THE CAREER OF TOM BURKE
Tom Burke, born of Irish extraction at Leigh, Lancashire (on 2nd March 1890) acquired the sobriquet of “The Lancashire Caruso”, and with good reason, for he was, while still in his twenties, partnering Melba at Covent Garden and performing before audiences which on one occasion at least included King George V.
But a career of the greatest promise gradually descended to virtually nothing; womanizer, charlatan and in general a fellow who didn’t give a damn, Tom Burke sank lower and lower. After all, if the King of England calls backstage to compliment you, it’s hardly a good idea to say to his aide “Tell the old bugger he can wait”.
The name Tom Burke was the one he preferred to the slightly more dignified Thomas Burke, which had been used by Columbia on some early acoustic records. “Tom Burke” as a name is short, direct and incisive, and for part of his career it was exactly appropriate. But to use a shortened version of one’s name suggests, even if only to a small degree, the possession of a rebellious streak – and that, as we know, was not altogether an asset for Burke in his career. His work was divided into two periods: the first one from 1919 to 1929, was filled with success and confidence. The second, which lasted far longer than the first, was one of waste and imagined martyrdom.
Burke, endowed with a powerful voice, rich in timbre, capable of great sensitivity of expression, was perhaps his own worst enemy: he parted company from his wife of his early years, the lovely Marie Burke, after a short while. Burke remained vigorous, lively and lusty almost until the end. When Giovanni Martinelli, towards the end of his life and on a lecture tour of Britain, was reunited with Tom Burke it is alleged – according to the testimony of the veteran recording engineer John Hassall, who was a personal friend of Burke and responsible almost single handedly for keeping his name alive during the 1960s and 1970s – that the irrepressible Tom hailed Martinelli with “Giovanni, you’re singing like a ******* nannygoat: but then you always did”. Nothing, it would seem, could put Tom Burke down.
Burke’s background had been a humble one: he was born in a small terraced house. He was brought up in what was and still is a mining community, and for a short period Burke did in fact work as a miner. He soon found other ways to earn his living, however, including helping out and singing in pubs. A modest beginning to any career to be sure, but many of his contemporaries started out on seaside piers and cafes: Campoli, Barbirolli and Sammons all did this kind of work and were not ashamed of it. Gradually Burke’s voice was recognized as being something quite special, and by a fairly wide range of people; fortunately for Tom, some of these were not only intelligent but also influential.
In his early twenties, just before the Great War, he was engaged to sing at Ballad Concerts in London. These were big business for the music publishers and, ten years earlier, McCormack had done the same kind of work. The main idea behind these functions was to stimulate the sale of sheet music, but it also gave younger singers a daily opportunity to conquer any nervousness. Burke was also at this time placed under the tuition of a noted singing coach Sgr. Levi and, in May 1914 Levi arranged to have Caruso hear Burke singing. The great man was impressed, and advised Tom to go to Italy for further operatic training. Burke always said that Caruso stated to him, having heard him sing, “One day, you will wear my mantle!” Burke had heard Caruso in Blackpool on 29th August 1909 when the latter was on an extended British tour and had worshipped him ever since. He therefore treated this advise as sacrosanct and so started to exert pressure on his agent, a Mr Gorelitz, to send him to Italy. Tom Burke’s persuasiveness was considerable and he was successful in being able to raise sufficient money not only to get married to the beautiful Marie (their daughter is Patricia Burke) but also to go to Italy for further training.
He worked hard to master both his art and the Italian language, and succeeded. He obtained engagements in local opera houses and learned many roles. A quick study (probably because he had broadly-based musical experience, having as a lad played cornet in a local band and even won medals for doing so) young Tom was by no means a repetiteur’s nightmare; when Gigli at short notice pulled out of the premiere of Mascagni’s Lodoletta, Burke was required to learn the principal tenor part. He did so, and thus became the creator of the role of Flammen. He was on this occasion partnered by the soprano Toti dal Monte. An even greater name was soon to surface: Dame Nellie Melba. She heard Burke sing the Duke in Rigoletto in 1918, and wrote magisterially to Covent Garden to say that he would sing there with her the following year, with Beecham conducting.
On Monday the 12th May 1919, her plans became reality. Burke was a qualified success with the critics who, as was customary, avoided enthusiasm, perhaps in the hope that some people might construe this decorous behavior as evidence of superior knowledge. The audience however loved him and Columbia rushed in with a record contract which resulted in fourteen single-sided records being issued very quickly, of which five were ballads and nine operatic excerpts. They sold well, and still turn up today.
In the following weeks he shared concert platforms with Melba and de Pachmann. He was heard and coached by Puccini who said to the Covent Garden management “Let him do Il Trittico as well as Manon Lescaut. It is well established that Marie Burke heard Puccini say of her husband’s performance in the latter work “I have never heard my music more beautifully sung.” Burke had arrived. In the next Covent Garden season he sang in Les pêcheurs de perles with Graziella Pareto; the love duet must have been wonderful. Melba then invited him to join her touring opera company but he declined the invitation, for his sights were already set on America.
