Sunday, October 10, 2010

Farewell to the King

It was close to three in the morning. I was struggling to stay awake. Solomon Burke had been on stage at the Stravinsky Auditorium since just after midnight and showed little sign of giving up. Heading back to the hotel seemed like an admission of failure. 'King' Solomon Burke was still going strong.

Today, however, that came to an end. On a flight arriving at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport, Burke fell ill and passed away. He was aged 70, and had created a reputation for being one of the great showmen in soul and rhythm and blues. Sadly, though, not a household name, despite being the first of the major R'n'B stars to be generated by the legendary Atlantic Records label in the '60s. And, yet, mention his seminal hit, Everybody Needs Somebody To Love, and a wry smile of recognition will beam from anyone who has seen The Blues Brothers. Fans of The Wire might recall his cover of Van Morrison's Fast Train, or remember Cry To Me from Dirty Dancing. Some might even know that Otis Redding's Down In The Valley was written by Burke. In recent years he worked with the likes of Eric Clapton and had songs written for him by Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson, Elvis Costello and Tom Waits.

Born in Philadelphia in March 1940, Burke was unlike so many of his peers who had come from the South, like Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett. But drawing on the same mixture of gospel (he was also a preacher), blues, soul and, most significantly, country music, he became one of the most inventive artists of his generation. His most recent albums showed little sign of that spirit waning, especially his final album Hold On Tight, which contains thirteen songs written by the Dutch band De Dijk. This might seem random, even a little obscure, but it shows the love of music that Burke held literally until his dying day (he was flying into Amsterdam for a performance of the album at the city's legendary Paradiso). Prophetically, he recently told the Daily Telegraph: "As long as I have breath to do it I’ll sing, with God’s help.”

Despite being known for uptempo soul stompers, Burke was a truly progressive performer. His first hit was a country cover, Just Out Of Reach (Of My Two Open Arms), a surprising choice for a soul act, but not considering his love of crossover. The scene in The Blues Brothers in which the band persuade Bob, of Bob's Country Bunker, that a soul revue band was exactly who they'd booked for the night (and would fit perfectly into their music policy of "both kinds - Country and Western"), could so easily have been borrowed from Burke himself: he is believed to have once fooled the Ku Klux Klan into believing he was a white singer. They booked him for one of their charming get-togethers. Not only did he survive, but it is said that he even took requests.

Seeing him for myself in 2007 at the Montreux Jazz Festival, with Burke - then 67 -  booming for the entire three hours from a throne, underlined my feeling that I was watching a true legend, a true showman. And totally larger than life. His colossal size was matched by his colossal reputation, helped by the fact that, by his own admission, he had some 21 children who had in turn produced 90 grandchildren and 19 great grandchildren. Several of his offspring have appeared on stage with him, administering to his profusely sweating brow with a never-ending supply of towels, or helping to the stage.

“The thing I most enjoy is the people, the audience, just the thrill of being out there making personal contact and having the deeply spiritual experience of sharing music with so many grateful fans,” Burke has said. It's an ethic which, like many of his peer group, has carried through until the end.

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