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: By 1957 you had a number of hits but you had a falling-out with your record company and your manager because you didn't think you were being paid what was due.
SB: I knew I wasn't being paid what I was owed. I'm 17 years old making $350 a night, three nights a week. I thought that was a lot of money. It turns out that I was actually being paid $3,500 a night, or more accurately, my manager was being paid $3,500 a night. It was comical. But when I left him he told me I would never work again, and he did get all my records pulled off the air. It was a drastic time in my life. There were a couple years there when I lost everything and everybody, and I learned to live on the streets of Philadelphia.
PW: The turning point came one day when you were panhandling at 16th and Ridge.
SB: And somebody threw a 50-cent piece at me, and it landed right on the sewer grate. It landed perfectly, and I had to be very gentle and careful to pick it up or it would fall in. And then mentally and spiritually a voice in my head said to me, "You are down there on one knee. If you pick up that change you gonna be picking up change the rest of your life. You wanna be a bum? Pick it up." I was terrified to the point where I was hallucinating. I jumped back and a car hit me.
PW: What happened after you got out of the hospital?
SB: I took over the family business and became the funeral home director. And then I got hooked up with Singular Records, which was run by a guy named Babe Shivian, who left a beautiful red sports car parked out front of the funeral home. It was his way of suggesting that maybe I should get back into the music business. We had to move that car away from the funeral home. You're from Philadelphia, you know you can't have a red convertible parked in front of a funeral home. So I finally call him back and say, "Sir, we need to move this car." And he says, "You can move it. All you have to do is say to me you want to record again, and I'll send the keys over. It's your car. You can do whatever you want with it." I said, "If we don't move this car, my mom's gonna kill me. [For some reason] the police won't touch it, no tow companies will come get it." He says, "I know all about that." He was a very powerful and influential man with lots of friends and connections.
PW: After that you hooked up with Atlantic Records. Jerry Wexler tells a story about cutting "Just Out of Reach" with you in New York and asking if you wanted to hear the playback. And you tell him no, you have to get back to Philadelphia to shovel snow.
SB: I had seven or eight kids to support! When it snowed you could work at 30th Street Station shoveling for five dollars an hour. They paid you right on the spot and gave you coffee and donuts. And you could bring along anybody you wanted, pay them $4 an hour and keep the rest. I had about nine people I could bring. I had to go 'cause it was snowing!
PW: Where were you living at this point?
SB: By this point I was living in Germantown. I was movin' on up! I owned two drugstores by this point. I bought the drugstore because when I would go out of town, the guy who owned it, Dr. Reese, was so kind and generous to my family, he gave them anything they needed on credit. And I would pay him when I got back. So one time I was on tour for six or seven months, and when I came back he told me I owed him $9,000! I said, "How much is the whole damn drugstore?" He said, "I'll sell you the whole business for $15,000." I said, "Sold!" And I wound up buying his nephew's popcorn business, which leads to another great story.
PW: You mean the time you performed and sold popcorn at the Apollo?
SB: So here I am, with 6,000 boxes of popcorn stacked up in my garage. I'm in Florida on vacation with my family--you won't believe the people I was with: Muhammad Ali, Martin Luther King, Ralph Abernathy. I get a call from the Apollo saying somebody canceled at the last minute and they need me to fill in. I tell them I'm on vacation, I don't want to do it. They say, "Solomon, tell us what you need, anything!" Something hit me: Popcorn, I can get rid of the popcorn! I said, "Tell you what: Give me all the concessions." Concessions back in those days was a felt hat with a big plume coming out and James Brown's name spelled out in glue and covered with glitter. That was concessions for black people--not records, not Hershey bars, not Baby Ruths, not hot dogs, not soda. I had just purchased 75 cases of a new soda that nobody had heard of. Mountain Dew--couldn't get rid of it. But I knew I could get rid of it at the Apollo! So they agreed. I said, "Put it in writing and send me a telegram today because I must prepare my popcorn."
PW: So what happened when you showed up with the truck full of popcorn?
Geek Invasion 2013