The year was 1955. A teenaged Solomon Burke had just been signed to Apollo Records, and was about to embark on his first tour of Florida.
A representative from Apollo met Burke and his 6-foot-5 piano player at the Miami airport, loaned them a bright yellow Cadillac convertible, and told them to drive directly to their first gig at the Palms of Hallandale Beach.
"We're just cruising along with the top down, and I'm waving like I'm the president of America," Burke recalled via phone from his home in Los Angeles. "Like, 'Hey, everybody! I'm in Florida!' Next thing you know, there's 15 police behind us, man. And I said, 'Look, look --- it's a parade! Boy, aren't we popular?' "
The police pulled Burke over and accused the pair of stealing the car. Burke had never been to the Deep South before, and didn't have a clue he was in danger of going to jail --- or worse. Finally, he convinced the police to follow them to Hallandale Beach, where the Apollo representative corroborated their story.
"They just couldn't understand why two little black guys were riding down the street in this '55 Cadillac convertible with Miami plates," Burke said. "That was unheard of back in 1955. So we got a police escort to Hallandale!"
Times have changed, both for the South and for Burke. For almost 50 years, he's epitomized soul music and provided inspiration to everyone from Otis Redding to Ruben Studdard. Jerry Wexler, a partner at Atlantic Records during its heyday who produced classics by Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Bob Dylan, considers him the greatest soul singer who ever lived.
"Solomon came along at a moment when the British invasion was gearing up," Wexler wrote in his 1993 autobiography, "Rhythm and the Blues: A Life in American Music." "We had nothing like the Dave Clark Five or Herman's Hermits, let alone the Beatles. Solomon Burke carried Atlantic by selling a s---load of records --- and they were terrific."
Yet for all the respect he garners from within the industry, to the public, Burke remains in the shadows of his peers. Ask someone to name the best soul singers of the '60s, and you'll inevitably hear Franklin, Redding and Wilson Pickett, but not Burke. Even when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001, VH1 edited out his solo performance in the broadcast.
That may finally be changing. Burke's latest album, "Don't Give Up On Me," has signaled a resurgence of enormous proportions. Reminiscent of his classic material and boasting a superstar songwriting crew, the album garnered the best reviews of his career, earned the "Soul/Blues Male Artist of the Year" title at the W.C. Handy Awards, and gave him his first-ever Grammy, for "Best Contemporary Blues Album."
"This is one of the greatest blessings the Lord has given me at this stage in my life," Burke said. "After five decades of music, it's amazing that the message of hope is what brings us back every time." Birth of soul
Born in Philadelphia in either 1936 or 1940 (biographical information differs on this point), Burke showed an early predilection for music. By age 9, he was a preacher and choir soloist for his family's church; by 12, he was hosting his own gospel radio show and touring as the "Wonder Boy Preacher."
In 1955, just as rock 'n' roll was beginning to break on Top 40 radio, Burke signed with Apollo and began recording both gospel and secular music. It caught the attention of Wexler, and when Ray Charles left Atlantic for ABC-Paramount in 1960, he was eager to sign someone who could fill the hole.
"What most people don't understand about blues and gospel is that the essential element that gets through is sweetness and melody, not roughness, raspy or shouting," Wexler said recently from his winter home in Siesta Key. "Solomon has a gift of a very sweet, melodic voice, and when he wants to, he can put the rough edge to it, the sandpaper . . . he maintains what I consider the most melodic sweetness since the late Sam Cooke."
But according to Burke, there was a problem: Atlantic was known as a rhythm and blues label. Wexler himself had coined the term while a reporter for Billboard. It was too risque for Burke's church, so they reached a compromise.
The term "soul" was born.
"That gave me a lot of problems at first, because my first recording for Atlantic ("Just Out of Reach") was the first black country-and-western record in America," Burke said. "So I could see right then that they wanted to get rid of me. We just signed this clownbone, and he comes in and tells us he doesn't want to be a rhythm and blues singer? Here's what we'll do --- we'll get some country songs for him! Sing this, soul singer!'
"They didn't count on the people wanting to hear it."
