Sweet soul music: Solomon Burke was a defining force in its creation

Ahhhh. Sweet soul music, that cool, smooth, sexy cousin of the blues.

Somewhere in the 1950s, various artists started to pull together musical strains from blues, R&B, gospel, jazz and a few other interesting places, and the idea of something called “soul music” simmered into its primal origins. Ray Charles and Sam Cooke played the fervency of black gospel into their own rhythms, with some blues. James Brown became the “godfather of soul” with some of his early work. Aretha Franklin later became the “queen of soul.”

But soul music had wider origins. According to the Acoustic Music organization, the “first clear evidence of soul music shows up with the “5” Royales, an ex-gospel group, formerly the Royals, who turned to R&B in the early 1950s, and in Faye Adams, whose 1953 “Shake A Hand” becomes an R&B standard” — eventually covered by everyone from Red Foley to Paul McCartney.

Solomon Burke, early undated photo.

As an interesting sidelight (and there are many when you start to trace musical genres), another group that also called itself the Royals (formerly the Four Falcons), brought in Hank Ballard and then became the Midnighters, and went on to specialize in some raucously salacious R&B (“Work With Me Annie,” “Annie Had A Baby”). The other Royals (formerly the Royal Sons Quintet, a gospel group), became the “5” Royales, and left gospel for something more akin to the devil’s music. I know, you need a scorecard.

But all of that music was initially kind of sporadic. It needed a special force to unite those early elements.

Enter the special force of Solomon Vincent McDonald Burke (born James Solomon McDonald). So special that Burke was consecrated a bishop at birth by his grandmother in the Solomon’s Temple, a congregation of the United House of Prayer for All People, which she founded at her home in Black Bottom, West Philadelphia.

And what an entrance he made. A big man with a big voice, he rolled out several big hits, starting in 1961, and soul music hit the stage testifying.

Music writer Peter Guralnick was among those who recognized Burke as a key figure in the emergence of soul music, and Atlantic Records as the key record label. Burke’s early 1960s songs, including “Cry to Me”, “Just Out of Reach (Of My Two Open Arms)” and “Down in the Valley” became almost instant classics.

According to Guralnick (whose elaborate and well-researched portraits of muisical performers should be required reading for any music lover):

“Soul started, in a sense, with the 1961 success of Solomon Burke’s “Just Out Of Reach (Of My Two Open Arms)”. Ray Charles, of course, had already enjoyed enormous success (also on Atlantic), as had James Brown and Sam Cooke — primarily in a pop vein. Each of these singers, though, could be looked upon as an isolated phenomenon; it was only with the coming together of Burke and Atlantic Records that you could begin to see anything even resembling a movement.”

Indeed, it was Atlantic Records executive Jerry Wexler who called Burke “the greatest male soul singer of all time”.

Burke had recorded since 1955 for the Apollo label, but when he joined Atlantic in 1961, with its fierce sensibilities of blues-related music, his powerful presence oozed soul from every recorded groove. He followed “Just Out Of Reach,” a cover of a country song from the early ’50s, with “Cry To Me,” which would become one of his most popular songs, and “Down In The Valley.”

Those songs, sung in Burke’s rich, sensual baritone with impeccable vocal craftmanship, seemed to pull together the best of gospel, country and R&B, and blend them into a uniquely soulful sound. It could be high and lonesome, or it could be deep and moving. But it almost always seemed to deal emotionally with the pleasures and pains of love.

Love lost, love found, longing for love, hoping for love, dreaming of love — all became soulful themes explored in song, and the best of the singers breathed a real and aching life into their words. Burke was one of the best. But he took other styles under his wing as well. The basic ingredient of the music — gospel style singing with a secular message — seems never to have left him.

Burke’s second pressing and first hit for Atlantic, “Just Out Of Reach (Of My Two Open Arms”), ” seemed to open its arms to all of those loving feelings. It was a great song for verrry slowww dancing, and longing for that love that was, of course, just out of reach. But the B side of that record, as if to hedge his bets against this new-found style, sent a different message — it was the hard-rocking “Be-Bop Grandma.” Of course, Burke could sing anything and make it sound unique. One example: he later covered Bob Dylan’s slyly loquacious “Maggie’s Farm.”

Solomon Burke in 2010
(By HagenU)

Then came another classic, 1962’s “Cry To Me,” another ode to lost love, but with an upbeat, slightly Latin feel. Still good for dancing, though. This one, however, was backed with another great soul tune, “I Almost Lost My Mind,” the 1950 classic by Ivory Joe Hunter. If anyone could possibly improve on this super-smooth lost-love lament, it was Burke, who caressed the lyrics like the wind caressed the trees. (Another interesting sidelight: Ivory Joe Hunter was Ivory Joe Hunter’s real name.)

Later in 1962, Burke recorded his take on the traditional folk/country song, “Down in the Valley, which was actually the B side of another soulful gem, “I’m Hanging Up My Heart for You.” “Valley” was a little different – a mournful country-style ballad with such a rich vocal effort; it was a pleasure to enjoy its mournfulness.

And the soul just kept coming. There was “greatest hits” album as early as 1962. Until the mid-60s, Burke’s music was a dominant force. After a string of a dozen hit records, by November, 1963, Burke greed to be crowned the “King of Rock ‘n’ Soul” in a ceremony at the Royal Theatre in Baltimore by local disc jockey Fred Robinson.

But nothing lasts forever. Burkes’s popularity (but not his magnificent voice and presence) began to wane. By the end of the ’60s, the torch of soul was passing to the likes of the very talented, capable and soulful Al Green, Johnn Adams, Otis Clay, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Ray Charles, Otis Redding, Etta James, Clyde McPhatter, Jackie Wilson, and many, many more.

Burke continued to record prolifically until 2010, the year that he died, when he recorded his two final albums. His musical legacy remains intact in the dozens of albums he recorded. A lot of soul music came after his decline in popularity, but very few artists ever matched his powerful body of work or his passionate feeling for the music.

He gave soul music its soul. It’s also the meaningful kind of music that lets you look inward, into your soul, if you will. You can dance around the kitchen to the rhythms of “Cry To Me,” or you can savor your soulful solitude with the haunting lyricism of “Just Out Of Reach.”

I know there are many soul artists, both before and after Burke that I haven’t mentioned. I know because I listen to their music quite often. I don’t mean to slight anyone, only to put Burke’s music into a different perspective.

Ahhhh. Sweet soul music, that cool, smooth, sexy cousin of the blues. Long may it sing.

Here are some more reference points for soul music.

Solomon Burke
Solomon Burke discography
“Looking To Get Lost: Adventures in Music and Writing” by Peter Guralnick (Look for the lovingly written chapter on Burke)

Here are a few of the songs mentioned above:

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