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Solomon Burke is king of all he surveys

The rock king enjoys a life of music, food and religion

It’s only fitting that Solomon Burke greets visitors from a red velvet throne in the living room of his large, well-appointed home. He is, after all, the king of rock and soul.

Burke has embraced the title ever since a Baltimore disc jockey is said to have hung it on him in 1964, when he was at the height of his first wave of fame. He was performing songs then like “Cry to Me,” “Down in the Valley” and “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” in a half-whisper and half-growl, songs that would soon be covered by everyone from the young Rolling Stones to the Blues Brothers.

“He’s really the last of the great blues singers of that generation,” says singer-songwriter Shawn Amos, speaking of a generation that also included Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Jerry Butler and Amos’ late mother, soul singer Shirl-ee May.

The hits dried up in the mid-1960s after the Britis Motown pushed Burke’s style onto pop music’s back burner. Except for a small, loyal following, Burke quickly slid into obscurity.

That began to change in a big way in 2001 when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Two years later he won a Grammy for best contemporary blues album for his comeback recording, “Don’t Give Up on Me.”

Both awards rest on the mantel above Burke’s oversized fireplace, not far from his throne. A jovial man and engaging storyteller, he points to the Grammy with particular pride.

“My pride and joy, my little Grammy. I take it down every day and run around the room with it, trying to duplicate it,” he shouts before bursting into a loud, long wave of laughter that seems to emanate from deep inside him and rumble up to the surface like a tsunami.

King of all he surveysBut music tells only part of the story of the larger-than-life persona that is Solomon Burke. He’s also a minister, a one-time child prodigy preacher, a father to 21 children and grandfather to 75, a gourmet cook, mortician, entrepreneur, raconteur and all-around bon vivant.

But even if he wasn’t all of those, with his deep baritone voice and weight estimated somewhere between 300 and 400 pounds, he would still be an imposing presence simply perched on his throne.

Arthritis and weight have limited his mobility in recent years. Burke remains on that throne during a lengthy interview at his home on a hillside above Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley.

He is dressed immaculately in a tailored, brown pinstriped suit with white shirt and gold tie. His assistant answered the door in a tuxedo.

Next to that front door is a sign alerting visitors: “Beyond this point, no shoes, no swearing, no weapons, no gum chewing. God bless you.”

Expecting several guests, Burke has laid out a surprise royal banquet of barbecued chicken, sushi, pasta, salad and a half-dozen desserts, most of which he has whipped up himself in his gourmet kitchen. But the singer, who is on a diet, won’t touch a bite of it himself.

“It’s very rough,” he acknowledges quietly. “I love to eat and I love to cook — as you can see. But my hip has to be replaced and a knee has to be replaced and I’ve got to lose 150 pounds before they can do that. And that’s a lot.”

Then, regaining the sunny enthusiasm that has gotten him through 65 years of musical, personal and financial ups and downs, Burke adds in a booming voice, “But it’s NOT! God knows I’ve enjoyed every kind of food there is, all around the world. It’s not like I’m going to miss any of it. Because I’ve had it all!”

Except for the diet, having it all is still pretty much Burke’s philosophy.

Music and religion a big part of Burke's lifeHe spent much of the last two months of last year on a concert tour of Europe and the United States, he recently made a guest appearance on Amos’ new album and he preaches regularly at his Southern California church whenever he’s not on the road.

Born on March 21, 1940, above Philadelphia’s Solomon’s Temple during a service, Burke says music and religion were infused in him from his first moments of life.

“They didn’t even hear me cry,” he says of the congregation worshipping downstairs while his mother gave birth upstairs. “Those tubas and trombones was playing. I always wondered if I was in the right key.”

Seven years later, he was preaching to the congregation at the church founded by his grandmother. Seven years after that he was asked to sing at his grandmother’s funeral, and his performance resulted in his first recording contract. He was 21 when he had his first hit, “Just Out of Reach (Of My Two Open Arms).”

He acknowledges struggling to make ends meet during the lean years, adding that one of his many sidelines, a mortuary business connected to his church, helped him keep him going.

“We’re the first ones to pick you up and the last ones to let you down,” he quips.

To this day, he grouses about being shortchanged on recording deals and songwriting royalties during those years. Turning serious for a moment, he says he is hopeful the attention his comeback has brought might give him the opportunity to mentor young musicians about the business side of music.

Don’t get him wrong, Burke quickly adds, basking in the adulation of a newfound audience has been great fun. But he’d also like to leave a greater legacy behind.

“What good am I if I don’t accomplish something?” he asks during a moment of quiet contemplation. “If I don’t help somebody else along the way.”