Socialist Worker

Solomon Burke - 'Amen' to the king of peace

by Martin Smith
Issue No. 1822

MOST PEOPLE have a favourite soul singer. For many Otis Redding was without peer. Others cite Sam Cooke and Ray Charles as the originators, and James Brown still remains the Godfather. In my opinion Solomon Burke should be included on that list. You may not have heard of him, but his musical influence runs deep.

The Rolling Stones recorded three of his songs – 'You Can Make It If You Try', 'Cry To Me' and 'Everybody Needs Somebody To Love'. Tom Jones modelled his vocal style on Solomon Burke's – but please don't let that put you off. Solomon is one of the key links between gospel and soul music. During the 1960s Solomon was dubbed 'the king of rock and soul'. Between 1961 and 1965 he was Atlantic's biggest recording artist.

He is a larger than life character. He is a licensed mortician and an ordained bishop whose ministries boast more than 160 churches. In one interview he said, 'I got lost on one of the Bible verses that said, 'Be fruitful and multiply.' I didn't read no further.' Solomon has 21 children and 68 grandchildren!

But soul is more than just good-time music. It was the soundtrack to the US in the 1960s. Motown was the sound of hope – the music of economic prosperity in the 1950s and 60s, and of Martin Luther King's civil rights movement. The Southern soul music of Cooke, Redding and Rufus Thomas was tinged with the bitterness of the Jim Crow segregation laws.

And funk was the music of the urban revolts in the US in the late 1960s. Solomon donated money to Martin Luther King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He even joined the freedom rides, which played a major part in forcing through the desegregation of transport.

Today black music has moved on. Rap, R&B and dance music dominate the charts. With a few notable exceptions most of the great soul artists are either dead or just reliving old memories and singing in cliches. That was brought home to me when I saw soul singer Teddy Pendergrass perform at London's Hammersmith Odeon in the early 1980s.

Imagine my horror when the curtains pulled back and there was Teddy in a red sequined dressing gown, sprawled across a gold four-poster bed promising to satisfy every woman in the audience. Ever since then I've shied away from many a soul concert. However, a few months ago Solomon Burke released his new album, Don't Give Up On Me. It is a soul-drenched classic with wonderful songs donated by Tom Waits, Brian Wilson and Bob Dylan.

When I heard that Solomon was playing at the Barbican in London I decided to go and see him. When I arrived at the hall things were not looking good. Smack bang in the centre of the stage was a golden throne, with red velvet cushions and buckets of roses on either side!

But as soon as he started singing all my fears were allayed. This was no nostalgia trip. Solomon still has a breathtaking vocal range, and his newer material is much darker with a more pained edge to it. Just as impressive and inspirational was the speech he gave halfway through the concert.

He told the crowd, 'This is a time that we as a world need to come together as a world in peace. 'We need to stand in peace. It's a time when we need to fill the streets with peace and love, and denounce those who want to go to war. Not a single plane, not a single tank, not a single bullet should be used in this unjust war. This may be controversial, but the United Nations will not go to war in my name.' I think even atheist socialists can say 'Amen' to that.

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Sat 19 Oct 2002, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1822
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