Soul man in the spotlight: Grammy tribute for Philly's Solomon Burke

Solomon Burke, one of the pioneers of soul music. (AP File Photo / Kathy Willens)

WITH THE likes of Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber and Eminem scheduled to perform at last night's Grammy Awards wing-ding at Los Angeles' Staples Center, it's understandable that Mick Jagger's first live performance at the music industry's annual orgy of self-congratulation may not have meant much to younger fans. But for devotees of classic rhythm and blues, the scheduled turn by The Most Stoned Roller of Them All (as the late Daily News gossiptista Larry Fields would have written) and Raphael Saadiq was probably the show's highlight.

Jagger - who had never before performed live at a Grammys ceremony - and Saadiq were slated to pay tribute to Philadelphia native Solomon Burke, the acclaimed soul singer who died at age 70 in October of natural causes while sitting on a plane at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport.

A contemporary of such R&B titans as Sam Cooke and Ray Charles, Burke, who grew up in West Philly, never reached those artists' commercial heights. Nonetheless, those in the know consider him as good as any soulster of his time.

"I remember when he came out with the song 'Cry to Me.' I knew then Solomon was a voice to be reckoned with," said "Sound of Philadelphia" songwriting icon Leon Huff.

"I always thought he was a powerful singer," continued Huff, who is working on an album to be called "Groovy People." "I always loved those baritone voices. And Solomon had one, and so did [the late] Teddy Pendergrass. They were the two most powerful baritones in Philadelphia R&B."

According to Kal Rudman, publisher of Cherry Hill-based Friday Morning Quarterback, which tracks music for the pop-music radio industry, Burke is "up there in the pantheon of all-time greats. You could put him in a class with Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson and Wilson Pickett. He had a God-given voice."

Like so many soul singers, Burke developed his vocal chops singing gospel music. At age 7 he became a preacher.

"They gave me a fish box to stand on and a cape and two pieces of chicken - and I was preaching," he told the Philadelphia Weekly in a 2002 interview. "[I] gave my first sermon when I was 7, had a radio ministry when I was 12 on WHAT-AM" (then the city's trendsetting R&B and gospel station).

According to his entry in Wikipedia, Burke's move from sacred music to the pop realm began at the end of 1955, when, after entering a management deal with local promoter and DJ Kae Williams, he signed with Apollo Records.

The label's owner, Bess Berman, reportedly said, "Let's take this church boy and make him the next Harry Belafonte," a reference to the young singer who had made West Indies calypso music a national craze.

During his two years at Apollo, Burke made little impact on the marketplace; arguably the most noteworthy aspect of the 16 songs he produced for the label were his background musicians, jazz saxophone masters Charlie Parker and King Curtis.

Deals with two other imprints, Triumph and Philadelphia-based Singular, led to more commercial disappointment. But in 1960, Burke's fortunes changed when superstar Ray Charles left Atlantic Records for ABC Records.

According to local veteran DJ Jerry "The Geator With the Heater" Blavat, with Charles gone, Atlantic execs were desperate to replace him with another big-voiced R&B singer to protect their bottom line.

" Jerry Wexler told me, 'We're signing Solomon Burke to replace Ray Charles on the Atlantic label,' " recalled Blavat. "Unfortunately, Solomon never became the star Ray Charles was on Atlantic."

Maybe not, but the singles Burke released before Atlantic turned to rock music in the late 1960s have been credited by Wexler and others for keeping the company afloat. And, perhaps more important, tunes like "Cry to Me," "Just Out of Reach (Of My Two Open Arms)," "Got to Get You Off of My Mind" (which went to No. 1 on the Billboard magazine R&B chart), "You're Good for Me" and "Tonight's the Night" created the legacy that Jagger and Saadiq were to honor last night.

Despite spending almost a decade at Atlantic, Burke was never comfortable with being labeled a "blues" singer because his religious background made him uncomfortable with the genre's emphasis on sexuality. Burke always claimed that he created the term "soul music" to describe the R&B he performed, after a disc jockey once suggested he "sang from [the] soul."

Burke's Atlantic career peaked in the mid-'60s and he left the company in 1969. He went on to record for various other labels, and while his output was prodigious, he never regained his previous prominence.

In 2002, Burke recorded "Don't Give Up on Me" on the Fat Possum label. The disc contained songs specifically written for him by Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, Van Morrison and others. Burke's final album, "Nothing's Impossible," was released by E1 Entertainment last August, just months before his death.

Throughout his career, Burke toured regularly, finding especially loyal fans in Europe (both Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI invited him to perform at the Vatican). He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001.

No discussion of Burke is complete without a mention of the singer's physical appearance.

Throughout his life, Burke was a big man, usually tipping the scales between 300 and 400 pounds. But rather than be embarrassed, he made his weight a part of the package. At gigs or on tour buses, Burke would sell food to his fellow artists. Blavat remembered meeting him in Harlem.

"Man, he was as big as a house," said Blavat. "I asked him, 'Are you still selling popcorn at the shows?' He said, 'No, Geator, I ate all the popcorn. That's why I'm so fat.' "