Michael Burks:
A Blues Legend In The Making

Photo by Scott Saltzman, couresty of Alligator Records

by Pamela L. Dow (Sept 2002)

After listening to Michael Burks debut release Make It Rain, with his new label Alligator Records, I needed a minute to catch my breath. He kicks off this CD like a bolt of lightning with his powerful rendition of the opening number, "Hit The Ground Running." The following 11 tracks, produce an ax attack of high voltage energy as well as a soulful expression of pure emotion. Michael Burks doesn't just play the blues, he is the blues- a true legend in the making. He's well on his way down the path of stardom, already paved by such legends as Albert King, Freddie King, B.B. King and Albert Collins. Moments were heard, sounding faintly familiar to those from these popular blues icons. No surprise, considering these same artists were Michael's mentors- their music, the inspiration and catalyst from which he learned to play.

Michael Burks was destined to become a blues legend from the day he was born. He comes from a family having a rich history of blues music, that's been passed down from generation to generation, beginning with his grandfather Joe Burks. He was a talented acoustic guitarist known as a Delta bluesman, who played at all the local juke joints of Camden, Arkansas. During the day, Joe worked as a barber, a carpenter and also as an engine mechanic on aircraft. His father, Frederick Burks, was a talented bass guitar player, sitting in with many touring acts, including blues great Sonny Boy Williamson II. In 1953, Frederick moved up to Milwaukee, working in steel mills during the day. In the evenings, he played at several different blues clubs in the city. Michael was born in 1957, and by the age of two, he was holding a child's size guitar while taking lessons from his father. He learned all his father's chords and bass runs within a year. Realizing he couldn't teach him fast enough, his father sat him down to a stack of his 45's. The incentive was to learn one 45 a day, each one learned, would earn Michael a dollar. These 45's weren't from artists his father gigged with. Instead, they were the popular new artists of that time. Michael was learning the music of Albert Collins, Albert King, and B.B. King. Michael loved the new music as the stack of records began to slowly disappear. Unfortunately, his father couldn't continue, he was low on of 45's and real short on cash. The following year, Michael and his older brother made their nightclub debut when he was all of six years old. People were amazed with Michael's abilities, especially with learning how young he was. That's where he got the nickname "Little Midget."

In the early '70's, a terrible machine accident permanently damaged Frederick's left hand, ending his musical career as a bass player. After moving everyone back home to Camden, Michael with the rest of his family, helped his father construct the Bradley Ferry Country Club. This family owned and operated night club became a very successful business venture for Frederick. It was the hottest club in town- people drove from all over just to get in the door. Patrons had to reserve a table two weeks in advance, otherwise it was standing room only. Michael and his band opened every night, even backed up many big named blues and R&B artists like Johnnie Taylor and Rufus Thomas. This was the perfect opportunity for Michael to refine his skills on stage, with both his solo work and his vocals.

Then the recession of the mid-eighties took its toll- many smaller clubs in town closed their doors for good, eventually Bradley's Ferry did as well. Michael was in need of full-time work once the club closed. He landed a job at Lockheed-Martin, working as a mechanical technician for almost 13 years. Luckily his boss, a big blues fan, knew how talented Michael was. He arranged his work schedule so Michael could do shows and festivals on weekends. His popularity continued to grow, Michael was getting offers to play festivals and concerts from Florida to as far away as California.

It became clear that if he wanted to further his career in music, he needed national attention. The only way he knew to get that, was to make a record. In 1997, he laid it all on the line and produced his very first record, From The Inside Out. This was a showcase of his fiery ax attack. Each track highlighted his soulful singing and high energy performance. He received great reviews from the fans and the press, placing him in the right direction. Michael and his band were booked at all the major Blues Festivals throughout the country. He was honored by The Blues Foundation with its 1999 "Albert King Award": this prestigious award is given for "the most promising blues guitarist" by his peers and holds special meaning, being named for one of his mentors. Michael was also nominated in 2000 for a W.C. Handy Award as "best new artist." This accolade in blues music is the equivalent to being nominated for a Grammy.

