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The Life and Career of Henry Burr
Part I
Henry Burr

Henry Burr was incredibly popular as a solo artist and was also important as a member of various duos, trios, and quartets. He probably recorded more selections than any other singer of the acoustic era. Not surprisingly for one who recorded thousands of titles, the tenor was remarkably versatile. He was as deft with an upbeat tune such as "I Didn't Raise My Boy To Be A Soldier," sung with the Peerless Quartet (Columbia A1697), as with a sentimental favorite such as "In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree." He won fame for singing the latter type of material.

On January 15, 1882, he was born Harry Haley McClaskey in St. Stephen, New Brunswick, Canada. He was raised in a house at 10 Armstrong Street. In 1895, at age 13, he was known well enough as a boy tenor to be engaged for appearances with the St. John Artillery Band at the opening of the city’s annual Exposition. He attended Mt. Allison Academy at Sackville, New Brunswick. His father, Alfred McClaskey, was a candy and tobacco dealer.

His first important concert appearance was on April 14, 1901, when he appeared at the St. John Opera House with Scottish soprano Jessie Maclachlan.

On September 30, 1901, Metropolitan Opera baritone Giuseppe Campanari arrived in McClaskey’s part of Canada to perform at the St. John Opera House. Asked to listen to McClaskey’s beautiful voice, Campanari — who was later a recording artist for Victor, Columbia, and Edison — insisted that the young man go to New York for musical training. The singer quit working at his father’s business and traveled to New York for further voice instruction. While a student, McClaskey rose to tenor soloist with the Grace Methodist Episcopal Church choir. Promotional literature reprinted in Ronald Dethlefson’s Edison Blue Amberol Recordings 1912-1914 states that the singer (called Irving Gillette on Edison records) "toured Canada in Scotch repertoire. For the last ten years [he] has been tenor soloist at the Church of the Incarnation, New York."

Henry studied with noted teacher John Dennis Meehan (sometimes spelled Mehan) and later Miss Ellen Burr. He adopted the latter's name in tribute when he began making records for Columbia.

Burr began his recording career with Columbia in 1902 or 1903. At this time Columbia did massive re-recording to take advantage of improved technology. Some Columbia discs bearing Burr’s name have master numbers suggesting that they were made in 1901, but the Burr performances were remakes of numbers originally sung in 1901 by others. Tim Brooks reports that the earliest master that seems to be originally by Burr is 1351, "My Dreams," from mid-1903. In 1903 he recorded a song associated with Lillian Russell on the stage, "Come Down Ma Evening Star" (Columbia disc 1405 and cylinder 32174; Mina Hickman had earlier recorded this for Columbia disc 955), and he cut Neil Moret’s popular "Hiawatha" (disc 1406; cylinder 32175). Another successful early Columbia disc was "The Holy City" (60). Harry Macdonough is on the earliest pressings of "The Holy City," Albert Campbell on some later pressings, and Burr on still later pressings though the Burr recording was made early enough to feature a spoken announcement (J.W. Myers also recorded "The Holy City" for the company but this version was issued as Columbia 149).

None of his Victor discs open with spoken announcements since by mid-1903 — long before Burr’s debut with the company — Victor had discontinued the practice of opening performances with announcements, but Columbia used announcements for a longer period, and Columbia discs made early enough to feature Burr’s own spoken announcements include "Old Folks At Home" (174), "Ben Bolt" (208), "Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder" (221), "My Old Kentucky Home" (320), "For All Eternity" (846), and "Silver Threads Among the Gold" (1810).

His earliest record for Edison’s National Phonograph Company was Standard 8827, issued in November 1904. The Edison company consistently used the pseudonym Irving Gillette for the tenor, and some other companies used this name at times, including Columbia and Rex. The October 1904 issue of Edison Phonograph Monthly states, "'Shine On, Oh Stars' is a ballad of the higher order in which Irving Gillette makes his bow to the Phonograph public. Mr. Gillette has a cultivated voice of a fine tenor quality as all who hear this Record will admit." At this time Edison also issued Irving Gillette on Standard 8853, "The Star of Bethlehem."

For the next few years the Edison company issued Gillette cylinders regularly. Although he became increasingly popular, he worked less often for the company by the time the company marketed Diamond Disc and Blue Amberol products. As a solo artist, Burr was issued on only one Diamond Disc: "Sing Me The Rosary" (80132). The team of Campbell and Gillette was issued on several Blue Amberols but not on Diamond Discs. After a disagreement with Edison executives, Burr never sang for that firm again. The final Gillette recording for Edison was "When The Angelus is Ringing" (Blue Amberol 2428), issued in October 1914. At this time the final Campbell and Gillette duet on Blue Amberol was issued: Fisher’s "When It’s Moonlight on the Alamo" (2422).

