He's a legend among his fellow musicians, and this year, at 62, he took home a Grammy award for Best Contemporary Blues Album.
Truly larger than life, Burke weighs 400 pounds, has 21 children, and has worked as a preacher, an herbal doctor, a popcorn entrepreneur, a restaurateur and a mortician.
He hasn't had a hit record in 40 years, but he's currently mounting what can best be described as a most improbable comeback. Lesley Stahl reports.
Earlier this year at New York's Radio City Music Hall, Solomon Burke attended a big gathering of soul and blues singers -- along with the likes of Bonnie Raitt and B.B. King.
Burke shared a dressing room with King that night. They used to tour together in the 1960s. "If I could sing like you, guess what," says King. "You know what I'd do? I'd thrown mine away."
"No, you wouldn't either," says Burke.
But out on stage, it was Burke who blew the roof off. Back in the '60s, Burke was known as the King of Rock 'n' Soul. With this comeback, he hopes to reclaim his throne.
"I've always considered myself as the king in exile," he says, laughing. "Been waiting, sitting in the wings waiting … Maybe I'm on trial to see if I'm really the artist that people want me to be."
Jerry Wexler, the renowned record producer who's worked with everyone from Ray Charles to Aretha Franklin, has known Burke for 40 years.
How does he rate Burke among the soul or blues singers? "I rate him at the very top. Since all singing is a trade-off between music and drama, he's the master at both," he says. "His theatricality. He's a great actor."
Even while he makes his comeback, Burke says music is just his hobby. He has spent most of his life as an entrepreneur, providing for his huge family by building a mortuary business.
"Once a mortician, always a mortician," says Burke, who has owned funeral homes in Pennsylvania and North Carolina.
So how did a musician become a mortician? Not by choice. The story begins, as with so many soul singers, in the Baptist Church. By age 12, Burke was known as the "wonder boy preacher" with his own weekly radio show in Philadelphia, where he grew up.
His mother was a devout Baptist, his stepfather an Ethiopian Jew and a Kosher butcher named Vincent Burke. But it was his grandmother who instilled in him a love of God and country -- country music, that is. And at home she made him listen to her favorite singer, Gene Autry.
"My grandmother said, 'Listen carefully as he pronounces these words … I'm back in the saddle again,'" recalls Burke. "She said, 'See the hesitatin? I'm back in the saddle again … Pronounce it properly.'"
He was just 14 when he wrote and recorded his first "hit." "People were saying, 'They're playing your song on the radio. They're playing your song on the radio,'" says Burke. "Oh man. It was the beginning of the beginning of the beginning."
Over the next three years, Burke toured up and down the East Coast, having the time of his life. Then, in 1957, he discovered that his business manager was pocketing a lot more than the 10 percent he was entitled to.
"I was told I was making $350 a night, and I was making like $3,000 a night," says Burke. Plus, "He still took 10 percent of the $350."
Burke confronted the business manager, who then threatened to "break" him. And that's what he did. "He broke me right down to the ground. Took all my records off the air," says Burke.
His manager could do that because he was one of the most powerful disc jockeys on the East Coast.
"I became a bum. I literally became a bum. Everybody had just turned their back on me. I mean family, everyone," says Burke. "I lived on the street. I lived in abandoned cars .. Couldn't afford a drug. I was on chicken wings, you know, anything I could get."
After a year on the street, he was working again as an embalmer, and at other odd jobs. Two years later, he was introduced to Jerry Wexler, then a top executive with Atlantic Records, the premiere rhythm and blues label of the day.
"We made three or four songs, and as we were playing them back, because the session was finished, Solomon is out the door. I said, 'Solomon, don't you want to hear what we just cut.' I said, 'There may be something good in here,'" recalls Wexler. "He said, 'I'd love to, baby.' He says, 'But I'm goin' back to Philly. At $5 an hour I'm shoveling snow.' At that time, he was 20 years old and I think he had eight children, so he had a lot of mouths to feed."
