Canada’s ‘hidden gem’ of country music, Johnny Burke, dies – New Brunswick

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, he didn’t do a lot of self promotion,” Ian Hadden, a friend of Burke’s said Sunday.

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 in July at a barn in Coburg, Ont. At the concert, he belted his signature song to a small audience 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 seen front 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,…

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