Charles, Burke had a wide and ambitious sense of who his audience was and where he wanted to take them. His combination of elements of pop, soul, gospel and country resulted in a string of hits and near-hits, including "Just Out of Reach (of My Two Open Arms)" and "Got to Get You Off My Mind."
And while he never quite reached the exalted heights of some of his labelmates, Burke was nevertheless held in high regard by those who were smart enough to recognize his talents. The Rolling Stones covered two Burke singles, "Cry to Me" and "Everybody Needs Somebody to Love," on their earliest albums, and Burke finally was elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001.
In between, Burke became a founding member of the prestigious Soul Clan, a superstar club that was nearly mythical, since it left such a tiny recorded legacy. Made up at various times of Burke, Ben E. King, Joe Tex, Wilson Pickett, Don Covay, Otis Redding and Arthur Conley, the group did manage to release one single, "Soul Meeting," in 1968, before Redding died and Pickett split.
"It was so sad that we didn't get to do a lot of the things that we wanted to do when we had the Soul Clan, to record the things we wanted to record," Burke says.
Also a close friend of Sam Cooke, Burke was with him mere hours before he was killed. "If these guys were still alive if we had Jackie Wilson, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, along with Wilson Pickett, myself, all on the same show can you imagine? What a Soul Clan that would be!"
Now, several decades later, Burke is the father of 21 children, 68 grandchildren and a smattering of great-grandkids. In America, there are entire counties with smaller populations. By telephone from his home in L.A., Burke says: "My grandson asked me the other day, Grandpa, when you were going to school, did you and the dinosaurs walk on the same street?' I told him, Yes, they were called Buicks and Oldsmobiles.'"
While he jokes about his age and the passage of time, Burke has never been inactive, musically or otherwise. "The secret of life is to constantly do something," he states. "Don't stand still and say, Oh, my songs didn't make it or my record didn't make it.' The secret is to keep moving and to keep something going, to always do something exciting, be energetic in something.
"I'm blessed because I have my kids, my mortuaries, my church, music and good soul food. And the kids keep me on my toes. They keep me hep, when they turn around and tell you, Dad, that's not really where it's at.' Half these rap groups and things, I don't know what's going on. I have to ask them, What's happening?' and I learn very quickly. Now I love R. Kelly, Usher so soulful I love what they're doing."
And now, in 2002, Burke is about to release a new CD that likely will be regarded as one of the singular high points of the year. Don't Give Up on Me, to be released July 23 (by Fat Possum/Anti Records), has 12 entirely new tracks written by the likes of Bob Dylan ("Stepchild"), Van Morrison ("Fast Train," "Only a Dream"), Joe Henry ("Flesh and Blood"), Dan Penn ("Don't Give Up on Me"), Nick Lowe ("The Other Side of the Coin"), Brian Wilson ("Soul Searchin'") and Tom Waits ("Diamond in the Mind"). Many of these songs were written specifically for Burke, and with the exception of the Morrison songs, which are included on his own recent album none of them has appeared anywhere else.