Solomon Burke died today aboard a flight to the Netherlands; the cause of death is unknown, but he was 70 years old and probably weighed between three and four hundred pounds, so we can assume "natural causes."
It's very possible that, while his name sounds familiar, you can't really remember who he is. He only had a few real hits throughout his life, but if you spent a while immersed in the back catalog of Atlantic Records like I did, you know exactly who he was.
His age is actually under contention. He was born in Philadelphia, but different sources cite dates anywhere between 1935 and 1940; he claimed 1940 as his own, so we'll go with that.
He started preaching at age 7, had his first radio ministry by age 12, and was a travelling preacher in a tent revival up and down the East Coast, where he is said to have met Martin Luther King, Jr. several times. He also trained as a mortician in his uncle's funeral parlor.
He wasn't a "Hellfire and Damnation" preacher, though. In Sweet Soul Music, he told Peter Guralnick that he ran "Church of Let It All Hang Out," much like the Prosperity Gospel mated to the Free Love movement: "God, money and women, hey, hey, hey; truth, love, peace and get it on."
In 1962, he signed with Atlantic Records, and was one of their biggest sellers for almost a decade. His first minor hit, Just Out Of Reach (Of My Two Open Arms) was a cover of an unmemorable Patsy Cline song, but he shortly overshadowed that with Cry to Me, which reached #5 in 1962, and a quarter of a century later received more airplay (although it never charted the second time out) when it became a love theme for the movie Dirty Dancing.
The biggest hit of his career was from 1965, hitting #1 on the R&B charts (#22 on the pop charts), Got to Get You Off My Mind.
In 1964, he wrote Everybody Needs Somebody to Love, which Rolling Stone Magazine ranked #429 on their 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. The Rolling Stones (the group, this time) covered it for their second album, and Burke appeared with them on stage to perform it for their 2004 album Live Licks.
Most memorably for me, it also appeared as the first song performed by the Blues Brothers in the Palace Ballroom. But since Universal is picky about that sort of thing, here's the version done by the wicked Wilson Pickett.
In an era where the record companies were pumping out cookie-cutter versions of other popular musical groups, he forged a style of his own, drawing on blues, gospel, rhythm and blues, and even country influences. He won two Grammies, and in 2008, he earned a third nomination for the album Like a Fire, which included songs written specifically for him, by Eric Clapton, Keb' Mo', Ben Harper, Steve Jordan and others.
A remarkably prolific man, he released over thirty studio albums, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001. In the course of his lifetime, he fathered twenty-one children and ninety grandchildren (many of whom are active in music today).