He's referred to as a pioneer of soul music in the early 1960s. He was a big influence on Mick Jagger. His first hit was a song called "Just Out Of Reach", which went to number seven on the R&B charts in 1961. Other hits followed including "Cry To Me", "If You Need Me", Got To Get You Off My Mind" and "Tonight's The Night". What a fascinating conversation I had with the one, the only, Solomon Burke!
Note: This is the first publishing of this interview, which was conducted on January 27th, 1992.
Q - I've been listening to your latest CD, "Homeland" and what strikes me is that you haven't lost your voice!
A - Thank you.
Q - What's your secret?
A - The secret is no drugs, no alcohol, no smoking and an awful lot of faith and trust in God. Basically that's the secret. Just keeping yourself organized, mentally, physically and spiritually and everything works out for you. Of course you know, you sing all the time. You try to speak properly. You try to talk properly. I'm more excited these days working with my youngest son now, who's recording and producing. He's my pride and joy right now, as far as this singing thing is concerned. I get a chance to sit in the rehearsals with him. It's a lot of fun. It pays off. It really does.
Q - What role did your son play in the "Homeland" CD?
A - He was involved in the advisory capacity. It was produced by Duffy and Cohen, this last album. The one I'm so excited about with my son and he was just fourteen years old when he put the "Souls Alive" album out for me. That was on Rounder (Records) and it's still one of the big sellers for us. It was something that we had in the garage, a tape. When he became twelve, I said "listen, it's your publishing company now. You gotta deal with this business. It's your thing. All these tapes are yours." He sat there. I was playing some of the stuff. He said "Dad, what do you want to do with this tape?" I said "It's just an old tape of my show." He went into the studio, played around with it, put it on a sixteen track, pumped it up, we made a deal with Rounder with the tape. It became one of the biggest 'live' tapes I ever had. So that started him in the producing business and recording business. Now, he's in college and he's got his own situation going. A couple of major record companies are very interested in him. I'm excited about it.
Q - Is that the only child of yours who became interested in the music business?
A - The rest of 'em sing. Some of 'em are doctors and lawyers...military careers. One son was in the Marines for eight years. Now he's playing professional football for Hawaii. But, this is my baby son. My little Boss. He's nineteen. He's been very close to me and instrumental in keeping my career going. He's the one that said "Dad, go do the album. Go do it!" I was really reluctant to do it. So, something good came out of it.
Q - It was ten years between recorded product for you. What did you do with yourself in that time period?
A - Well, that ten year gap was filled with the "Souls Alive" album, and of course the Atlantic stuff just sells all the time. We're very big in Europe. I do maybe two months of concerts in Europe every year. Italy, Germany, France, Sweden, Switzerland. So, the only thing I was doing in the States was mainly the college dates and big concerts and festivals. Basically devoting my time to my family and the mortuary business and the church. That keeps me pretty busy.
Q - I guess so. Speaking of Atlantic Records, I hear they're in trouble. They're about ready to drop half of the acts on their roster and make sweeping cut backs. Have you heard anything about that?
A - I've heard about that. I've heard several other companies are doing that. Basically, they're going back to the roots. Back to the artists that have longevity. Ninety-nine percent of those companies have put out millions of dollars for these artists, hundreds of thousands of dollars in the studio and now it's not paying off anymore. Nobody's selling like "Thriller" sold.
Q - Times were better then.
A - You gotta remember that artists weren't being paid in those days. When I was with Atlantic, a three cent royalty was big time. You understand what I'm saying? We walked in and asked for a million dollars. I remember one time we walked in and asked for a million dollars. It was Otis Redding, Joe Tex, Wilson Pickett, Don Colay, Ben E. King and myself. We all went in together. We were all on the charts. We all asked for a million dollars for a real estate project, as an organization, as a soul clan. We intended to buy up a lot of property in the South, in the ghetto areas and re-modeled them and built homes. And, we needed a million dollars to put this project together. We walked into Atlantic asking for that and wound up being put on the back shelf. We lost a whole lot from that. Nowadays the artists walk in and ask for a million dollars and that's just for the studio time. (laughs) All of us together were asking for a million. You and I know of course that all of us together at that time made millions and millions for Atlantic.
Q - You were known as the "King of Rock 'n Soul"...
A - Still am.
Q - But aren't you a Rock 'n Roll singer as well?
