Johnny Burke remembered for music, carpentry and kind spirit
By Jenn Watt
Published Sept. 25, 2017
Canadian country music lost one of its greats with the death of Johnny Burke, 77, on Thursday.
The Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame member was a staple in Haliburton County, where he has lived since 2007, often bringing his energetic twang to the local audience at area events.
Burke was diagnosed with cancer in August of 2016, but continued to play music.
In an interview with the Echo in February, he said he was taking life one day at a time, and credited his family, community, and wife Teresa for helping him through.
Through a friend of the family, Pat Barry, Teresa shared her early memories of Burke.
“I started listening to Johnny sing on CFGM when I was 13 and have loved his voice all these years,” Teresa wrote. “When I was in my 20s I began to go see him perform live for 12 years, but never spoke to him. In 1989, we met at a friend’s wedding and that evening changed everything for me.”
Pat and her husband Jeff Barry were friends with Burke for many years.
“His warm, sincere personality helped him through his life as an entertainer and fine carpenter,” she wrote. “Coming from the simple life in rural New Brunswick, Johnny never forgot those in his past. I recall him telling us one time that you could tell the rich kids in school as they had bologna sandwiches, unlike himself, who had to settle for lobster.”
Burke was born Jean Paul Bourque in Rosaireville, NB, the second eldest of 13 children to parents Jane and Rosimond.
He left home in 1957, moving to Toronto, where he “worked at everything, from a bakery to a hat factory, anything to make a living,” he told the Echo in an interview in 2012.
Burke entered the country music scene in the 1960s. According to his website, his first group was called Johnny and the Bees. “He then landed a gig at the famous Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto and for the next four years backed name artists such as Lefty Frizzell, Tex Ritter, Loretta Lynn, Red Foley, Charley Pride, Stringbean, Dottie West, Mel Tillis, Conway Twitty, Waylon Jennings, Glen Campbell, Bobby Bare and Carl Smith,” the website says.
In the late 1960s, he started working on television, hosting the syndicated show At the Caribou with the Caribou Showband for seven years. The band changed its name to Eastwind and went on to become the house band for The Funny Farm on CTV.
He had three children in his first marriage, and later met and fell in love with Teresa.
Barry said Johnny and Teresa were deeply in love, calling their commitment to each other “legendary.”
“They adored each other and it showed to all who knew them. During these last months of Johnny’s life, Teresa has made it possible for Johnny to visit with as many people as possible. He continued to extend his warm smile and his sense of humour never suffered.”
Over the years, Burke put out 14 albums and in 2012 was inducted into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame.
A lesser known passion of the musician, however, was his love of carpentry.
“Many folks treasure the furniture he created for them,” Barry said. “He was thrilled to do renovations for you and always came up with some clever ways to solve construction problems.”
“He built a wonderful home here in Haliburton that included a great room where about 70 folks could be entertained by him and the many guest artists he brought to his home,” she said.
Although he was dealing with health problems, Burke continued to perform throughout the last year with a robust schedule detailed on his website including shows in Alberta, Quebec, New Brunswick and Ontario - including Haliburton.
“Over the past six months especially, Johnny's enthusiasm to sing has been so amazing. In spite of all his health challenges, he seemed to rise above it all and sing like he's never sang before. He entertained in many churches throughout Ontario with the support sometimes of his Eastwind band or other dear country entertainers like Harold MacIntyre, Joey Howe and Paul Weber,” she said.
“Since his passing the internet is overflowing with wonderful tributes to this country gentleman. All who knew him understand the sad loss of losing a well deserved member of the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame.”
Visitation will be held at the Best Western Cobourg Inn and Conference Centre in Cobourg on Oct. 5 from 4 to 8 p.m.
With files from Angelica Ingram