MORTICIAN, PREACHER, ENTREPRENEUR, FATHER OF 21 CHILDREN AND NATIVE WEST PHILADELPHIAN, SOLOMON BURKE HAS A WHOLE LOT OF HANDLES. HERE'S ANOTHER: GREATEST LIVING SOUL SINGER IN THE WORLD.
PW: But your father converted to Judaism ...
SB: My father was a black Jew. Very kosher. We had two sets of dishes, two sets of pots and pans. He spoke Hebrew. He worked at 40th and Girard for Jake's Chicken Market. Very strict, didn't play games. A little guy, just 130 pounds, but it was the biggest 130 pounds I ever seen.
PW: As a young man, you were quite the entrepreneur.
SB: Back in those days, kids worked. I used to deliver grocery orders in a little wagon I made out of fish boxes. When I was seven, I sold newspapers out of my own newsstand on the corner of 40th and Lancaster. I had the first 99-cent car wash, which was located at 40th and Wallace outside Al's Barber Shop. We had it there because he was the only one who would let us use his water. We could wash your car in 20 minutes. I had four or five guys, gave 'em each a nickel for each car.
PW: You also worked at Eddie's Meat Market.
SB: With a very good friend, Chubby Checker. He worked in the chicken division; I was in the hot dog and lunch meat division. It was the community meat market: hamburger, 15 cents a pound; hot dogs, 15 cents a pound; necks and backs, 10 cents a pound. Eddie would walk around in a big apron, had about 75 black guys working for him. He gave me a job, said, "You're in charge of hot dogs. Wash 'em off." I never handled hot dogs before and I figured you should wash them with some nice hot water, 'cause they was slimy. It was terrible--I knew my mother would never buy none of these. So after I start washing them they start getting nice and clean and real pink and pretty, and they start swelling up. I was like, "Boy, they look good." So I put them in the display window and I go in the back and wash some more. So I'm hearing all this commotion and shouting out front and I'm thinking, "Boy, those hot dogs are really selling." Turns out people were horrified. Once they were out there, they shrank down to the size of little Vienna sausages, and I got fired. That was the end of my meat career.
PW: You were 14 when you wrote your first song, "Christmas Presents from Heaven." It was for your grandmother?
SB: Just before Christmas, my grandmother told me she was going to give me my present early. She told me to look under her bed, and there was a Stella guitar under there, wrapped in a pillowcase with "King Solomon" embroidered on it. I wrote that song on there for her and played it for her, and the next day she died. I went to a church for consolation, and I met this woman who was the wife of the man who would eventually be my manager. She asked me if I wanted to sing, and when I was done she came up to me and said, "You're mine. All mine." The next day I was in a New York recording studio.
PW: You wrote "You Can Run (But You Can't Hide)" with boxing legend Joe Louis?
SB: Well, that was Mr. Louis' slogan when he was still fighting. I used it and I got sued by Mrs. Louis, and the next thing we knew Joe Louis had the songwriting credit. And not only that, he became my emcee for one year. That was part of the lawsuit [settlement]. He had to travel with me for one year and I had to pay all of his expenses, limousine and hotel. Such a beautiful man, such a humble man. I learned so much from him.
PW: I understand that your version of "One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer" got you into some trouble?
SB: I was playing at the Tippin Inn in Berlin, N.J., my first nightclub appearance. I'm just a kid who sang gospel, but I heard this song on the radio. I was warming up for the headliner and I had done all my songs and they wanted an encore. I didn't know any more songs, so I started singing "One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer," and the crowd goes nuts--women are screaming, and the next thing I know there's this guy--who I find out later is [the song's originator] Amos Milburn--with a rag around his head, curlers in his hair throwing shoes at me from the side of the stage. It was his version I was imitating off the radio! And he's pissed.
PW: Also on that bill was somebody named "Lottie the Body." Who or what was that?
SB: "Lottie the Body" was the first naked woman I ever saw--with a snake. When I walked into my dressing room, she was standing there naked, saying, "Hi, honey! Welcome to show business!" My manager said, "This is Lottie the Body." I said, "I can see that!" She really got the crowd going.
Geek Invasion 2013