Flesh And Blood, This World And The Next: Solomon Burke’s Funeral
I got up early this morning, put on a black suit and drove through a pissy rain, past the airport, to Gardena in south Los Angeles for Solomon Burke’s funeral.
It was held at the City of Refuge, a large and predominantly African-American church in a blocky, stucco structure built in the ’80s. I arrived early, and people drifted about, solemnly greeting friends and family while the king of rock and soul’s touring band, Soul’s Alive, murmured quietly over hymns in a contemporary gospel style, as if playing under a sermon already in progress. Blind organist Rudy Copeland, who had been Solomon’s one handpicked member of the “Don’t Give Up On Me” recording band, riffed and bounced, looking so much like a skinny Ray Charles it was impossible not to stare at him. (Note: Rudy had been a close friend to Marvin Gaye, and told me years ago that he’d left Marvin’s house only thirty minutes before Marvin’s father returned, disturbed and armed, on that fateful day in 1984, having left his pal with the warning, “Don’t fuck with the old man, now. He’s in a bad way.”)
I had arrived early and was sitting alone off to the side in meditation, but got up to greet Andy Kaulkin, who’d signed Solomon to Anti- Records and given me the job as Solomon’s producer. As the service was about to begin, we were both ushered to special seats held in front and just to the side of the area reserved for family.
As the front pews got more crowded, I gave up my seat to another employee of Anti- Records and joined Tom Jones and his son/manager Mark, who had arrived late and with whom I’d planned to sit, having spent the evening before in the studio together. We were taken to the front row, and seated just to the left of the rose-covered casket.
The service was 2 and a half hours long, included many eulogies, some spontaneous gospel singing; some shouting, some wailing, a fainting, and a daughter who hopped on the balls of her feet and spoke in tongues as punctuation to her scripted remarks. The highlight for me was Rudy’s bluesy Hammond B-3 instrumental of Thomas Dorsey’s “Precious Lord (Lead Me On).” He played it like Ray would have, kicking it heavy on the bass foot pedals, and shouting his own encouragement: “Tell the story, son!”
The whole service climaxed with a rousing version of “When The Saints Go Marching In,” which included the choir, a 2nd-line-style brass band marching through the isles, and everyone in the pews clapping and singing along. One enthused member of the parish rushed over and plucked Tom Jones from in front of his seat, pulled him near the casket where the family had crowded around, and handed him the wireless mic, commanding him to “take this brother home, Tom!!!” Tom reluctantly but graciously sang a few lines and then handed back the microphone, but remained standing with the family.
Once the singing throng had wheeled the casket out the side door to the waiting hearse, I greeted a few people and worked my way out toward the parking lot, stopping to talk to Tom and Mark (the former giving in to perhaps a dozen requests for cell phone photographs), who also seemed to be trying to slip away.
“You going on to the cemetery?” Mark asked me. I said I wasn’t, and I could tell he was envious. They hadn’t planned to either, I don’t imagine, but too many family members had latched on to Tom and said they were grateful he’d be going the last mile with them.
The precession of cars, limos and the hearse had the whole exit out onto Rosecrans Avenue blocked, but I slipped my car out a back service driveway and bolted. I drove the 2 or 3 miles back to the 110 Freeway and headed north towards downtown.
The rain had stopped, and the sky was a brilliant autumn blue, with thick grey clouds fracturing the golden light; the freeway wide open. I sailed ahead and as I did, I cued up “Don’t Give Up On Me” at the beginning and turned it loud.
Towards the end of song 4, my own “Flesh And Blood,” about twelve miles into my drive home and as Solomon started to twist on the words “more real than this, mo-mo-mo-mo-more reeeeeal that thiiiissss,” I saw from just behind on my left, a dark car –a hearse— surge forward. It passed me, changed lanes and then settled down to the speed limit, just in front of me.
I recognized the driver and the vehicle, as I had just been talking next to it for almost 30 minutes: it was Solomon. But there were no other limos in sight, and no other cars appearing to follow. No headlights or flagged hoods; no cops. Just the big black wagon, with red roses on a massive casket visible through the rear window.
I assume that the distance to a cemetery near Solomon’s home in Westlake Village (if indeed that’s where they were headed) was just too far a distance to drive it in formation; but that still didn’t explain the absence of any other cars, after I had seen so many lining up to roll out.
There was just me and King Solomon, flying along the freeway, while inside my car Solomon himself continued to rant and rave in song: “More real than this!!”
After a few moments the hearse veered off onto the 101 north, and I continued on toward Pasadena. I watched as Solomon merged right, and then doubled back on the ramp stretching west. He arced right over my head and quickly disappeared out towards the far valley.
Photo courtesy of Sergi Fornols