A - Well, I'm a Rock 'n Soul singer. Rock carries everything. Rock is whatever you want it to be. And Soul carries everything from Country and Western to Gospel to Pop to Jazz to Blues. So, that covers it all. When you say you're a Rock 'n Roll singer, then you're just locked into Rock 'n Roll and I just can't lock myself into Rock 'n Roll.
Q - I don't even know what Rock 'n Roll means anymore.
A - I guess it means when you rock to the left and roll to the right. (laughs)
Q - You and (boxer) Joe Louis wrote a song together for a small record label. I didn't know he was a songwriter. How did that work?
A - Well, I'm gonna tell you the real story on that. Are you ready?
Q - I'm ready.
A - The song was written by myself and Charlie Merenstein. At that time Charlie Merenstein was the vice-president of Apollo Records. Apollo Records, back in those days was one of the big labels. It was owned by Bess and Ike Berman, who were two of the greatest people in the world. I mean, the most sweetest, original, the real deal people. You know, the kind of people who say I don't need a contract. Very up front with us. Very honest with us. Never had a problem with our royalties. Just beautiful people. I wrote a song. I was very young. I would just walk in the studio and started singing and they would have to put the music around me. I came up with this "You can run, but you can't hide." Charlie sat down with me and we worked out the words, worked out the lyrics and worked out the music. When we got ready to release the song, we found out that Mrs. Louis had copyrighted that phrase by Joe Louis. We immediately had to retract all of the records and give them a piece of the action of the records and give them a part of the song. Plus, we had to hire Joe Louis for one year to travel with me just to bring me onstage, which was a very expensive situation. (laughs) One time I think we did the Steve Allen Tonight Show and Joe Louis was supposed to introduce me. Steve Allen said to Joe, "And who did you bring with you tonight as your special guest?" And Joe Louis couldn't remember my name, but he remembered the song of course. And at the same time, Dick Haymes had covered this record on Decca Records. So, he couldn't remember Solomon Burke, so he said "Dick Haymes". (laughs) No! Solomon Burke. It was a big thing to be on a television show like The Tonight Show in the fifties. It was like being on the ABC news. The record company people must've had a heart attack! (laughs) It was so funny. Joe was such a wonderful person. His personality and charm was unbelievable. It was a year that I will always remember. It was a very beautiful year. Just being in his presence and the people and the bodyguards. It was a totally different era compared to when we talk about the fight game now. The man was a gentleman too. You look back at Sugar Ray Robinson, Sugar Ray Leonard and Muhammad Ali, you talk about gentlemen. These people were just classy people.
Q - Did you get to meet all of the early rock 'n rollers? I'm speaking about Elvis, Buddy Holly, Sam Cooke.
A - Absolutely.
Q - What kind of a guy was Sam Cooke?
A - Well, if I say this, you'll think I'm reading it...one of the sweetest persons you could ever meet. The kind of guy you meet for the first time and you want to take him home and introduce your whole family to him. The next thing you say "Let's come to my house for dinner." That kind of guy. He was so down to earth. He loved to sing. You could get to talking to him about Gospel songs, which was really his thing. He started out with J.W. Alexander and The Pilgrim Jubilee, Pilgrim Travelers and the Soul Stairs, and these guys, man, you'd stop to talk about something and the next thing you know, everybody was singing a good Gospel hymn. The next thing you know is, "let's go eat. Let's go barbeque. Let's get some ribs." It was just a friendly situation. Beautiful, beautiful person, but a young man who had a lot of love and was hurt by love. Sam was a very special person.
Q - Do you accept the facts of the official version of Sam's death?
A - I still think there was some kind of conspiracy. The sad thing was, there was no support for it. Unfortunately, I was there in Los Angeles the night he was killed. I had met with him earlier that day. We had been with him over at the club, J.W. and I, sitting there talking. It was just a shock to believe that Same Cooke, who you were just sitting with a couple of hours ago, had been killed in a hotel room. I could not believe that. I know he was having some personal problems, but, I just could not believe (it). Here's a man who had everything going for him. He was getting ready to have his own national TV show. Everything was getting ready to happen for Sam Cooke. It was at the point where he was the new Black image, new hero, the new Nat King Cole. He was on that horizon. He had played the Copa. He had conquered the Copa. Next step was Vegas. His own TV show..."Sam Cooke Cooks!" Everything was getting ready to happen and for him to be lost in such a tragic and quick way, was such a terrible shock to me. Matter of fact, I stayed in shock behind that thing for two weeks. I left the hotel. I got on the bus and I went somewhere, because I couldn't get on a train. I got on a train and wound up in St. Louis and I got on a plane. Out of the whole thing I wrote a song called "Got To Get You Off My Mind". When you listen to that song, you feel what I was feeling. That same night, my wife sent me divorce papers. I was like, I can't believe all of this is happening in one day...divorce, Sam Cooke. C'mon man! Something in the world must be changing. You feel that Sam Cooke flavor coming out of that song I wrote. I guess it's from the personal hurt inside. I just could not really accept that. I didn't want to accept it. I've always felt there was some sort of conspiracy there.
