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Rock & Roll Rewind: Remembering Solomon Burke

c d kaplan is a rock & roll lifer. He’s got stories. Lots of stories. Here’s another.

Let's consider Solomon Burke.

Though never as famous, the charismatic soul singer sits rightfully in the conversation of his more noted contemporaries. Otis Redding. James Brown. Sam Cooke. Wilson Pickett.

Always a man of considerable girth, even before the morbid obesity of his later years, he was ever entrepreneurial. On those extended Parade of Stars tours in the 50s and 60s, when performers would often get to towns where they couldn't find eateries that would serve them, Burke cooked. Burke supplied sandwiches. For which eats legend has it, he would up the prices as the tour ground on.

He was banned from appearing at the Apollo for insisting that he control concession stands on the nights he performed.

His career never really waned, though he was never a big time headliner.

But he was thrust back into the mainstream spotlight in 2002 upon the acclaimed Fat Possum release of his Joe Henry-produced "Don't Give Up on Me." He won a Grammy.

I probably saw him on one of those tours in the 60s. Though, frankly, I have no specific remembrance.

I did hear him thrice in the 90s. I can’t give exact dates. Or the order.

Two were marvelous. He was always on, workin’ to make it work.

One was in Helena, Arkansas at the King Biscuit Blues Festival.

The other in New Orleans at JazzFest, where he wore a shiny lavender vested suit.

There’s a photo I took that afternoon in my office. His arms are spread, soaking in the crowd’s admiration. Standing next to him whispering in his ear, his adult son whom he modestly named King Solomon Haile Selassie Burke.

But the most memorable of his shows for me was on a summer’s night at the Louisville Zoo, where they’d have concerts at a big lawn some Saturday evenings. It had rained most all day, which only abated about a half hour before the show was to start. Not knowing if the concert was on or not, I drove over.

So it came to pass. A trouper troops on. There would usually be a crowd of a thousand or more. Because of the weather, there were no more than a 150-200 in attendance.

Burke couldn’t have put on a better show, had he been playing to a full capacity football stadium.

Given his weight, he spent most of the evening sitting on this huge red throne, as he was wont to do in those later years. For several numbers, he called up a number of ladies from the small gathering to give them a rose, sit on the arms of the throne for a ballad or two.

He did a lot of medleys. Of his own tunes, “Cry To Me,” “Down in the Valley,” “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” and others.

But he also sang pastiches of hits from his more successful contemporaries, all of whom had passed on by then. Ray Charles. Little Richard. Others. There was a sense he felt a responsibility to carry the torch of sweet soul music.

This savvy talented pro worked us into a lather. We were all up and dancing, our shoes soaked from the wet grass.

Solomon Burke entertained. He was the real deal, an ambassador of his generation.

Observer of the Passing Scene: Pop Culture and Sports. Writer. Film Critic. Curmudgeon. Rock & Roll and Louisville Cardinal fan.

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