"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.
Also included is a rousing gospel-inspired track, "None of Us Are Free" by the great Brill Building duo, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, best known for songs such as "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" and "On Broadway." Burke was able to fulfill a lifetime ambition when he recorded this song with the Blind Boys of Alabama.
"Oh, man, that was the greatest thrill, 'cause I've always been a fan of The Five Blind Boys, from back when I was a kid. And they're still 50 years old," Burke says, laughing. "They got some kind of magic potion, I don't know. I had sweet potato pie for 'em and fried chicken. They said, Let's go! Hit song! Gotta eat!' Within an hour it was finished, no rehearsal. We was mad 'cause there wasn't another song for them to do."
The album is almost stark in its simplicity; the complexity of some of the lyrics is underscored by the simplicity of the instrumentation. And the presence of Rudy Copeland, Burke's blind house organist, who filled in when Billy Preston had to cancel, adds both a touch of the church and a sense of Dylan's '60s rock. "That's what we got on this record. It's almost like we're having service.
"I think the organ gives it a foundation," Burke adds. "Takes it back to that Bill Doggett Honky Tonk' feeling almost, back when you could just feel the music, you know? The secret was to tell Rudy, Rudy, just play for me like you do in church. Don't pay no attention to the rest of these guys,' 'cause remember, Rudy doesn't know the songs. He can't read the charts. I don't even know if there were charts. I think they played it down for him once, and that was it. We cut the whole album in four days."
Burke, who has never stopped recording or touring, has always made a point of playing what the audience asks of him. "Sam Mayfield is my guitar player, and he says, Man, my greatest job is to guess where in the heck you gonna go.' We might rehearse 40 songs and, when I get to a performance, if someone in the audience wants to hear I Wish I Knew,' I'm gonna sing it. I'm gonna sing what they want to hear, because that's what they came for. I know how disappointing it is to go to a concert and you want to hear an artist sing something, and they sing everything but that!"
But with the release of Don't Give Up on Me, Burke is in the enviable position of having a new audience that likely will be as interested in hearing new songs as in the oldies. "We're ready for them we've already started rehearsing the band. The greatest thing, my horn guys are getting angry because the new record has no horns. Are you gonna write some parts for us for the tour?' Oh yeah,' I tell 'em, I got you on the endings,'" Burke laughs. "So now my horn players are out taking dance lessons, so they can be doing routines while I'm playing all these songs."
Burke has a big voice that can shake rafters, but like other great preachers, he can wind all that energy down into an intimacy that touches each individual within earshot. What's surprising is that, in spite of the history and the larger-than-life aspects of the man the crown he wears onstage, the robes, his girth and giant grin he is completely unaffected in a way that only truly comfortable people are.
"I'm just so grateful to be here and to be part of this," he says. "And I hope that I can continue to do more, and do better."
Burke does not seem interested in representing himself as anything other than himself: smart, well-spoken, humble and possibly even wise. Like George Foreman, Burke almost seems Buddhistic, and it doesn't take much to get him back on the pulpit.
"I don't really see any difference between singing about God and singing about love and romance. I think God is love. And when you talk about love, you have to talk about God. This is the greatest answer of all time. The reason why we're having problems is because we don't love one another. And He said, in His own words: Above all things, love one another.' This is the only commandment He gave, that we love one another.
"Music is one of the healers. And what I'm trying to do is put that out there, as much as I possibly can. I'm so grateful that I'm having the opportunity to express myself through these other eyes, other hearts, other minds, through the words of these great writers.
"My little grandson, who is only 5, walks around singing, Always keep a diamond in your mind,' and I say, That's it, son. Always keep that diamond in your mind.'" Burke chuckles and adds, "Then again, he has a grandfather who brainwashes him with the record. I'm playing this stuff constantly for him, because I want him to hear and understand it. I want him to know that it means something. It's like where you play a record over and over and over, and you want to hear it and you hear it in your sleep, when it's not playing.
"Art saves the soul, I think, and I think of these songs as art."