Q - I've heard that he owned his own publishing and there were people who wanted him to give it up. Have you heard that?
A - Well, you must understand, in those days, we weren't allowed to have publishing companies.
Q - But he had his own publishing company.
A - He had the publishing company. He had the control. He and J.W. had their own record company. People wanted a piece of those things. J.W. was a great manager and a sharp manager. You couldn't get to J.W. He wouldn't let you get to Sam. But, if you get Sam away, he was just a normal, regular, sweet guy. I listened to the reports and I listened to the story of what happened and I can imagine Sam going after his pants. I can imaging Sam going up to the counter and saying "Hey, somebody just took my pants." And he's standing there, seeing the woman with his pants. I can imagine him saying "Give me my pants." But I can't imagine him attacking her. He wasn't that type of person to attack somebody. That wasn't his bag. He was a lover, OK. He wasn't a fighter. He wasn't a boxer. You never heard of Sam Cooke beating up his women. He had a wife that almost drove him crazy, but, he loved her desperately. God, you talk about Sam Cooke. One New Year's Eve, Sam and I spent in Newark, New Jersey. We both were going through some love problems. We both sat there that New Year's Eve and we could have had any woman in town. He had "You Send Me" and I had "Goodbye Baby, Goodbye". We were hot. We were both on the same show. The ballroom was packed with women, women, women. And we were both sitting in the dressing rooms waiting for our wives that never showed up. We spent that New Year's Eve together, saying "Where are they? Why couldn't my wife make it from Philadelphia and why couldn't my make it from California? I don't understand that. We're right here in Newark, New Jersey." (laughs) We were calling back to the airports. We lived through that, but I'll never forget that night. There were so many women. Women were just knocking down our doors. Matter of fact, we wound up getting another room in the hotel because they knew our room numbers. So, we got another room under J.W.'s name and that's the room we stayed in all night. We just stayed up talking and eating and eating and calling on the phone back and forth. You gotta remember, in those days it wasn't easy to pick up the phone and call a number. You had to get the operator on the switchboard. We bugged the operator "Call the airport again! Call this number in Philadelphia. Can you call this number in California?" We were just going crazy until it got to the point where it was five or six in the morning. We just went down and had breakfast and were ready to go to the next gig. But, the man loved his wife. He loved Barbara. It was a very sad time in his life when he lost his son. There's a lot you can talk about.
Q - How about Elvis?
A - I think I met Elvis two times. The first time I met him was a very brief situation in Tennessee. He remarked about my singing. He liked my singing and my style of singing and things like that. I said "Hey man, we all love what you're doing. You're doing it baby." It was that type of situation. And the next time he asked me about my gold suit. I had a gold suit that I wore. He asked me where I got and I told him. Next thing I know, Elvis had his own gold suit. (laughs) When I went back to my tailor to get another gold suit made, which I was only paying $450 for, which was big money in those days, my tailor said "Oh no man, I make suits for Elvis now. Those suits are $900." (laughs) I can't believe you man. I'm the guy who started it. But, that's the way life is man. That was my two encounters with Elvis.
Q - And Buddy Holly?
A - I worked on a show with him. Very strange little guy, but very talented. A lot of ambition. He liked to watch the artists. He would stand backstage and watch all the other artists on the show. He was very excited about watching other artists and listening to other artists and he would go out and perform his little brains out. I thought he couldn't sing. (laughs) But, he knew what he was doing. He was a very talented young man. Sorry we lost all those guys. They were some good people.
Q - How long did it take you to record a song back in 1960 or 1961, and did you or the producer choose the material?