One of those first songs for Atlantic, "Just Out Of Reach," was a big hit. But it wasn't gospel or soul. He sang it like Gene Autry.
"This is the biggest Rhythm & Blues label in the world. They don't do country, and here we are singing country music," says Burke, who was apparently the first black artist ever to have a country-western hit. And it was so popular that he was booked for concerts sight unseen.
But that created a big problem when he rolled into South Carolina in 1960. The promoters were expecting someone who looked more like Gene Autry.
"They said, 'The only way you're gonna go out there on that stage, my man, is bandaged up, doc. What do you think?' So they bandaged me up," recalls Burke. "Bandaged up my hands and bandaged up my face. And I was like the invisible man. And I went out and I sang. And did the four songs."
"I mean, when the sheriff's telling you you're gonna go out there bandaged up, you figured, the thing is, we wanna get out of these bandages," adds Burke, who was more scared than angry. "I was a little frightened … The idea of once we got the bandages off and they said everything was fine, we had been paid, and it was just unbelievable how music can solve a lot of problems."
Solomon was the king and in his heyday, he dressed up in a gold sequined suit. He would sit on a throne with a crown on his head, and perform in tobacco sheds and concert halls, from Mississippi to Manhattan, selling records -- and anything else he could get his hands on.
"When he played the Apollo Theater, for example, and he was the star attraction, between acts he was up and down the aisle selling popcorn," recalls Wexler. "He had a concession from the owner to do that."
He also did a little catering on the tour bus as it wound its way through the Deep South, where most of the restaurants were off limits to him and his fellow black musicians. Burke would stock up before crossing the Mason-Dixon Line.
"He was in a hotel in Chicago one day when he ordered something like pheasant under glass. And the waiter was a big fan. He said, 'Oh, Mr. Burke, what else can I do for you?' And Solomon said, 'How much are these apiece?' He said, 'Well, for you, it's six dollars,'" recalls Wexler. "He said, 'I'll have 20 of them.' He ordered 20 of these, packed them somehow and sold them on the bus, of course, at a profit."
His biggest hit during this time was "Everybody Needs Somebody," which made big money for everyone from the Blues Brothers to the Rolling Stones. But Burke complains that he only got a tiny fraction of the royalties.
In 1968, he began organizing his fellow black artists into a union of sorts, called The Soul Clan, in an effort to change this royalty problem.
"Not just to change the royalty problem, but to change our way of living," says Burke. "To change, to make it better for us. We started our own publishing companies."
Burke says record executives didn't take kindly to this, stopped promoting his albums, and let his contract expire. And so, he says, his career as a musician was ended, against his will, for the second time.
Is the music business cruel? Absolutely, says Burke.
"And very hard. There's mean, evil people out there that say they love you, that they're your friends and they're your partners, they're your managers and they're your helpers," says Burke. "And yet, they're the snakes that are waiting to devour you and lions waiting to destroy you. This is why I keep it a hobby. Because if it was a mainstream for me in my life, I would have been destroyed."
From that time on, the center of his life became his family. He likes to cook for his kids -- he has 21 in all. And he stays close to many of his 65 grandchildren who often attend Burke's church in South Central Los Angeles, where he's the spiritual leader.
The music business may be cruel, but it's also irresistible. So last year, after a 30-year hiatus, he jumped at the chance to make a new album with songs written for him as a tribute by such giants as Bob Dylan, Van Morrison and Elvis Costello.
And this year, he won the first Grammy of his career, for "Don't Give Up On Me."
"It took me 40 years to get up those steps," says Burke. "It's incredible. Unbelievable. I'm thrilled to the top."
So now, will singing still just be a hobby? "I'll make it a bigger hobby," he says.
"It's fantastic. It's like they say in the Gospel, 'Jesus may be late, but he's right on time,'" says Wexler.
"The race is not given to the swift, but to those who endure to the end," adds Burke. "I'm moving on. I'm on a fast train."