It is hard to find the words that might adequately describe the deep sense of loss and utter sadness that Ellen and I feel today.
We learned early this morning that our dear friend and Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame member Johnny Burke passed away.
I first met Johnny at a surprise birthday party for my wife Ellen. I am the self-described poster boy for introverts. Ellen is almost the polar opposite. I found myself in a house filled with people who by and large I did not know so I found a comfortable spot on a piano bench from which I could quietly survey the partying. Before long I was joined by a man who like me found himself in a room full of strangers. We introduced ourselves over a handshake. “Hi, I’m Johnny.” Simple, quiet and easy. We watched the party play out before us. I think we exchanged some small talk but not a lot. As it turned out there would be lots of conversations with Johnny over the many following years.
Over the years Ellen and I have enjoyed the company of Johnny and his wife Teresa through many special occasions, especially Johnny’s many concerts. We would visit Johnny and Teresa at their home in Newcastle, Ontario where Johnny had built a home ‘concert hall’ called The Loft. There Johnny would perform sometimes in a solo concert but usually with a notable friend from the country music scene. It was there that we met and spent time with notables George Hamilton IV from the Grand Ole Opry and Larry Mercey, a Canadian Country Music Hall of Famer as a member of the Mercey Brothers group. We spent one particularly memorable weekend at their home in Haliburton, Ontario where we enjoyed meals and a concert by Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame members the Good Brothers (Bruce, Brian and Larry). There wasn’t anyone in country music that didn’t know and admire Johnny Burke. He played with them all in a career dating back to about 1960 when he left his native New Brunswick and headed off to Nashville.
Through the late 1960s and early 1970s, Johnny lead the Caribou Showband and hosted the television series At The Caribou. Johnny and his band evolved into the still ever popular Johnny Burke and Eastwind. In 1977, they recorded Wild Honey, Johnny’s signature song which became a gold record and one of the most played country records in Canada through the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Well deserved recognition soon followed for Johnny and in 2005 he was inducted into the New Brunswick Country Music Hall of Fame. Ellen and I decided early on that we needed to be there to bear witness to our friend being inducted into a Hall of Fame so, we made the drive to Moncton where I was honoured to be part of the ceremony by presenting a tribute to Johnny on behalf of the Province of Ontario signed by then-Premier Dalton McGuinty. Johnny of course made the most of the trip by performing at some of the towns around Moncton and as I was there, he put me to work as a roadie. When we last saw Johnny and Teresa, just a short while ago, we were still chuckling about that ‘tour.’
In 2010, just days after Ellen and I attended a special concert marking Johnny’s 50th anniversary in country music, when I ended up in the hospital paralyzed by GBS, Johnny and Teresa were at my bedside to ensure I was okay and lend support to Ellen. When Johnny informed us in 2012 that he had received the call informing him that he was to be inducted into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Ellen and I again quickly decided that we needed to be there to witness that special honour as well.
Where Johnny was able to facilitate our attendance at his induction in New Brunswick fairly easily (I think), getting into the Canadian Hall of Fame induction ceremony was much more challenging. It is not a public event, rather it is closed to country music industry members only. It is a really big show. Somehow I was able to convince the Canadian Country Music Association that in addition to being a good friend of Johnny’s, I was a music consultant. My rationale was simple: Johnny and I had discussed his music, his songs. Therefore, he had consulted with me. It worked and so we made the drive to Saskatoon to join Johnny and become members of his posse.
Johnny experienced serious health problems over the last number of months of his life but he remained as popular as ever to his fans and admirers. Even when he was showing signs of serious illness, Johnny somehow was able to muster the strength and expend the stamina, beaming his trademark smile, to put on a show for hundreds who would come to hear him perform.
I will miss his phone calls early on each of my birthdays. I will miss that wry smile and wink he so freely shared. I will miss his attempts to teach me how to play the bass guitar (not as much as he won’t miss my frustration at not getting it!). But most of all, I will miss a very good friend and the world will miss a LEGEND!
Rest In Peace, Johnny.