A - In the sixties I listened to a lot of the people who were around me. Number one, one of my favorite writers was Brook Benton. I loved Brook. Wilson Pickett was one of my great writers who wrote "If You Need Me". Don Colay, who wrote maybe seven songs, we collaborated on together. So I listened to those people and listened to them very well. Jerry Wexford, Ahmet Ertegun, who always came in with ideas, why don't you do a Country 'n Western song that hasn't been done, and we would do that. Tommy Dowd, who was also there, a very good engineer. These people up-lifted you and made you feel good about it. Jerry Wexford was always excited about what you were doing. It was just an exciting time. The secret was, I was always able to walk in with my own musicians and do four or five songs. We had fun doing those things. It was good days, good times.
Q - What did the British Invasion do to your career?
A - It enhanced mine. It helped me an awful lot because the artists began to cover our records, cover our songs. It didn't bother me at all. You must understand, I brought in a new era of music and it was called Soul. So people were dealing with Rock 'n Roll and Rhythm 'n Blues and we were singing Soul music. It was a totally new era. One time, they had Soul charts and then they took Soul charts off and they had Black charts. They had R&B charts. Then they had Black and Soul charts. Now it's Rap charts, Soul charts, R&B charts and Country and Pop charts.
Q - There should probably be only one chart.
A - One chart, man. What's the big deal? You gotta understand, back in those days, they made an awful lot of money off the Black records. If you could take an artist and put him on a chart that you created and he had to go up from 150 on his chart before he could get on the Pop chart, which was called the White charts, this means you could sell half a million records without the artist knowing it, before that record was even counted, before it was even considered being a record, before it was even considered being a hit. You see what I'm saying? You have to understand, we had to go up the charts from 200, all the way up and be Number 1 Rhythm and Blues before we would be considered to be Number 99 with a bullet on the Billboard or Cashbox charts. So, if I had a record back in those days or any Black artist had a record back in those days that was Number 75, we were really number 1 twice, because we'd already climbed the other charts twice. We'd already climbed it from 200 all the way up to the top and stayed there for eight weeks, fifteen weeks. Think about it. Look how long "I Found Love" was around before it went to the national Billboard charts to number 45...number 50. My "Just Out Of Reach" went all the way up the charts. It took two years, the first Black, Country 'n Western song ever to be successful in the Rhythm 'n Blues charts. Then, when it went up to the Pop charts, it went up to the thirties. What does that mean? It means it was actually a number one record for a long time. It just didn't have the recognition, so we lost all those things. It hasn't changed much. It has changed a little bit.
Q - A little more sophisticated in the way money can be hidden.
A - That's right, yeah. You know what you're talking about. You're a sharp guy.
Q - Thank you. I try.
A - (laughs) This will make you laugh. Fats Domino sold how many records of "I'm Walkin" and "Blueberry Hill"? Never got a gold record. Pat Boone came out, put the record out and in two weeks he had a gold record. (laughs) So, Little Richard says "Where's my gold record? How many records did I sell of Tutti Frutit before Pat Boone covered it?" It makes you laugh. Think about it, if I was on the Tonight Show singing "You Can Run, But You Can't Hide" back in those days...I had already sold a lot of records. People bought records in those days. That's all they had to do. How many TV shows were on the air? We can name 'em. The Steve Allen Show, The Today Show, The Ed Sullivan Show, Howdy Doody, Hop-A-Long Cassidy, Amos 'n Andy and I Love Lucy. And the news, Walter Cronkite, Texaco Hour with Uncle Miltie, Milton Berle. I remember asking my mother, "How can this man be my uncle? I never met him." (laughs) "And whose side of the family is he really on?"
Q - And what did your mother tell you?
A - She said "He's not your uncle. Don't let him fool you." (laughs)
Q - When you were starting out, where did you think your singing was going to take you?
A - Basically I knew from my grandmother, who was a great spiritual medium, that I would have a large congregation of people, because we had the church going for me. We felt like we would have congregations all over the world, which that dream has just about come true and basically that's where I thought it would take me. I had no idea we would go as far as we did, as far as Soul singing and all those other different things...R&B charts. I had no idea about these charts. My idea was just to see people from all over the world and all different cities and sing and spiritually give some type of spiritual healing to people in need of being touched by the songs and the inspiration of what we were saying.
Q - When you were seven, you were giving sermons. Did you understand what you were saying. Did you have a "calling"?
