Born to the sound of music in an upstairs room of a Philadelphia church, Burke was acknowledged as one of the greatest soul singers of the 1960s, but his popularity never matched that of contemporaries like James Brown or Marvin Gaye.
Even so, legendary Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler once called Burke, "the best soul singer of all time."
Burke, a giant man with a powerful soulful voice to match, joined Atlantic in 1960 and went on to record a string of hits in a decade with the label.
Burke's family said on his website the singer died of natural causes, but did not elaborate.
"This is a time of great sorrow for our entire family. We truly appreciate all of the support and well wishes from his friends and fans," the statement said.
"Although our hearts and lives will never be the same, his love, life and music will continue to live within us forever," it added.
Two of Burke's best-known songs were boosted by featuring on the soundtracks of popular movies.
He wrote "Everybody Needs Somebody to Love" in 1964 and it was later featured in the Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi movie "The Blues Brothers." The Rolling Stones and Wilson Pickett also recorded it.
His song "Cry To Me" featured in the background as a bare-chested Patrick Swayze danced seductively with Jennifer Grey in one of the most memorable scenes from the movie "Dirty Dancing."
According to his website, Burke was born March 21, 1940, "to the sounds of horns and bass drums" at the United Praying Band The House of God for All People in West Philly.
"From day one, literally God and gospel were the driving forces behind the man and his music," his website said.
He remained closely linked to the church as a preacher. In 2000, he played for then-Pope John Paul II at the Vatican.
Schiphol Airport police spokesman Robert van Kapel confirmed that Burke died on a plane at Schiphol. He arrived early Sunday on a flight from Los Angeles and had been scheduled to perform a sellout show on Tuesday in a church converted into a concert hall in Amsterdam with local band De Dijk.
Burke was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001 and won a Best Contemporary Blues Album Grammy a year later for "Don't Give Up On Me."
Those honors sparked a renewed interest in the singer and he toured extensively around the world in recent years.
Burke and his band would play without set lists, instead performing whatever the audience wanted to hear.
"It's like turning back the hands of time instantly," he said on his website. "We can be in the middle of singing something from my recent 'Like A Fire' album, and they'll call out 'Stupidity' from 1957 and we're back 50 years!"
Burke combined his singing with the role of preacher and patriarch of a huge family of 21 children, 90 grandchildren and 19 great grandchildren.
"Loving people," he said at a recent performance in London, "is what I do."
Associated Press Writer Mike Corder in The Hague contributed to this report.