Soul music powerhouse Solomon Burke’s life was filled with great performances — from tent revival meetings to sweltering nights in southern roadhouses to concerts at the Apollo, the Montreux Jazz Festival, Bonnaroo, and even a Ku Klux Klan rally.
But one of the most memorable, at least for the few in attendance, was in 1994 at the Original House of Blues in Cambridge, where Burke — after two sold-out nights playing a catalog of hits reaching back to 1961 — donned the raiment he wore as bishop of the House of God for All People church and sang gospel to an audience of roughly 30 sitting rapt at his feet as he perched on the lip of the stage. Occasionally he moved the microphone away from his mouth to let his voice carry naturally, casting a spell with its absolute clarity, complex tones, and uncanny ability to move from gravel-dappled lows to falsetto without skipping a note.
That voice, one of the greatest in American music, was stilled Sunday when Burke died of natural causes aboard an airplane heading to a performance in the Netherlands.
From his youth as a child preacher to his current renaissance — framed by 2002’s Grammy winning Don’t Give Up on Me and 2010’s Nothing’s Impossible — music was a constant presence in his life. Influence by the sound of spirituals, country, and pop, Burke carved out a unique career in the history of rock and soul, sending 19 hits up the pop and R&B charts from 1961 to 1968 during his tenure with Atlantic Records, including “Cry to Me,” “If You Need Me,” “Down in the Valley,” “Tonight’s the Night,” and “Everybody Needs Somebody To Love.” Burke saw little difference between his secular and gospel tracks, and felt that spiritual messages could be gleaned from many of his popular numbers.
He endured lean years after leaving Atlantic Records in the 1970s, but Burke diversified. His business interests included funeral parlors, a limo service, and supplying concession stands. In the ’80s he began a gradual upsurge thanks to the success of Soul Alive!, a two-LP set on Cambridge’s Rounder Records, and the use of his music in films including The Blues Brothers and Dirty Dancing. Burke was inducted into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2001. Although bad knees kept him confined to a throne in concert during most of the past decade, his warmth and charisma easily transcended any boundaries.
Besides music, the other constant in Burke’s life was family. His grandmother, who was also a preacher, foretold his fame shortly after he was born. And he always traveled with several of his sons and daughters, who performed in his shows. He was reportedly married at least three times and is survived by 21 children and 90 grandchildren.