Solomon Burke accomplished the rare feat of maintaining a career in the recording industry for a long period of time, releasing music during seven decades. From his first singles for Apollo as a teenager in the mid-1950s to his 2010 collaboration with legendary Memphis producer and performer Willie Mitchell, Burke's music has more often than found common ground with contemporary sounds while still maintaining a timeless combination of gritty R&B, gospel fervor, and country shades. That's due in large part to his amazingly expressive voice, able to range from a gentle entreaty to a foundation-shaking blast from one moment to the next.
Burke and Mitchell's collaboration, Nothing's Impossible, turned out to be an epitaph for both men; Mitchell passed away in January before the album's release, and Burke died of natural causes Sunday, October 10, at Schiphol Airport outside Amsterdam on his way to a performance.
Like many R&B singers who debuted in the 1950s, Solomon Burke emerged from a background in gospel music. He also had a more direct connection with religion than most, sermonizing as the "Wonder Boy Preacher" in Philadelphia and more far-flung churches before the age of 10, and leading the congregation House of God For All People as an adult. But his first records were essentially secular -- or, perhaps more accurately, holding down a sort of middle ground between, in the same manner as his later work. After several more releases on Apollo didn't gain momentum, Burke nearly left music behind, going to mortuary school and working for a funeral home owned by an aunt. He was convinced to record again by Artie Singer for his small Singular label in 1960, and the next year picked up by Atlantic.
His second Atlantic release was the smash "Just Out of Reach," a cover of a 1950s country song by The Stewart Family and an instant crystallization of his mature style as one of the first singers in the emerging subgenre of soul music. From then on, Burke recorded prolifically right up to the present day, though after his '60s run of R&B and pop chart hits his music usually traveled under the radar of most listeners. That changed with the 2002 Grammy-winner Don't Give Up on Me, and his follow-up releases have been no mere nostalgia trips but essential additions to his canon.
Burke's personality was as outsized as his body became, and there have been many entertaining articles over the years telling stories about his life. Probably the best write-up I've seen on his earlier days is the one in Peter Guralnick's essential 1986 book Sweet Soul Music. Parts of that essay had earlier appeared as the liner notes to the 1984 album Soul Alive!, which itself is possibly the best introduction for the uninitiated to Burke's unique talent. A live album recorded in front of a vocal audience at a 1981 show in Washington, D.C., the set focuses nearly exclusively on Burke's epochal 1960s Atlantic period. Thankfully, in this case the musical textures are not particularly updated to the then synth-driven times, as the band provides straight-up backing in a slightly more gospel-tinged guitar blues base than some of the original records.
That being said, I don't think even synths could have dimmed this performance very much -- this album showcases the King of Rock 'n Soul at the top of his game, running through smoothly-coordinated medleys of hits and even doing a bit of secular-style preaching. I have to admit that listening to Soul Alive! this week hurts a little bit, knowing that voice has been stilled on this side of the curtain. Thankfully, he left behind an amazing body of work which will be with us until we cross over to the unknown ourselves. (Rounder, 1984)