A - You must understand I wasn't given the sermons. The sermons were given to me by God, by an inspiration of God. At that age, when you just stand up there and something just speaks to you and you say it. I was just standing there in amazement. Half the time as a kid, I didn't know what I was talking about. I just thought maybe I was repeating what I heard, or had been told. God was dealing with me back in those days as a young minister, as a young healer and as a leader. That's something that has continued my whole life. I was born with the power of sight and vision, to be able to read people, to talk to people and to tell 'em about their lives and their problems. That's a gift to me. Something was given to my children and my children's children also. I can't argue with it. If something comes up in the church, I'll have a prediction, I'll say it. Sometimes people don't like it. But, hey, I have no control over it. Spiritually, I have no control over it. That's what I have now. I have like an underground following of people who come to my concerts for the spiritual value. It's not so much for the value of seeing Solomon Burke. It's a value of seeing their vision, of seeing their spiritual leader, of seeing someone who has talked to them, who has helped their family for years, who has been a spiritual inspiration to them, who has brought their sons home from the war, brought 'em out of jails and behind prison walls and helped their parents when they're in the hospitals. I have no idea what can be done. I try not to get on my pulpit and preach all the time when I talk to people because everybody doesn't want to hear it. So, I don't bore people with it. You ask me about it, I talk about it. If you don't ask me, I ask God to bless the people I'm talking with and help them and their family, enlighten them and continue on with life.
Q - Are you surprised at all at just how big the music business has gotten?
A - I'm excited and I'll tell you why. My son has been offered over half a million dollars just to sign a recording contract. He hasn't even made a record yet. So, to me, it's terribly exciting. I can't even believe half of these things. It's phenomenal. But, I'm blessed to be around and able to perform so that I can reap some of the harvest of this. This is a blessing to me. So, I am terribly excited about it. As I said to you when I first started talking, I'm more excited about my nineteen year old son getting a hit record and getting our there. He's handsome. He's good looking. He's still in college. I know what can happen. I know what his future can hold. What it took me ten years to build, he can build in ten months. It's no big deal. We laugh about it now. We sit down with his advisors and tell him, "Son, profit by Dad's mistakes." When you go into a city now, we've already got it structured out. When he goes into that city to perform, he's going to leave something in that city. If it means buying an acre of land in every city, he's gonna leave a piece of himself in every city. He's gonna put back what he takes out. We didn't get a chance to do that in our lives. We tried to spread it around a little bit, but not enough. We didn't have enough knowledge to do that. We couldn't jump on an airplane and go anywhere, although we had the money. You were Black. You just couldn't go on a plane. They'd tell you there was no reservations. (laughs) You just can't get on a plane. We don't care about your money. You had to be a big time star or a big time boxer. Everything was by train or by car or by bus.
Q - This was what era, 50s?
A - 50s, 60s. The 50s and 60s were a very special era. And there's still some areas that have not changed. There's still some prejudice. There's still segregation. I went through all of that. I know exactly what that means. I understand that.
Q - What do you think of Madonna?
A - An exciting talent that has an awful lot to learn and can be greater than what she wants to be if she just stops and looks at herself and do more for herself and other people that she's involved with. I would love to see Madonna exist twenty-five years from now. I would love to see her get involved in more things that are for her and for people. All people. She is an image and she does relate to a lot of young people and a lot of young people do look up to her. There should be some type of something that Madonna's doing right now that would benefit young people that really idolize her. She's got her own style. She looks good. She wants to be the Marilyn Monroe of our decade. She could just be the Madonna of our decade. That's fine. The young people don't really know Marilyn Monroe. So what is it all about? Why not just be Madonna?
Q - How about Michael Jackson?
A - The great thing about Michael Jackson is, he's Michael Jackson. He doesn't imitate anybody. He is a great credit to our race. I love this man for what he's done and what he has become in the years it has taken him to do it. He's still a young man. He's the highest paid entertainer in the world. He has bought publishing companies. His life is secure. I can't see Michael being bankrupt twenty-five years from now. Michael Jackson is not gonna go out and buy two big hotels in Atlantic City and call it Jackson Resorts. He's not gonna do that. He might invest in a hotel that's doing something, but he's going to invest in something that involves people. He understands the secret of longevity is the little person. So, he's trying to keep that image of being young, which eventually I think he'll come out of and realize he just has to be Michael Jackson. He can just sing Michael Jackson now. We love him. We accept him. He's there. He's real. We need him to stay real. We don't need him to zip up his fly or fall down and cry. Just be Michael Jackson. I think he's tryin' so hard to be real and please everybody. He's still the number one hero image when you get down to basics.