The late record producer and label executive Jerry Wexler once called Solomon Burke "the greatest male soul singer of all time" - a heavy compliment, to be sure. Though Burke’s hits were not as big as those by, say, Otis Redding or Sam Cooke or Marvin Gaye, one listen to his best stuff will convince you he should at least be in the conversation.
Born James Solomon McDonald in Philadelphia on March 21, in either 1936 or 1940, Burke earned the nicknames "King Solomon,” "King of Rock 'n' Soul” and "Bishop of Soul,” mostly for his work with Atlantic Records in the early and mid-1960s.
And what work it was - if you’re ever asked to explain Solomon Burke’s greatness in just five songs, these are the ones to use:
“Everybody Needs Somebody to Love”
Possibly Burke’s best-known song. This is how legends are made.
"Got to Get You Off My Mind"
The jaunty, almost sprightly melody and structure and the Sweet Inspirations singing background vocals make this sound like the happiest song ever concocted. It is most certainly not. “Gonna throw your picture away,” Burke sings, “You didn't want my love, any old way.” The friction between the music and the lyrics is exquisite; you think the song is going one way, and it takes you down another path entirely.
"If You Need Me"
Burke lays down an apology and hopes for the best in this 1963 hit. This sounds like something Otis Redding could have done, too; it has a similar structure to several of his great hits. But it’s hard to imagine a better vocal than the one Burke lays down here. That’s not sacrilege - it’s the truth.
This b-side of the No. 2 R&B hit “Tonight’s the Night” finds Burke recasting Bob Dylan’s breakneck folk-rock classic as a breakneck soul number, spiked with horns and propelled by Gene Page’s arrangement. Dylan’s version is the standard, but once you hear Burke’s you’ll never forget it.
"Just Out of Reach (of My Two Empty Arms)"
On his first big hit, Burke rolls out a slow-dance classic on which he smoothly croons against a creamy backdrop of strings and background singers. Faron Young had had a country hit with this song; Burke’s voice on a very similarly arranged cover brought it to the R&B charts.