Solomon Burke obituary

One of the all-time great American soul singers and songwriters, he scored a huge hit with Everybody Needs Somebody to Love

Jerry Wexler, a co-founder of Atlantic Records, described Solomon Burke as "wily, highly intelligent, a salesman of epic proportions". Burke, who has died aged 70, was indeed vast, and was confined to a wheelchair in his later years after his weight rose to an alarming 30 stone. But he was massively endowed with talent, too, and recordings such as Cry to Me and Everybody Needs Somebody to Love caused some (Wexler included) to consider him soul's greatest singer.

He was born in Philadelphia, began singing in church when he was seven, and was powerfully influenced by the religious faith of his grandmother Eleanor, who belonged to an evangelical organisation called the United House of Prayer for All People. Burke wrote one of his earliest compositions, Christmas Presents From Heaven, after Eleanor died in 1954. His own early forays into the pulpit earned him the nickname "The Wonder Boy Preacher", and he hosted his own gospel radio show, Solomon's Temple, in Philadelphia.

Burke trained as an embalmer at his uncle's funeral parlour, but began pursuing a singing career in earnest while still in his teens. His earliest discs were released on New York's Apollo label. He aroused the interest of producers at Atlantic Records when they heard him sing Be Bop Grandma, a more rock-orientated piece than Burke's usual churchy fare, and he scored his first hit for the label with 1961's Just Out of Reach, this time essaying a country-flavoured direction.

He began to find his authentic soul voice the following year with the release of Cry to Me (which would feature prominently in the movie Dirty Dancing many years later). It was the first in a series of powerful soul singles which included If You Need Me, Goodbye Baby and the gloriously uninhibited Everybody Needs Somebody to Love. The last of these was promptly covered by the Rolling Stones, then by Wilson Pickett, and in 1980 it was reborn again when it featured in the film The Blues Brothers.

Burke became a regular touring attraction in the US, undertaking punishing cross-country schedules by bus. Performing in the segregated southern states was often fraught with danger, and on one occasion Burke and his band were aghast to find themselves performing to a Ku Klux Klan rally in Mississippi. When white restaurants refused to serve black musicians, the entrepreneurial Burke stepped into the breach and sold pork-chop sandwiches to his tour mates.

In December 1964, Burke was in Los Angeles to visit his friend Sam Cooke on the day Cooke was murdered, which prompted him to write his biggest hit, Got to Get You Off My Mind. Huge in the US, Burke was also revered in Britain, where his influence rippled out to numerous other acts. "I used to come over to Britain all the time," he recalled. "Tom Jones and I used to hang out, and I played everywhere, including the Cavern in Liverpool."

Finding himself eclipsed at Atlantic by the likes of Otis Redding and Sam & Dave, he moved to Bell in 1968 and recorded the album Proud Mary (1969), which was boosted by the chart success of its title track, written by John Fogerty (and later a hit for Ike and Tina Turner). However, the tide was now running against Burke, who went through a number of labels during the 70s, including MGM, Dunhill and Chess, but could not recapture his previous magic.

He diversified by scoring the movie Cool Breeze (1972) and recording the theme song for a US version of the TV sitcom Love Thy Neighbour, about a black family living next door to bigoted white people. Burke even attempted to exploit the fashion for sibling pop created by the Jackson Five and the Osmonds, dragooning seven of his own children into the Sons and Daughters of Solomon. They recorded an album for MGM, but it sank.

It wasn't until the mid-80s that the wheel began to turn back in his favour, notably with his much-admired live album Soul Alive! (1985), where Burke supercharged his best-known songs with renewed inspiration. As Burke told it, he signed a record deal for Soul Alive! in a Chinese restaurant in Boston, after he had played the tapes to the music critic Peter Guralnick. Guralnick immediately called his contacts at Rounder Records, who hotfooted it to the restaurant and wrote Burke a cheque on the spot.

The Burke revival continued with the superb A Change is Gonna Come (1986, hailed by one critic as "one of the decade's great soul statements"), and he continued to tour and record into the 90s. In 1987 he made his movie debut as Daddy Mention in the crime drama The Big Easy.

The new century looked bright for Burke when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001, and the following year cut the acclaimed Don't Give Up On Me for the Fat Possum label. Featuring songs from Elvis Costello, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Brian Wilson, Dan Penn and Van Morrison, the album was a resounding testimonial to Burke's life and achievements. "I'm honoured such important artists would have songs for me," he said. "Very few artists at 62 get a chance to blaze the path of new glories and pass the pits of hell." The disc won a Grammy for best contemporary blues album.

In 2004, Burke featured in the blues documentary Lightning in a Bottle, while his country-soul album Nashville (2006) featured guest appearances by Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton and Buddy Miller. In New York, in March 2007, Burke co-hosted the all-star celebration in memory of the Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun, and in December that year performed at the private party after the Led Zeppelin reunion concert at the O2 Arena in London (Ertegun had signed Zeppelin to Atlantic in 1968).

Burke's 2008 album, Like a Fire, was another homage from celebrity fans, and included songs by Eric Clapton, Keb' Mo' and Ben Harper. Burke, who now made a selling point of his immense girth by being carried on stage on a crimson throne, found himself a festival favourite, and made his debut at Glastonbury in June 2008.

During 2009, Burke worked on a new album, Nothing's Impossible, with the revered producer Willie Mitchell at his Royal Studio in Memphis. It was released in April this year, though Mitchell had died in January. Burke followed it up with his Year of the Dream of Love tour in Europe this summer, which included his final British appearances. Amid all this, Burke found time to fulfil the role of archbishop in his own pentecostal church in Los Angeles, the House of God for All People, claiming: "I'm a church minister first, then an entertainer."

He was pronounced dead at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam, having flown in from Los Angeles. He had been due to perform with the Dutch band De Dijk, with whom he had recorded a new album, Hold On Tight, set for release this month.

Burke was said to have fathered 21 children, the majority by his second wife, Dolores. He is survived by his third wife, Sunday, and their four children, and by an estimated 90 grandchildren.

• Solomon Burke, soul singer, born 21 March 1940; died 10 October 2010


Adam Sweeting

The GuardianTramp

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