New Brunswick

Johnny Burke, Canada's 'hidden gem' of country music, dies

Johnny Burke, a Canadian country musician who played with the likes of Glen Campbell and Loretta Lynn, has died.

From kitchen parties to a venue he built with his bare hands, he played music his whole life

Johnny Burke plays at his venue, the Loft, in Newcastle, Ont. (Submitted by Ian Hadden)

Johnny Burke, a Canadian country musician who played with the likes of Glen Campbell and Loretta Lynn, has died.

Born Jean Paul Bourque in Rosaireville, N.B., he went on to become a member of the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame and performed the gold-certified single "Wild Honey."

"He's one of the Canadian gems that tends to go unnoticed," Ian Hadden, a friend of Burke's, said Sunday. "He didn't do a lot of self promotion."

Burke was 77 and only weeks removed from his last string of concerts. He died Thursday evening of cancer. 

His sister, Louise Bourque, recalled one of these concerts, held earlier this year at Gary Hooper's Music Barn in Uxbridge, Ont. At the concert, he belted out his signature song to a packed house for one of the last times.

"He could always belt amazing songs," she said. "I didn't think he'd be able to sing, because already he'd been diagnosed with esophagus cancer. And he floored us, because he could still sing, and he did 'Wild Honey.'"

He coughed on occasion during the performance, but Bourque said her brother wasn't the type to let anything stand between him and the music and finished the song.

Small beginnings

Burke got his start performing at the family's Saturday night kitchen parties — a Maritime tradition where extended friends and family members bring their instruments to play in the host's home, his sister recalled.

"The cousins would come with violins, with guitars, with what have you," she said. "It was just what you did in Rosaireville, New Brunswick then."

Burke was one of 13 siblings that grew up in the country home. Rosaireville, about 25 kilometres from Miramichi, is now too small to be counted in the Canadian census.

Easter for the Bourque family in 1958 in Rosaireville, N.B. Johnny Burke is at the front on the left. (Submitted by Louise Bourque)

While all the Bourques would sing along at the parties, Johnny was given his first guitar when he was 14. Alongside his father's organ playing, his music became one of the instrumental staples of the party.

Leaving home

He left for Toronto as a teenager in the early 1960s, staying with an uncle while playing in various bands. He soon landed a gig in the house band for the Horseshoe Tavern, where he began to play alongside bigger names.

You want to impress an 18-year-old girl, bring her to see her brother playing alongside Glen Campbell on a Saturday night.- Louise Bourque

The rest of the family moved to Hamilton, Ont., in the late 1960s, and it was then it became apparent to them Johnny was making a name for himself.

"You want to impress an 18-year-old girl, bring her to see her brother playing alongside Glen Campbell on a Saturday night," Louise said.

Johnny Burke, born Jean Paul Bourque, stands with his parents, Rosimond, left, and Jeanne. (Submitted by Louise Bourque)

Throughout the 1970s, Burke played with his band, the Caribou Showband, which was later named Johnny Burke and the Eastwind, on a variety of TV shows.

They acted as the house band for CTV's Funny Farm in the late '70s and played both live and in studio for acts such as Loretta Lynn, Red Foley, Conway Twitty, Waylon Jennings and Glen Campbell.

Burke's biggest hit came in 1978 in the form of "Wild Honey," which won top country single at the Big Country Awards, Canada's country music awards at the time.

In 2005, he was inducted to the New Brunswick Country Music Hall of Fame and in 2012, the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame.

The Loft

Ian Hadden said in the 2000s, Burke, who he called a "hidden gem," could often be seen building the country music community, sometimes literally.

A carpenter in his spare time, Burke built a venue above his workshop in his Newcastle, Ont., home called The Loft.

He wasn't always trying to put the spotlight on himself ... that was part of the charm of Johnny Burke- Ian Hadden

Seating about 40 to 50 people, the venue was often packed for shows, Hadden said.

"He'd fill the place," he said. "People would pay $20 to attend, and that's where we got to hang out with a lot of Johnny's friends."

Johnny Burke was inducted into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame on Sept. 8, 2012. (Submitted by Ian Hadden)

And Burke would keep the audience coming back, time and time again, often playing their favourite songs. 

"One of the things he was gifted with in abundance was his ability to connect with his audience, and the people who were there to see him," Hadden said. 

"He wasn't always trying to put the spotlight on himself, even though it was, it wasn't something he pushed for. And that was part of the charm of Johnny Burke."


Ben Silcox


Ben Silcox is a writer and photographer based in Saint John.