Not long after, Michael signed on the dotted line with top blues label, Alligator Records. It was a dream come true, and something he worked very hard to achieve. Michael was anxious to get started on his next album, only this time he had the support and resources of a major label behind him. He was on cloud nine, working in the studio with many of the same musicians who worked with Luther Allison. While recording his latest work, Make It Rain everyone melded together musically into such a groove on each track that nobody wanted to stop playing. You can feel the energy from this new CD, like an electrical current that runs from start to finish. When it came time for this recording to be released, it was also time for Michael to go out on tour.

It's been said that the only way to fully experience Michael Burks music, is by attending one of his shows. Word of mouth travels fast- every show and concert on his scheduled tour was to sell-out crowds both at home, as well as in Europe. In fact, his popularity grew so quickly, he returned a second time across the Atlantic to record numbers of fans. Being on the road for a period of time can be grueling but to Michael, this kind of hard work feels real good. As much as the fans love to see him perform, Michael loves it even more.

All the great press from both his latest release and subsequent tour sparked my interest to go see him perform tonight at Theodore's Night Club here in Springfield, Mass. Once inside, I felt comfortable with the club's surroundings. It's the perfect venue to come enjoy an intimate performance. Several blues artists were represented with posters and pictures up along the walls. Behind the stage were four large canvas paintings beautifully crafted, highlighting some well known blues performers. The stage itself was small, yet roomy enough for Michael and his band to play comfortably. I had the opportunity to meet up with Michael and his band just before going on stage. We spoke for a few short minutes, as it was time to start the show. Michael and I agreed to meet afterwards and continue our conversation.

Once on stage, I noticed the guitar selections made for this evenings show. Michael strapped on his black Fender Strat while there waiting off to the side, were his two Gibson Flying V guitars. One, a beautiful solid color of pure golden honey, the other was more a two-tone honey burst. A slight nod of Michael's head, cued their formal introduction to the huge crowd. The lights came up, and Michael went right into a searing guitar intro, grabbing everyone's undivided attention. The first set was loaded with blues standards from two of his mentors, B.B. King and Albert King, as well as several tracks off his latest CD. Each song was an experience, especially with his incredible fretwork. His fingers moved effortlessly up and down the neck of his guitar, as if gliding along on a sheer pane of glass. Michael would tip his head back ever so slightly, then close his eyes, expressing the sounds of true emotion. You could feel the pure intensity pouring right off the strings of his Stratocaster. He went somewhere deep inside himself, completely caught up in the music, playing purely from a place within, reflecting the fire in his soul.

Next, Michael really plays to the crowd. First, with this fast paced, power-packed groove, he begins to tease and flirt with the crowd at the tables in front of the stage. He started burning up these riffs which sounded like his guitar is actually singing a verse or two. Michael walked to the edge of the stage, only inches away from the crowd seated in front of him. Smiling, going from person to person, he'd break out into an intense solo. Everyone responded to these one-on-one moments, all night long. Suddenly, he jumps back with the band, as they switch right into the next number, a real foot stompin' boogie tune, without missing a beat. Michael comes off the stage with this high-powered axe attack, and starts walking around to every corner of the club, giving the entire crowd a close-up look. Finally, after making his way back on stage, Michael and the band wrap it up with an explosive finish. The place went absolutely crazy, what an incredible performance.

With the crowd still buzzing from the last song, Michael turns and straps on the golden honey Flying V. Here he plays two tracks from Make It Rain, "Got A Way With Woman" and Everybody's Got There Hand Out." He certainly gave us all a demonstration on the proper way a Flying V is suppose to be played. You could hear the influence of gospel with both these songs. His voice was honest and soulful, expressing the verses in a true storytelling manner. The first set ended and the band took a short break. Looking around at the crowd, I noticed people at their tables sitting in awe over what they just experienced.

