"How was your holiday?" he asks from his home in Los Angeles. "How was your New Year's? I never thought I'd hear anybody say 2000-anything. This is the year of me and we and us. It means unity. It means unite yourself with people around you, with people you love."
Realizing his listener is taking notes, he jokes, "This is a message without a donation. This is the only sermon you're going to get without your having to pass a plate."
It's a welcome sermon. Burke is one of the few remaining bulwarks of soul music, that Southern confluence of passion, faith, and restraint that peaked in the '60s and '70s on labels like Stax, Volt, Atlantic, and numerous lesser imprints. Known for such incandescent tunes as "Just Out of Reach," "Got to Get You Off My Mind," and "Everybody Needs Somebody to Love," Burke has recorded for numerous labels since the '60s, but his Atlantic material is particularly indelible. It's the perfect showcase for his taffy baritone and his tender phrasing, and the way he transmutes country and gospel into rhythm 'n' blues on cuts like "Down in the Valley" and "Cry to Me," and into pop on the cautionary novelty "Stupidity." His faith, no matter the vehicle, shines through all he does. With a wink.
"I am the bishop for the House of God for All People in Los Angeles," Burke says, all buttery and cheerful. "This church is all over the United States: Philadelphia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, Seattle, Portland. That's part of the legacy of my life. I was born in the church. They were having service, never heard me cry. All they could hear was the trombones playing. 'Bring him on down here, stuff him in the tuba.'"
Burke was born in March 1940 in Philadelphia. He told the music magazine Soul Express that his father was a "black Jew and the best kosher and chicken plucker in the world." Burke has always been entrepreneurial; he had a radio show in Philadelphia in his teens and was singing professionally, even recording for the Apollo label, by the mid-'50s. Lionel Hampton and Lester Young were among his early backup musicians. Besides his voice and his presentation, he became known for managing and profiting from his own food concessions at his shows.
In the winter of 1960, Burke signed with Atlantic, impressing label partner Jerry Wexler with his lush, gospel-steeped voice. The voice was key to Atlantic, an imprint whose principals, Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun, were fervent fans of the "bel canto" tradition. "He could connect with a white Southerner and a black," Wexler once said. "The link was Baptist. Regardless of color, they all talked in tongues."
Burke still talks in tongues, musically at least. It's his gift. Secular, gospel, country, pop -- he doesn't care, as long as the music connects. What gives it heft, besides his voice, is a big band. When Burke performs at the Rock Hall as part of the museum's celebration of Black History Month, he will bring a band featuring five horns. His manager, John Schiller, will play drums. His longtime conductor, Sam Mayfield, will play guitar. Dan Rabinowitz will play trumpet.
"I'm so blessed to have all these people in the Souls Alive Orchestra," he says.
He's also blessed with 21 children, 63 grandchildren, and 9 great-grandchildren, "so I have to work all year long just to get ready for Christmas. I'm really Santa Claus's brother, Sola Claus. The only thing I don't have is stock in Toys 'R' Us."
His brood isn't his only motivation for working, however. He's preparing to record for Fat Possum, the eccentric label that has revived the careers of vernacular giants like T-Model Ford and blues primitive R.L. Burnside Jr. Produced by Joe Henry, Burke's upcoming Fat Possum debut will likely feature tunes by Van Morrison, Carole King, and Dan Penn.
"I don't know whether they're trying to tell me to lose weight or what," he says, "but I guess they're going to put me and the Fat Possum on the same cover."
Last year, Burke released The Commitment, an album that is "all about love. It's telling people how to love one another and to make sure when they get married, they're not doing it because they're trying to duck a bill or get somebody to do their laundry. Marriage is like a bowl of cherries. You got to watch them seeds."
And spread them in many directions. Besides his recording and his church work, Burke runs a chain of mortuaries.
"We don't plug the funeral home," he says. "What we do is promote the singing and the church, I guess." He cracks up. "We're the last ones to let you down and the first ones to pick you up."
While in town, Burke will headline a community outreach program at a free noon event at the Rock Hall's main stage and, in the evening, tell his story and perform. People can drop off nonperishable items at the museum for the food drive, benefiting Harvest for Hunger and Malachi House.
"My whole thing is to make sure people enjoy life and love," says the man a Baltimore DJ once dubbed the "King of Rock and Soul." "There are still people out there who need a helping hand. Every day should be Christmas, and every night should be New Year's Eve."
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