NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Why Solomon Burke Was Also a Great Country Singer

He Had the Biggest Country Soul Ever

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

Solomon Burke was once booked to play a large outdoor event in the South. When he got there, he found a decent welcome. His employers offered him and his band a barbecue dinner.

Then the event boss told him, “When the sun goes down, you boys hit it with your ‘Down in the Valley’ song, and you sing it till you bring all the people in.”

The sun went down and they hit it. Then, Burke and his band started noticing that the people coming in were all dressed in white sheets and were wearing white hoods and masks. He had been booked into a Ku Klux Klan rally. Apparently, the Klan had thought that he was white.

“I was the only black artist in the world having country-western hits,” he later said, as for the reason that he had been booked by the KKK. “My drummer said to me, ‘Are we gonna get out of here alive?’ I told him, ‘Don’t quit playing till they say quit!’ We played ‘Down in the Valley’ for at least 45 minutes.”

One of country music’s redeeming attributes is that it tends to sometimes attract unlikely but wonderful soulmates. Solomon Burke and country music were a perfect fit from the day in 1961 when he recorded the song “Just Out of Reach,” later recorded by Patsy Cline, among others. Nothing could have sounded more country than that. That could easily have been a Jim Reeves or Eddy Arnold hit, but Burke nailed it. And he cut it before Ray Charles‘ own soulful country album in 1962, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. Burke also covered Reeves’ 1959 hit “He’ll Have to Go” and Eddy Arnold’s 1954 hit “I Really Don’t Want to Know,” among others. Country soul had truly arrived.

Burke, who died Sunday (Oct. 10) at the Amsterdam airport en route to yet another gig, was 70. He was the last of the great male soul singers. But he also greatly loved country music, “because of its stories,” and he remained close to Nashville.

His 2006 album Nashville remains one of the better records ever produced in Nashville. And his interpretation of the Tom T. Hall song “That’s How I Got to Memphis” on that CD remains, for me, the definitive version of that great composition. And Burke and Emmylou Harris joining voices together make “We’re Gonna Hold On” into an almost transcendental country hymn.

His most recent Nashville concert at the Belcourt Theatre was the most electric in town — even by an artist who was confined to sit on a throne onstage. Due to his size and arthritis, Burke sang from his massive throne. Well, he was, after all, long ago crowned the King of Rock and Soul. He often performed wearing an ermine robe and gold crown and wielded a scepter. Nashville’s elite musicians and artists — the real artistes — from Harris and Buddy Miller to Patty Griffin and Gillian Welch and Sam Bush and Dolly Parton and Patty Loveless, always turned out in droves to work with him.

He has appropriately been called one of the last “fabulists” for his occasional enhancements of some of his tales and exploits. But he genuinely lived a decidedly rich and full and exotic and not always easy life. He worked as a mortician. He was a working minister and was ordained at age 7. Early in his career, he made money selling sandwiches to hungry artists and musicians on his tours, especially when black artists couldn’t find a place to eat in the segregated South. He performed at the Vatican more than once. He said he didn’t know that his song “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” was in the movie The Blues Brothers until he went to see it. He himself appeared in the movie The Big Easy. He is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

I first spoke with him when he called me on my cell phone (where did he get the number?) after I had written something about him that he liked. I could tell he appreciated the fact that I addressed him as “Bishop” (his actual title). He was a man you immediately liked and respected.

He leaves 21 children, 90 grandchildren and 19 great-grandchildren. As he often said, the Bible instructs us to “be fruitful and multiply.”