Things at this point started to go wrong for Tom Burke, for the manager in charge of his American tour billed him as the World’s Greatest Irish Tenor. It was of course true that Tom’s parents were Irish but, in view of the great popularity of John McCormack, the attempted ‘hype’ was unfortunate to say the least. At Burke’s first concert dozens of McCormack fans turned up, determined to give this parvenu a good lesson, and so they ruined the evening and Tom’s nervous system. But Marie, his wife was with him on the tour and being ‘in work’ was able to earn enough to see them through a very troublesome twelve months.
But the resilient Tom Burke soon bounced back: he was singing with Mary Garden at Chicago, swapping roles with Schipa, Bonci and Hislop. His colleagues included Raisa, dal Monte, Ruffo, Kipnis and Stracciari. Burke at this time made records for American Columbia. Some of these are reproduced here, and feature Irish songs. They reveal that Tom Burke, if not the greatest Irish Tenor, was at the very least a wonderfully sensitive singer of Irish songs. His career now prospered; he sang in lavish Gilbert and Sullivan productions and toured in concerts all over North America, receiving higher fees than Sir Harry Lauder or John McCormack, both of whom were also touring at the same time.
He became embroiled in American high society, and Marie could not persuade him to return to England, where she now lived with their daughter Patricia; eventually she divorced Tom. Burke remained a top attraction for the next four years and it is difficult to know why he made so few records in this period.
In 1927 he was asked to return to Britain for a concert tour and on 1st May of that year sang in a double bill concert with the distinguished Welsh alto Leila Megane. The critics present included Ernest Newman, who was no lover of tenors – apart from Ansseau; praise from this source was always hard-earned, so Tom Burke must have sung well. Other critics were even more generous. He returned to Covent Garden to deputize for Borgioli, appearing on 6th June as the Duke in Rigoletto with Ivogun, Stabile and Kipnis. He then went on to appear in opera in Paris, Berlin and Vienna – but not before he had made his electrical Columbia recordings, all of which are worthy of a place on any collectors shelf. The ballads are delivered with good taste, the enunciation very clear, the technique a model of perfection and the voice itself alternating between fine and honey. I know of no other tenor who could have gentled along “O vision entrancing” in such a dainty manner, and then roared “Nessun dorma” with such energy and passion. The climax of “My dreams” is one of the great moments in the history of the gramophone.
The potential of Tom Burke at this time was such that if he had been able to hold everything together posterity would have ranked him – along with Tauber, Martinelli, Gigli, Schipa and Lauri-Volpi – as one of the really great tenors of the twentieth century (not forgetting, of course the incomparable Caruso). If Burke had had even half of his hero’s integrity it would have been enough to see him through. But he frequently failed to turn up for concerts, and was thus dropped by agents. Worst of all, his American investments collapsed in the Wall Street crash and he lost over £100,000 which was of course a colossal sum in those days. He became despondent, took to drink, spent a lot of time indulging in a social life which he could no longer afford; by 1932 he was bankrupt.
Burke wrote articles for the press to make some money, and he became very preoccupied with his bad luck. He was offered work but refused it, continuing to moan that British singers didn’t get work because of their ‘ordinary’ names. But Nash, Baillie, Turner, Rsdford, Williams and Mullings were all busy enough. Tom Burke was down, and he never really got up; he was only 42.
During the 1930’s he recorded for minor companies and some of this output is very good. The voice had darkened to heroic tenor, and he would have made a world-ranking Rhadames or Otello; instead, he appeared with an amateur company at Morecambe, Lancashire, in a production of Gipsy Love. He starred also in three films (all aimed at the Irish market) in which he sang very well, and a truncated Carman, which includes a beautiful ‘flower song’ and a rousing, Zenatello-like final scene. There was little else. He worked with ENSA during the war, and taught when he could.
Lord Harewood recalled hearing Tom Burke sing in the late 1950s, when he was nearly 70, and stated that he had never heard a sound like it. There is a recording of “O primavera” made at about this time, and the richness and the volume of voice to be heard in it are amazing. But Tom continued to idle his time away. He remained as he always had been very good company, but achieved little after he was 42. He died on 13th September 1969, almost forgotten by the operatic world (apart from a few record collectors.) But he was comforted to the end by his devoted daughter by his second marriage Jennifer, and a few friends.
A potentially great career was thrown away because of a fatal flaw in character. His best records, however, represent tenor singing at its finest, by any standards, and we must be grateful that we have them. He did what he could; who knows what he must have suffered in those thirty years of oblivion.
Thanks, Tom – at your best you really were “The Minstrel Boy”
This is taken from the notes of the following CD