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Solomon Burke: At Home Abroad

Published: 3/21/2013

Solomon Burke was born on this day in 1940. When he died two and a half years ago, Thomas Conner reflected on his career – which was much more illustrious in Europe than it was at home in the United States. Originally published October 2010 on Obit-Mag.com.


Solomon Burke (Wikimedia Commons/Tom Beetz)
Solomon Burke (Wikimedia Commons/
Tom Beetz)

My copy of Nick Hornby’s novel High Fidelity is completely defaced. I’m an underliner, a margin-filler, marking pages with asterisks and notes and symbols (exclamation points for surprising facts, happy faces for funny bits). As a music critic, on my third read of the 1995 book, I added eighth notes — marking every mention of pop music or a specific song. As a pathological mix-tape maker, like the story’s protagonist, Rob Fleming, I then burned a CD of some of the most significant songs identified, creating a self-made soundtrack for the book. Hornby, a native Brit, had filled his narrative with American music, so my High Fidelity soundtrack featured John Prine’s “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness,” Steely Dan’s “Barrytown,” and a lot of classic rock and soul — the O’Jays’ “Back Stabbers,” Otis Redding’s “You Left the Water Running,” two of Al Green’s biggest hits (“Let’s Stay Together,” “I Tried to Tell Myself”), Gladys Knight’s “Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me” and, of course, the song central to the novel’s rocking relationship, “Got to Get You Off My Mind” by Solomon Burke.



It’s a common experience: European fans telling Americans how great their own roots music is. It began in the 1960s, just as Burke’s critically acclaimed but commercially lukewarm career in soul music was getting under way. British Invasion bands easily conquered our shores largely because they sounded somewhat familiar. The Beatles showed up with tight versions of American songs like “Matchbox,” a blues tune that had passed to them from Carl Perkins (and on back to Blind Lemon Jefferson). The Rolling Stones arrived bearing Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, a lot of Chicago blues. Led Zeppelin reintroduced Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. Rod Stewart had more Chuck Berry, Bobby Bland, Sam Cooke. Europe has long been a storehouse of American roots music. Want a well-curated collection of Hank Williams, Rick Nelson, Freddie King, maybe a reissue of Johnny Horton & Johnny Cash? These are current titles available from the esteemed Bear Family label — in Germany.

Burke died Oct. 10, 2010 of natural causes, at the tail end of a flight from the United States to the Netherlands. He was to perform two days later with Dutch rock and soul band De Dijk, with whom he’d just recorded a CD, Hold on Tight, released two weeks earlier. “Solomon had to go overseas to play, like Rufus Thomas and Otis Clay, who is huge in Japan,” Sam Moore, of the soul duo Sam & Dave, told the Chicago Sun-Times. “I did a show with Solomon in Italy. He was sweating profusely. A man that large had to go out of the country to make money because they wouldn’t pay him in America. And they did not respect him over here. That’s a shame.”





Titles didn’t bring Burke extra respect either. Jerry Wexler, the producer who signed him to Atlantic Records in 1961, called Burke “the best soul singer of all time.” A Baltimore disc jockey dubbed Burke “the King of Rock and Soul” in 1964. But many Americans didn’t hear the song “Cry to Me” until it returned to us from the real monarchy: The Rolling Stones covered it the following year on their album Out of Our Heads (which featured “Satisfaction” but also songs from Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye and O.V. Wright). That same spring, Burke, who never cracked the mainstream Top 20, enjoyed his biggest hit with “Got to Get You Off My Mind,” reaching No. 1 on Billboard’s R&B chart. The next generation encountered Burke’s music on the big screen — as the Blues Brothers win over a (literally) guarded crowd singing “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love,” as Johnny and Baby share their first dirty dance while a scratchy record plays “Cry to Me.”





That Burke was so quintessentially American makes his lack of big-time success here more mysterious. His music was the ultimate melting pot. Dutch journalist Jan Donkers, in the liner notes for the new De Dijk collaboration, calls Burke a “musical omnivore,” adding, “He wasn’t a typical soul singer. He was clearly influenced by gospel, and his early records were actually country-and-western songs. And then with one of the numbers on the new CD, ‘My Rose Saved From the Street,’ he demonstrated how well he can handle a typical European chanson.” Indeed, Burke’s first single to reach the mainstream chart in 1961 was a country song, “Just Out of Reach,” which Patsy Cline later covered; Burke also recorded country hits by Jim Reeves and Eddy Arnold. His history as a Philadelphia preacher buttressed his gospel roots; the churchy delivery of “Cry to Me” is what lifts it out of the Drifters-like pop arrangement. “Down in the Valley” is pure gospel, but with more soul than spirit; you can imagine Otis Redding listening to it and thinking, OK, yeah, I can do this, recording his debut not long after. And few songs in all of American music swing as effortlessly as “Got to Get You Off My Mind,” a recording that could be mistaken for Sam Cooke if it weren’t for Burke’s emotion-choked hoarseness.





Hornby’s use of that song as the pivot point in High Fidelity perfectly enshrines Burke’s shadowed legacy. Early on, Rob recalls how he “cleared the floor” one night as a club DJ by slipping in “Got to Get You Off My Mind.” Nobody knew the tune, only self-appointed musicologists like himself. Later, Rob and his girlfriend argue about that night: “I remember the song,” she says. “I just couldn’t remember who sang it.” In 2000, when Hollywood turned High Fidelity into a movie, the American classics including Burke’s song remained in Britain. Hornby’s narrative was relocated from London to Chicago, the hometown of its star John Cusack, who thanks Howlin’ Wolf in the credits to the movie’s soundtrack — which doesn’t include him. Instead the film’s music leans on U.K. indie rock, like the Beta Band, John Wesley Harding, Stereolab, plus Elvis Costello and the Kinks.

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