His first Victor session was on January 4, 1905, and two performances from that session were issued in March: "Loch Lomond" (single-sided 4240, later issued on double-sided 16062 — Burr redid this for Victor in early 1919) and "Daddy" (single-sided 4239; Burr redid it on February 24, 1909 and this was issued on double-sided 16314). His next Victor session was four months later, on April 7, and especially popular from this session was Van Alstyne's "In The Shade Of The Old Apple Tree" (single-sided 4338; Burr redid it for Victor on June 5, 1908 — decades later one of the Victor takes was issued on Montgomery Ward #M-8128 and falsely labeled "electrically recorded"). Months earlier, Burr had recorded this for Edison, and Standard 8958, issued in April 1905, was a popular cylinder.

Victor valued Burr in early sessions for singing airs of Scotland. In the three Victor sessions of 1905, he recorded, along with "Loch Lomond," the songs "Ye Banks and Braes o’Bonnie Doon" (4426), "John Anderson, My Jo" (4557), and "Scots, Wha’ Hae’ wi’ Wallace Bled" (4558).

Burr appeared on virtually all American labels of the acoustic era, including the early disc labels Talk-o-phone, Imperial, Busy Bee, and American. The July 1906 Zon-o-phone catalog shows Burr singing "Please Come and Play in My Yard" (21) and the popular "Teasing" (24). As a solo artist he made a couple of dozen U.S. Everlasting cylinders. He cut duets for that company with not only Albert Campbell but John H. Meyer, who used the pseudonym John Wilbur.

Burr was a successful recording artist from the onset, becoming especially important to Columbia around the time that the career of a once-prolific tenor — George J. Gaskin — was in rapid decline. Burr served Columbia in the early years of the century much as Harry Macdonough served Victor. Both were tenors whose performances of ballads such as "Absence Makes the Heart Grow Stronger" sold well, as did their records of hymns. In 1905 the Talking Machine News, a trade journal published in London, praised one of Burr's gospel hymns and added, "We count Mr. Burr one of the foremost recorders of today."

He was a member, with Frank C. Stanley and Elise Stevenson, of the Metropolitan Trio and the Manhattan Mixed Trio.

Around 1903 Burr replaced second tenor James K. Reynard in the Columbia Quartet, which then also consisted of first tenor Albert Campbell, baritone Joe Belmont, and bass Joe Majors. Belmont and Majors left around the time Reynard did, so for a few years after 1903 the quartet was Campbell, Burr, baritone Steve Porter, and bass Frank C. Stanley. In late 1906 the quartet began recording for other companies in addition to Columbia, and called itself the Peerless Quartet, which became probably the most successful vocal group of the acoustic era, with only the American Quartet rivaling at times the Peerless in popularity. Until his sudden death of pneumonia in late 1910, bass Frank C. Stanley managed the Peerless Quartet. Burr then managed the group.

For several years after Stanley's death the Peerless consisted of Albert Campbell, Henry Burr, Arthur Collins (who replaced Porter in 1909 when that baritone joined the American Quartet), and John H. Meyer(Stanley’s replacement). Campbell reported to Jim Walsh that Collins finally left (probably in early 1919) because the baritone and Burr could no longer get along. Collins sometimes sang lead on Peerless recordings, which added variety to the quartet’s records, but after Collins left, Burr sang lead on nearly all Peerless recordings. Frank Croxton joined the Peerless soon after Collins’ departure, taking the bass part. John H. Meyer, who had been singing bass, assumed the baritone part. The American Quartet had been going through changes in personnel around this time, and from 1920 onwards the Peerless and American quartets were identical aside from second tenor Burr in the Peerless and second tenor Billy Murray in the American.

When the Peerless members worked as a minstrel troupe on records Burr played a stuttering minstrel and was addressed by the other performers as "Harry," his real first name. Labels did not actually use the Peerless name but the four quartet members made many minstrel records, especially from 1908 to 1913. Typical examples are "Virginia Minstrels" on Victor 35095, "North Carolina Minstrels" on Victor 35307, and "Missouri Minstrels" on Victor 35321.

From around 1906 to 1910, Burr cut many duets with Stanley, who had earlier used tenor Byron G. Harlan as a recording partner — presumably the success of Collins and Harlan brought an end to pairings of Harlan and Stanley. In the 1909-1910 period, Edison issued a new Stanley and Gillette duet almost every month. Stanley’s death in late 1910 led to Burr joining, for a few years, baritone Edgar Stoddard, who was really Andrea Sarto, for Columbia recordings. One successful recording was "There’s a Girl in the Heart of Maryland" (Columbia A1360; 1913).

After Stanley's death, Burr also began working regularly with fellow tenor Campbell, and the team of Campbell and Burr enjoyed a popularity matched by few other duos of the acoustic era (years earlier they had cut a duet—"While the Old Mill Wheel Is Turning" was issued on Columbia 3453 in October 1906). Notable performances include "Take Me To Roseland, My Beautiful Rose" (Victor 17339), "Piney Ridge" (Columbia A1827), "Always Take A Girl Named Daisy" (Victor 17438), "Carry Me Back To My Carolina Home" (Victor 18975), "Those Days Are Over" (Victor 18877), "Angel Child" (Victor 18903), and "At The End Of The Road" (Victor 19530). The final Campbell-Burr duet recording appears to be "I Need Thee Every Hour," recorded in the early months of electric recording, probably on July 2, 1925 (Burr and Campbell were in Victor's Camden studio on this day as members of the Peerless Quartet and Sterling Trio). The new take of "I Need Thee Every Hour" was issued on Victor 19884, replacing their old take of the Lowry hymn on Victor 16255.

