Reginald W. ‘Sonny’ Burke, Smokey Robinson’s longtime pianist, arranger, dead at 76
The Motown legend said, “Sonny was one of the greatest musicians, I’m sure, to ever live.”
In the 1970s, Chicago keyboardist Sonny Burke headed to California for a few days of recording sessions with the Jackson Five.
But the bookings kept coming. They never stopped.
“I was flown from Chicago to Los Angeles on the 13th of January, 1974, to play on the Jackson Five ‘Dancing Machine’ album,” he once said. “It was initially a three-day gig that became a 30-year-career.”
“Sonny was so much in demand, he would have two or three different studios and two or three different sessions a day,” said Motown legend Smokey Robinson, for whom Mr. Burke worked as a pianist, arranger and conductor. “Sonny was one of the greatest musicians, I’m sure, to ever live.
“You could put a piece of music in front of him, a score written by Bach or Beethoven, something he’d never seen before, and immediately he could play it,” Robinson said. “He was brilliant.”
Mr. Burke worked on so many records and projects that he couldn’t always remember the source of the money when he received royalties.
“He was booked two or three weeks in advance,” said Motown producer-arranger Mark Davis, who first invited Mr. Burke to Los Angeles. “Every time he got home, the red light on his phone would be on, and there’d be messages, ‘Are you available for a session?’ ”
He co-produced Robinson’s “Touch the Sky” LP and arranged his 1982 hit “Cruisin.’ He co-wrote “Serpentine Fire” with Verdine White and Maurice White of Earth Wind & Fire.
“Sonny was a fantastic musician, leader, musical director, songwriter,” Verdine White said. “Most of all, he was a great person.”
Mr. Burke also worked with Anita Baker, Natalie Cole, Lamont Dozier, Sheena Easton, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, the 5th Dimension, Dizzy Gillespie, Donny Hathaway, Thelma Houston, Quincy Jones, B.B. King, Johnny Mathis, Curtis Mayfield, The Pointer Sisters, Billy Preston, Lionel Richie, Kenny Rogers, Phoebe Snow, Dusty Springfield, Barbra Streisand, the Temptations, Nancy Wilson and Bill Withers.
“Bill Withers said, ‘You can’t be in Los Angeles without a car’ — and he gave him the money for a car,” his brother Kirkland R. Burke said.
Mr. Burke, 76, died of heart failure July 5 at South Suburban Hospital in Hazel Crest, according to his brother, who is a former Midwest regional promotion and marketing manager for Warner Bros. Records.
Mr. Burke did keyboards on the soundtrack for “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” For “Saturday Night Fever,” he played piano on Yvonne Elliman’s “If I Can’t Have You” and Tavares’ version of “More than a Woman.”
He performed on the theme songs for “The Bob Newhart Show” and “St. Elsewhere.” And the melancholy “doo-doo-doo” chords of the “Hill Street Blues” song were plinked by him, too, according to Davis.
When Kirkland Burke visited in Los Angeles, his brother asked him to hand out music arrangements to some people who’d be dropping by.
“I opened the door, and there was Mr. Smokey Robinson,” he said.
The second time the doorbell rang, it was Nancy Sinatra and her entourage.
When Robinson attended Mr. Burke’s July 15 funeral at Chicago’s Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church, he said he once told him: “ ‘Hey, man, you got two bodies because the left side of your body has no idea what the right side is doing’ — because his hands would be moving so fast.”
Mr. Burke “always had great advice” for the young musicians he mentored, according to Ray Parker Jr., who wrote the theme to the 1984 film “Ghostbusters.” In 1978, after having a hit with “Jack and Jill,” Parker said he told him, “Sonny, I’m doing pretty good.”
But Parker said he reassessed his success when Mr. Burke asked him: “Are your parents still working?”
“He was in that ‘Group A’ of piano players — Herbie Hancock, Clarence McDonald,” Parker said.
“He was irreplaceable,” said Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Jerry “The Iceman” Butler. “We used to do a 12-song set, and he would play all 12 from memory.”
Mr. Burke was 5 years old when he started taking piano lessons at the Grace Daly School of Fine Arts.
“He could just read music like reading a newspaper,” his brother said.
Their mother Johnnie Irene Savage Burke, a native of Mobile, Alabama, worked in food service at Walgreen’s. Their father Alonzo Burke, from Charlottesville, Virginia, worked as a chef.
The family attended Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church. At 6, even though young Sonny had never played the church organ, “He just walked up, took one look at it and asked to play,” his brother said.
The family lived in Wentworth Gardens at 38th and Wells. In the mid-1950s, they moved to 60th and Bishop. Sonny Burke finished eighth grade at Beale School and graduated in 1963 from Tilden Technical High School.
The Burke brothers played bugle with the Giles Yellow Jackets of George L. Giles American Legion Post 87, which bills itself as the nation’s first competitive Black drum-and-bugle corps.
“It was a big deal on the South Side if you were in the Yellow Jackets — nobody bothered you,” Kirkland Burke said.
Mr. Burke was just 16 when he tried out a Hammond B3 at a Lyon & Healy store and decided to order it.
“Keep in mind,” his brother said, “he had no job.”
When the delivery truck showed up at the house, their father got on the phone to Lyon & Healy, demanding: “I want to know who sold a 16-year-old kid a $4,000 organ.”
But, after a parental huddle, the Burkes decided their son was serious about his craft and kept the organ.
After high school, Mr. Burke started playing with the Frank Bell Trio at clubs including the Hungry Eye and the Plugged Nickel. Those gigs earned the underage musician his nickname “Sonny.”
Mr. Burke got his bachelor’s degree in composition and arranging from the American Conservatory of Music.
The Burke brothers enlisted in the Navy, serving together for a time on the USS Putnam. In 1968, Sonny Burke and other sailors on the USS Bache were saved by Greek rescuers when their destroyer ran aground near the island of Rhodes.
“The life raft he was in capsized, and they were pinned underneath,” Kirkland Burke said. “The townspeople…swam out to help lift the life raft up to enable them to escape.”
In 2004, Mr. Burke returned to Chicago to help his brother care for their mother.
He retired from working with Robinson in 2014.
Kirkland Burke said his big brother always let him tag along. In the funeral program, he wrote a tribute:
“Growing up, you happily took me everywhere.
“I wanted to be like you and with you.
“Whenever we crossed the street, you held my hand.
“You took my hand, showed me how to play the piano,
“Catch a ball, and hold a baseball bat.
“You took care of me.
“When the time came, I’m thankful to God I was able to care for you
and hold your hand as you crossed over.”