Further On Down The Road

June 21, 2015


(Originally published on February 28, 2011)

Richard Flohil’s weekly collection of true stories, tall tales, memories and bloody-minded opinions.

THIS WEEK: Mostly about Solomon Burke

The passing of a giant

Yesterday, as his plane landed at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, Solomon Burke died suddenly. He was 70, and the last of the great soul voices of all time left us. He was part singer, part preacher, part over-the-top carney, and a full-on showman all the time. Dr. Burke — as his band members called him — named himself the King of Rock and Soul, and he carried himself, always, with regal dignity.

“They were great, all of them,” the late Jerry Wexler used to say. “Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Joe Tex, Sam and Dave — just give me Solomon Burke with a borrowed band.”

The was the man who was a powerhouse on Atlantic Records in the early 60s, a man who began his career as a boy evangelist when he was six — and made his first record when he was 12. He was the first artist who made soul recordings of country songs, and he wrote “Everybody Needs Somebody”, which was turned into a massive hit by The Blues Brothers.

Solomon Burke was a licensed mortician, he used to have a record pressing plant in Los Angeles, he owned churches in 13 American cities, and he continued to sing when his career was in the doldrums, playing small clubs like the Bluenote in Toronto. With a dramatically revived career earlier this decade, he toured the world with a 10 piece band, met presidents and the Pope, and rocked every house he ever played.

How sadly perfect that he died on his way to a sold-out gig so far away from his home.

The rundown lobby of the Ramada Inn near Edmonton’s old municipal airport is the setting, and the time seven or eight years ago. An assured young woman has button-holed one of the Edmonton Folk Festival’s volunteers.

“Do you have the roses?” she asked.  “Roses?” queried the hapless volunteer. “Yes. The red roses… make sure the thorns are removed….”  The volunteer is clearly at sea here, and it doesn’t get easier for him. “The throne — you do have the throne?”

“The throne?” he asked, incredulously. Maybe, maybe, this young woman is joking. “Have you read the rider,” the young woman asked. “Er, the rider….?

“Read it,” she commanded. ”Or there will be no show tonight…”

Elizabeth Burke, one of Solomon Burke’s 21 children, was his road manager, and she was taking care of her father’s on-stage requirements.

• Limousine from the hotel to backstage? Check — this man IS the King of Rock and Soul.

• Throne? Check — at 500 lbs.-plus, he delivered his shows sitting down, and every king needs a throne..

• Two silver vases, to be placed on each side of the throne? Check.

• Three dozen red roses? Check — the thorns must be removed, because he will throw them to the ladies in the audience.

• $250.00 in American five dollar bills, which must be new? Check — Dr. Burke will hand them to children he will call on stage during his gospel show.


In recent years, Solomon Burke has been in a wheelchair, unable to walk because of his massive weight. On stage, he may have been throne-bound, but would always rock out and never left without a standing ovation. He usually asked his audience to join him on stage — and the final number was always controlled chaos, but when he asked them to leave — often for safety reasons — they obediently did so did.

Back in the day — and it’s been nearly 30 years ago since I first heard him at Toronto’s long-gone Bluenote club — he would always make his entrance wearing a heavy cloak, which would be removed by a band member once he had reached centre stage. The last time I saw that trick, in Winnipeg, one of his trumpet players spun the cloak offstage like a wagon wheel, and so quickly that some people, maybe glancing elsewhere, would have missed it.

Afterward, I complimented him on the move. “Ah,” he said gravely, “In the old days I had a dwarf in the band, Little Sammy. He’d walk behind me, under the cloak, and when it fell, it would walk off by itself — nobody ever saw how that worked.”

The best conversation I had with him was in his trailer backstage at the Edmonton festival. He had just married a couple on stage during his Sunday gospel show (“If they’ve got the paperwork, I’ll do the deed,” he told me beforehand) — and he was talking about his church. “Middle class white people find it hard to get around the fact that you own a church,” I ventured. “Oh yes,” he responded. “I have churches in 13 cities, and missions in many other communities.

And, then, in the cadence of the preacher that he was: “Sometimes, sometimes, sometimes a minister from one of my missions will come to one of my secular shows. Bishop Burke, they would say, I have my tithe with me. Sometimes it would be only $100, but I would accept it.”

Solomon Burke gave so much to so many; we will not see his like again. The last of the great classic soul singers, right now, is playing with another borrowed band.

Curious Factoid of the Week:

Solomon Burke’s 2002 record for the Fat Possum label, Don’t Give Up on Me, includes songs by Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson, Nick Lowe and Tom Waits — all especially written for the project. The CD won a Grammy, and helped restart a career that had begun when he made his first record when he was 12.  He was paid $100,000 to make the record; Toronto musician David Pilch was the bass player and it was cut in five days. “I wondered about the name of the label,” Burke told me. “Were they trying to tell me something?”

Record of the Week:

Solomon Burke — Nashville — Shout Factory  10179. This gem includes duet with Dolly Parton, Patty Loveless, Gillian Welch, Patty Griffin and — of course — Emmylou Harris.


Video(s) of the Week:

Solomon Burke — the perfect synthesis of soul and gospel:



Solomon Burke joins The Rolling Stones — a moving tribute from the Princes of rock and roll…