Solomon Burke, pastor and soul legend, is on the phone from California on the Monday after Mother's Day. At one of the Sunday church services, he'd asked for the oldest grandmother to come forward, and she was wheeled to the front.
"I said, 'How old are you?' And she said, 'I'm 96 years old.' And I said, 'Oh, my, happy Mother's Day.' And she said, 'OK.' And I said, 'Do you have anything to say?' And she said, 'I thought I was going on a hot date.' And I said, 'It doesn't get any hotter than this! Your day has just begun.'"
Burke laughs at his own anecdote from deep in his belly. At 68, he's a soul-era survivor, and just as he can joke about his hot Sunday services, he can infuse love-and-loss songs with a preacher's fervor.
He puts his life in perspective with the metaphor of climbing stairs: The parable of Solomon and the amazing stairs.
Despite a life of pastoring and various other businesses, he's known as a soul singer. He's never had the success of an Otis Redding or Ray Charles, but his biggest hits alone — 1961's "Cry to Me" and 1964's "Everybody Needs Someone to Love" — made him a serious contender.
"As we go up the steps, sometimes we stand still, turn around and look around, and then you move again, because if you get to a plateau in the stairway you either turn to the right or the left or you go forward, depends on how the steps are going in life," Burke says, reflectively. "You constantly make a move."
The hits slowed down after the '60s, but Burke managed to keep moving up the stairs in the '70s and '80s.
The '90s, though, were rough.
"It was a period of study, a time to think and a time to prepare for the next day, you know, and praying that the next day would be strong and good and positive. My grandmother used to tell me something, that was be ready so you don't have to get ready."
And when Burke had the opportunity to climb again in 1999, he did her proud. There was an appearance at a Vatican jubilee that he counts as his new beginning. After that, he says, it was "boom, boom, boom": Next came induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001. Then the Fat Possum label paired him up with producer Joe Henry and such songwriters as Elvis Costello and Brian Wilson. Three subsequent comeback discs on Shout! Factory likewise teamed him with A-list songwriters and collaborators.
The last disc, Nashville, harkened back to his earliest Atlantic sides, in which he pioneered the black-man-sings-country territory where Ray Charles later struck gold.
Like a Fire, due out June 10, has new material by Eric Clapton (including a tune co-written with Burke), Keb' Mo, Jesse Harris and Ben Harper, among others, plus a left-field oldie that Burke's been humming since his childhood: Doris Day's "If I Give My Heart to You."
Burke says he tells the writers to dig into his music and imagine more: "Go and tell me what you think you'd like to hear me sing."
He's particularly proud of the Clapton contribution and a tune co-written with him. He's hot, too, on Harper's anxiously driven "A Minute to Rest and a Second to Pray." He's thinking about introducing that one live in Detroit as he kicks off a tour that heads on to the Bonnaroo and Telluride fests, then to a string of European dates.
Burke will play tunes from the other comeback discs, too, he says, but no doubt the heft of a Burke show will always be the classics, both his own and hits by contemporaries like Wilson Pickett and Charles. He can seem like a caretaker for his era, though he prefers to think of himself as a messenger.
"I can't do it all," he says, "but I try to do the best I can."
The best at climbing those stairs. —W. Kim Heron
Solomon Burke performs at Campus Martius from 8-9:30 p.m. on Friday, May 23, headlining a day of music and park activities that also includes Dennis Coffey at 11:30 a.m. and Amp Fiddler and the Motor City Jam Band at 10:30 p.m. That's the first of a Fourth Fridays with Ford series that continues with headliners Cherry Poppin' Daddies (June 27), the Bacon Brothers and Carlene Carter (July 25) and Julian Marley (August 22).
Campus Martius also presents weekday lunchtime concerts and weekend films, history tours and other summer activities. More info at campusmartiuspark.org.