Living large (Solomon Burke, 1940-2010)

 

Solomon Burke: A king in his own domain, a presence in every sense of the word. Photo: Larry Busacca/Wireimage, via bluesmagazine.com

 

If you woke up late this Sunday morning (Oct. 10), the legendary soul singer Solomon Burke died early this morning at Schipol Airport in Amsterdam. He had flown there to play a concert Tuesday night with De Dijk; his new album, “Hold on Tight,” a collaboration written by the band and translated to English (a first for them), is just about to be released.

Burke wasn’t as famous as some of his fellow ’60s legends, but he had the voice, he had the heart and soul. And he was durable; he lasted 70 years and was going strong when his massive heart gave out. And even if you didn’t know of him, if you saw “The Blues Brothers” movie, you certainly know his signature hit, “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love.” And maybe “Cry to Me” as well.

The Philadelphia-born preacher lived large: He recorded dozens of albums, sang for the last two popes, fathered 21 kids (I interviewed one of them, Melanie Burke, in the mid-’90s for the New Haven Register when she was doing some recording at Trod Nossel Studios in Wallingford, and even talked to the man himself on the phone for a few minutes for the story) and he was massive physically; well over 500 pounds is an understatement.

He was an imposing figure. And the one time I saw him in concert left an impression — true to form, a huge one.

Burke opened for Van Morrison on a 2003 tour that came to Oakdale Theatre in Wallingford. I had seen the mercurial Morrison before, but not Burke, and I was wondering how Morrison would fare with a legendary soul man on the undercard.

The answer: Not too well.

Burke came out first, and I wasn’t prepared for just how huge the man was. Impeccably dressed and walking oh so slowly with a cane, he was escorted by a valet to a double-king-sized, very high-backed, red-and-gilded throne — a riot of color enhanced all the more by Burke’s neon blue suit — appropriately, a royal shade of blue.

Burke had control of his audience from the first song, simply by his presence. Size, of course, was one factor. But so was the voice — not only a powerful one, but an assured, assuring one that radiated warmth. I’d seen very few artists with as much command of the stage. And he did it sitting down.

Near at the end of his set, he invited the entire audience to join him for “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love.” Not everyone was seated at that point, but still, Oakdale is a very large theater; it holds 5,000 with the wings open, 3,000 with them closed. But about 100 fans took him up on it and climbed the expansive stage to join him and dance and do a little reveling. One blonde was bold enough to sit in his lap for the big number. It was a fun time, and by being inclusive and asking his fans to share the moment with him, he made it a memorable night for quite a few people.

By contrast, there was Morrison, usually a stormy guy at best.

In between sets, from my seventh-row aisle seat, I heard two older, white-haired men conversing. It was apparent that one was asking the other whether he’d be able to meet Van backstage. The other man — who I realized, after doing the math, was a legendary New York concert promoter — said to him, in a slow response, “Ohhhhh … I don’t think that’s a good idea. He’s in a very bad mood tonight.”

And as that conversation drifted off, I watched the crew set up for Morrison. I noticed a digital clock set up on a speaker cabinet stage left, set to 1:30. I thought, “No — he’s not gonna do the Chuck Berry thing, is he?” One of the many things Berry has been notorious for is not playing a second more than what was called for. If it’s a 45-minute set, he’s not coming back after 45 minutes — unless, of course, the promoter comes up with some more money …

Morrison couldn’t have been more of a contrast to Burke. Both men were dressed nattily, but while Burke was big and loud and neon, Morrison was dark charcoal pinstripes, buttoned tightly, in a tight, short-brimmed black fedora, hiding much of his face behind huge amber wraparound shades. Burke was massive physically, had a booming voice, and he exuded a warmth that took up all that much more of the gigantic stage; Morrison, closed off and close to hostile to the audience, singing professional but perfunctory versions of his tunes, seemed pinched, punier than his already short stature allowed, almost swallowed by his surroundings. Burke’s stage lighting was bright; Morrison’s was appropriately dark. And Burke’s band was letting loose, in the tradition of a top-notch soul act; Morrison’s sidemen looked absolutely miserable.

And sure enough, the clock wound down: A set and one encore. One hour, 30 minutes. Gone.

I was lucky enough not to have to pay the $93 (plus Ticketmaster thievery) for my seat. If I were a fan who had to pay for this, I would’ve felt cheated.

For a man who’s been influenced heavily by American R&B singers, maybe Morrison should have taken an advanced course from Burke — how to win over an audience and send them home happy. But thanks to Burke, for me it ended up being a memorable night for all the right reasons.

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2 Responses to “Living large (Solomon Burke, 1940-2010)”

  1. jmucci Says:

    When I was reading the article about Burke in Rolling Stone a couple of months ago, I was wondering “How has a guy this big not had a heart attack yet?”….I felt bad for thinking it, since I certainly didn’t want to see him go anytime soon….but now here he is gone. I had read he was “only” about 400 lbs, but you could be right. Either way, it was too much. Anyhow, let’s just be lucky that a guy with that much talent stuck around as long as he did and made as many great recordings as he did, including that last one with Willie Mitchell. Now, sadly, both men are gone…

  2. JL Stiles Says:

    Solomon was the best concert I have ever seen and I saw him for free in Golden Gate Park of San Francisco about 12 years ago. His voice cannot be equaled. I also saw Van Morrison and, indeed, this reviewer had the same experience I had: No warmth and no connection with the crowd. Solomon should have gone on last and given Van a spanking on his massive knee.

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