Campbell and Burr normally recorded sentimental numbers. Unusual for the duo was "Theda Bara, I'll Keep Away From You," issued on Pathé 20021 in late 1916. They were the only artists to record this song about the silent film star, who became famous as a "vamp" in the 1915 motion picture A Fool There Was.

Burr recorded duets with many other artists such as Elise Stevenson, Ada Jones, Helen Clark, Marcia Freer, Frank Croxton and John H. Meyer. Despite a long association, Burr recorded with Billy Murray only one duet issued in the United States: "I Wonder Where My Baby Is Tonight?" It was recorded on December 12, 1925. The label of Victar 19864 calls the performance a "duet with piano" but adds that Burr and Murray are "assisted" by tenor Carl Mathieu (the reverse side features the tenor who was quickly eclipsing Murray and Burr in popularity — Gene Austin). In 1919, during a Canadian tour, Burr and Murray harmonized beautifully in a studio on "They're All Sweeties," issued only on Canadian Victor 216068.

On November 18, 1913, Campbell and Burr joined Will Oakland to record the successful "I’m On My Way To Mandalay" (Victor 17503). On June 24, 1914,the tenors cut an additional three titles for Victor. Labels identify the trio as "Oakland-Campbell-Burr."

The popular Sterling Trio, consisting of Meyer, Campbell and Burr, recorded for many labels from 1916 to mid-1920, then exclusively for Victor from late 1920 to 1925. The trio’s final Victor disc was issued in October, 1925: "Down Deep in an Irishman’s Heart" (19749). It was backed by Burr singing "Sweet Little Mother of Mine." When Burr, as manager of the Peerless Quartet, dropped Campbell and Meyer in the fall of 1925,the latter two singers took the name The Sterling Trio and made recordings for Gennett in 1926, using another tenor instead of Burr. The new Peerless Quartet consisted of first tenor Carl Mathieu (1894-1973), second tenor Burr, baritone James Stanley (1881-1963), and bass Stanley Baughman (1892-1963). This was the Quartet featured with the Eight Popular Victor Artists that toured from 1926 until it disbanded around 1928.

In 1910 the Columbia Phonograph Company issued a ten inch demonstration disc ("This Record is NOT For Sale") that emphasized the superior tone quality of Columbia double-sided discs. One side featured the Columbia Male Quartette singing Geibel's "Kentucky Babe" with Burr as second tenor, and Frank C. Stanley spoke on the other side, praising the quality of Columbia "double-disc" records. In 1913, the newly named Columbia Graphophone Company issued a second demonstration record, and this is among the most common discs featuring Burr. One side featured solo artist Henry Burr singing J.C. Macey’s "Good Night, Little Girl, Good Night," the reverse side featuring an unidentified man giving a briefer version of Stanley’s 1910 talk. He states about the Burr performance, "The other side of this sample Columbia record affords the best possible evidence of the quality of Columbia recordings." The 1913 promotional item was priced at 25 cents.

Burr was issued on many small diameter discs of the World War I period. Although seven inch discs had been common when discs were first marketed, they had been phased out by 1906, with the ten inch disc becoming standard for popular music. The Little Wonder Record Co. of New York, founded by Henry Waterson (of the music publishing firm Waterson, Berlin & Snyder), introduced single-sided 5 1/2 inch discs in October 1914. They sold for ten cents. The first Little Wonder featured Henry Burr singing the 1848 song "Ben Bolt." He had recorded this over a decade earlier as a Columbia artist, with that early recording featuring piano accompaniment. On the Little Wonder disc, Burr is backed by an orchestra. Little Wonder discs were pressed by Columbia but they are not Columbia dubbings — songs were recorded specially for Little Wonder release.

Victor most often used the name Henry Burr for the tenor but sometimes identified him as Harry McClaskey. Columbia used the name Burr most often but also used the names Irving Gillette (usually for duets with female singers, including Ada Jones, Helen Clark, and Frances Fisher) and Harry McClaskey (not surprisingly, this was used for some songs with Irish themes, such as "The Lament of the Irish Emigrant" and "What an Irishman Means by 'Machree'"). Most companies issued the tenor as Burr but Allan Sutton’s A Guide to Pseudonyms on American Records, 1892-1942 (Greenwood Press, 1993) indicates that other names used were Henry Gillette (Crescent), Alfred Alexander (Pathé), Shamus McClaskey (Emerson), Robert Rice (Emerson) Harry Barr (Harmony), Frank Knapp (Harmony), Harry Haley (Banner and Cameo — "Haley" was the tenor’s middle name), and Al King (Oriole).