"He is Solomon the resonator ... the golden voice of heart, wisdom, soul and experience. He's one of the architects of American music." —Tom Waits
In early February 2008, Duke Performances presented Solomon Burke, who died on Sunday, Oct. 10, in a double bill with the Dixie Hummingbirds. Solomon was reared singing gospel music in Philadelphia, and the Hummingbirds have long been ambassadors of that city's terrific church music scene. I sat backstage next to Solomon for the Hummingbirds' set, and he thanked me for the opportunity to see these old friends once more.
At that point in his career, Solomon's contract stipulated that the local promoter provide a throne. Height, width and depth for this piece of furniture were all, rest assured, specified. Solomon had played the Bull Durham Blues Festival four years before, and Lee Hawley in the Duke Scene Shop had built a throne to proper Solomon Burke specifications back then. We retrieved Solomon's seat from storage, and it was ready for King Solomon's arrival.
Solomon needed that throne because, at well over 400 pounds, he was incapable of supporting his own weight for the duration of a concert. (Solomon had, I later learned, spent several weeks over the years at the Duke Diet and Fitness Center.) In order to get him onstage, we turned off the lights. My colleague Paul Overton rolled Solomon onto the stage in a wheelchair. By the time the lights came up, he was in his throne, a gargantuan man in a red sequined suit.
Solomon's set went for nearly two hours and featured dozens of tunes—mostly R&B chestnuts from the '50s and '60s sung four or five at a time in 10- to 15-minute medleys. The choice of material was odd because Solomon was several acclaimed albums deep into his "comeback"—there was a whole songbook of fresh tunes from which to pull. Instead, Solomon sang lyrics off a teleprompter set at the base of his throne.
Still, the performance accumulated momentum. After a few tunes, the audience grew accustomed to the visual oddity: Solomon, huge in his throne, being fed sips of whiskey and having his brow mopped by a female backup singer in a snug black dress (his daughter, Candy). As he worked through tunes, he'd employ the gravelly growl near the bottom of his register or gingerly summon his falsetto.
The contract sported another odd stipulation: 12 dozen (yes, 144) long-stemmed red roses, with thorns removed. About halfway through the performance, Solomon started calling folks onstage and giving them each a rose. After accepting the gift, they stayed, congregating at the base of the throne. Select audience members were handed microphones and invited to bellow in good voice along with Solomon. An older lady, besotted by the big man in the sequin suit, took over brow-mopping duties.
It was in that chaotic moment that Solomon seemed most at ease, most in command. His 60-odd years in show business had confirmed his faith in the audience and in his power as a showman. Solomon had an unshakable belief that everything would turn out beautifully. And that evening, of course, it did.
Aaron Greenwald has been the director of Duke Performances since 2007.