Wexler remembers things differently. He views "Just Out of Reach" as a watershed moment that inspired Ray Charles' "Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music." The single hit No. 24 on the pop charts in November 1961, and began a string of monster hits for Burke, including "If You Need Me," "Goodbye Baby (Baby Goodbye)," "Got to Get You Off My Mind," "Tonight's the Night," "Cry to Me" and one of the most-covered songs of all time, "Everybody Needs Somebody to Love."
But then, Burke and Wexler have always had a strange relationship. Burke claims Wexler owes him royalties, which Wexler says is "bull----." In his book, Wexler says Burke eventually got lazy in the studio to the point of "oversoul" --- bending the notes so far out of shape, the melody was unrecognizable.
Yet both continue to profess love for one another, and display a tremendous amount of mutual respect.
Still, Burke loves to push Wexler's buttons, like when he makes the claim that he's converted the long-time atheist (who's Jewish by heritage) to Christianity and ordained him a minister. "He's Rev. Jerry Wexler now," Burke said. "He's promised me and God that he's going to stay religious until the day he leaves here. Go call him, and see what he says."
Here's what Wexler said: "I get home one day, and I find a message on my answering machine --- 'Please call me, I want to ordain you as a minister in my church.' So I send him back a fax. I said, 'This a great honor, I accept with pleasure. However, in view of my ethnicity, would this organization allow me to open a walk-in facility for circumcisions?'
"Anyhow, I got the ordination. It's hanging on my wall, and it authorizes me to do confirmations, weddings, laying on of hands, bar mitzvahs --- and circumcisions." Bring it on home
Burke floundered after leaving Atlantic in 1969. He charted the occasional R&B hit, including a cover of "Proud Mary," "Midnight and You" and "You and Your Baby Blues," but jumped from label to label and never matched the success he had with Wexler. In the meantime, people who had copied his vocal style became icons.
But rather than be bitter, Burke continued to record, perform and make ends meet by whatever means possible. He'd always had a sense of entrepreneurship, and with 21 children, he had to ensure that some steady income was coming in.
During the days of segregation, he would sell sandwiches to his bandmates when they couldn't eat at white restaurants. When he was cutting hits for Atlantic, he drove a snow plow on the side. He ran a limo service. He even performed at a Ku Klux Klan rally before 30,000 hooded members.
"I performed for anybody who wanted to hear the music," Burke said. "And I'm very proud I did those things, because that lets you know people are people, and that music can reach into any situation in life if you want it to --- without prejudice, without separation of mind and state."
Burke is also a licensed mortician, a trade he learned from the family business as a youngster and has since passed on to his children.
"We're the last ones to let you down, and the first ones to pick you up," he said with a laugh.
A few years ago, Burke was approached by Andy Kaulkin, president of Fat Possum Records, a subsidiary of the independent label Epitaph. Known for its roster of punk and metal bands, the label didn't seem like a good fit to Burke at first.
Then Kaulkin teamed him with producer Joe Henry and enlisted a "Who's Who in Songwriting" to pen tunes for him, including Elvis Costello, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Van Morrison and Brian Wilson, all of whom jumped at the chance. "Don't Give Up On Me" was recorded live in the studio over four days, and sounds like it was rescued from a 1967 time capsule. "This whole album is almost too incredible to believe sometimes," Burke said. "I look back on it, and I say to myself, 'Did all these stars really write these songs for me?' My God."
The success of "Don't Give Up On Me" has made Burke a hot commodity. He's opened twice for the Rolling Stones and performed before the pope. His native Philadelphia proclaimed July 19, 2002, as "Solomon Burke Day." He's performed on the "Tonight Show with Jay Leno," the "Late Show with David Letterman" and "Late Night with Conan O'Brien."
When Barbara Strauss, promoter of the Sarasota Bluesfest, heard the album, she decided then and there to book Burke. She told longtime friend Gregg Allman that Burke's CD sounded like a cross between Otis Redding and Al Green.
"No," Allman corrected her. "Otis Redding and Al Green sound like Solomon Burke."
When Burke comes to Florida this weekend to headline the blues festival (backed by no less than an orchestra), he does so as the king of soul returning to reclaim his crown. Wexler may even show up to give his support. "I don't need a police escort this time," Burke said. "I do hope Jerry has a convertible I can ride in, though."