When guitarist Michael Burks died in May 2012, the blues lost a rare thing for the genre — a still-rising star. Burks, who grew up in Camden, had released only five albums. And at age 54 — still youthful in the blues world — Burks seemed poised for ever-bigger things. Now, six years after Burks’ death, the Central Arkansas Library System’s “Arkansas Sounds” project will pay tribute to the bluesman on Friday, July 27, at CALS’ Ron Robinson Theater.
A truly beloved figure in the blues world, Burks was nicknamed “Iron Man” for his marathon concerts. “Michael Burks was bigger than life,” Deb Finney, host of Friday afternoon’s “Blues House Party” radio show on KABF-FM, 88.3, and emcee for Friday’s tribute, said. “His performances are legendary. Nonstop playing and full force. It wasn’t uncommon for him to play three or four hours without a break.”
Arkansas Sounds music coordinator John Miller called Burks, the son and grandson of blues musicians, an “heir apparent” in the blues world. Excepting perhaps Luther Allison, Miller said, “Michael made the biggest worldwide impact of any modern Arkansas blues artist.” This concert “came together as a celebration of his July 30th birthday, which would have been his 61st,” Miller said, “and as a way to keep his blues flame burning bright.”
Finney said Burks’ “impact on the blues community was different than a lot of other artists.” What set Burks apart? “People were drawn to Michael, and he took time to get to know them. Many of his fans all over the world became his friends,” she said. In fact, Josh Parks — the vocalist/guitarist performing Burks’ music at the tribute concert — was mentored by Burks.
Because of Burks’ outsized personality and real connection with his fans, this tribute isn’t simply a star-studded jam, but an event that will include recollections of the man by family, fans and friends — all one and the same to Burks. One of Finney’s own Burks anecdotes comes from a Thanksgiving dinner where Finney was asked to bring dessert. She brought two chocolate pecan pies to the Burks home. “He took them from me and put them on top of the refrigerator,” Finney said, saying, “Shhh.” He never put them out for dinner, but kept both pies for himself. “I was a fan,” Finney told us, “but what meant more to me was that he was my friend. Losing Michael left a big hole in my heart.”
Burks was born May 6, 1957, in Milwaukee, Wis., and, family lore has it, was playing guitar by age 5. The family moved to Ouachita County in South Arkansas in the early 1970s, and Michael’s dad opened a club called the Bradley Ferry Country Club on Bradley Ferry Road in Camden. Burks noted in a 2010 interview with the UK’s Earlyblues.com that it was the third blues venue the family had had — “the biggest and the best club we owned.” Four nights a week, every week, Burks led the house band, which opened for — and often backed — the club’s touring blues headliners. According to Burks, the band played funk, R&B, blues, “everything that was on the jukebox.”
Through the mid-1990s, Burks’ buzz grew in the blues festival circuit and beyond as word spread about this newcomer with the brash Albert King-influenced guitar style. Burks recorded his 1997 debut album, the independently released “From The Inside Out,” at keyboardist Stuart Baer’s home studio on Rock Street in downtown Little Rock. “Living Blues” magazine cited it among the year’s best debuts; “Blues Access” called it “the most impressive [independent release] in recent memory.”
Burks issued four more albums on Chicago’s vaunted Alligator Records. The last, “Show of Strength,” was completed just before his May 6, 2012, death. Burks collapsed at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport upon returning stateside from a European tour. He had been scheduled to play Stickyz Rock ‘n’ Roll Chicken Shack in downtown Little Rock a few weeks later.
In 2016, “I’m A Bluesman,” a “lost” Burks album recorded in 1998 and co-produced by longtime Burks compatriot and former manager/booking agent Wightman Harris, was released. The session tapes had spent nearly 20 years in Harris’ closet before their revival. Harris said he’s “thrilled” about the tribute. Burks “was known worldwide for his eagerness to greet his legions of fans after his shows,” he said. “We were all fortunate to play a part in the making of this great bluesman.”
Harris joins panelists Bobbie Burks (Michael Burks’ widow), Lance Womack, Baer and Parks for a discussion of Burks’ legacy at Friday’s event. Finney will moderate. After the discussion, members of the Michael Burks Project — Womack, Baer, Parks and Heather Crosse on bass — will perform works from Burks’ repertoire.
While bittersweet to the blues fans around the world, a gathering with Burks stories told by those who loved him followed by a blues jam seems a wholly appropriate tribute for this Iron Man, who to his fans and friends was really a softie underneath.
The Michael Burks Tribute takes place at CALS Ron Robinson Theater at 7 p.m. Friday, July 27. Tickets are $10. See arkansassounds.org for tickets.