Michael and the band were back to kick off the second set with a riveting performance of "Hey Joe," another emotion-packed number that the crowd really enjoyed. Next, he went directly into a blistering axe attack with the hit song, "Kansas City." Wayne Sharp on keyboards gave a great solo performance with this number. Michael and Wayne went into a "top this" challenge, back and forth with each other, and the crowd responded. Michael was building a huge crescendo here with his passionate fretwork. Sure enough, he went back out into the crowd again, only this time he really let loose. Besides walking all through the night club, he was walking on top of the bar, then suddenly he was standing on top of a barstool. Michael was working this crowd right into a frenzy.

For a moment, I lost him in a sea of people, when looking back towards the stage I caught a quick glimpse of him. Michael was making his way out the front door and was playing to a large crowd that had gathered just outside the establishment. Several popular clubs in the city are located in this same area with Theodore's. Being the weekend, there's plenty of activity all up and down the sidewalks, including all the traffic on this one-way street. I can only imagine the look on everyone's face, when Michael Burks stepped outside to gave them an impromptu performance. Certainly everyone inside the club was totally blown away with Michael's showmanship. Finally when back on stage, the entire crowd erupted in a thunderous applause.

With their next number, "Don't You Lie To Me," Michael got the whole crowd involved. He asked the ladies about their boyfriends coming home late at night, getting a big rise from all the women in the room. Next, he posed the same question to all the men about their girlfriends, getting a big response from all the guys. The crowd was up on their feet having one hell of a good time. Michael closed the evening with a high-voltage performance of "Hit The Ground Running", the opening track off his latest album. Honestly, you could feel the electricity vibrating all over the place. People were on their feet, turning the front table area into jam packed dance floor. The evening ended with everyone still on their feet, giving Michael and the band a long standing ovation. No one wanted the music to end. The crowd appreciated the kind of performance that was given here by this rising star. True blues enthusiasts won't soon forget this show. They'll be talking about Michael Burks and his music for a long time to come.

During the performance, it was clear to see how tightly-knit these guys were together, both on and off the stage. The band knew when to step back, giving Michael room, as well as when to jump right into his fiery mix. They've been touring with Michael for a good stretch of time.

Once the show ended, the band went right into breaking down the stage. First getting all the equipment and instruments packed away, then they proceeded to load everything out to their van. Regretfully, there just wasn't enough time to interview the band with Michael. Each one of them are very talented musicians in their own right, and have been in the business for quite some time. Michael's band members are, Cecil Parker-Percussion, Don Garrett-Bass, and Wayne Sharp-Keyboards. After speaking with fans and signing autographs, Michael Burks came over and sat down with me as we spoke on a variety of issues.

PD: First Michael, thanks for coming over and spending time, especially after your incredible performance, I really enjoyed the show. So tell me a little bit about how the tour's been going for you.

MB: Thanks Pamela, it's our first time up here in Springfield. This is a real nice city, and the people here have been so very friendly and good to us. Everybody has treated us real good. I'll tell ya, the tour's been going real good. All these people comin' out to see us, well, they've been so great. Everywhere we go we're getting big crowds, just like we did here tonight. When I see all these people come out, just to see me play, well... I'll tell ya, it means so much to me. Then givin' me the kinda response like tonight, well... you know, it really makes it all worthwhile to me. We love playin' for 'em. I'm glad they had a good time, enjoyed the music. Man I'll tell ya, it's all about the music, I just love it, I've been real lucky so far.

PD: You and the band have a week off now, your next show is in Little Rock. Tell me about going back and playing in front of the home crowd?

MB: Yea, we've been on the road now, well over three weeks ya know. With all this driving, we've been real lucky with all this good weather. So, yeah... we've got a little break coming up, it'll feel good. Yeah, I'm looking forward to playin' back home, we'll have a good time... yea, that Little Rock crowd is crazy! (Michael busts out laughing) Really... they love their music. Goin' back home, seein' old friends... we'll have a great time there. With everybody coming out to see us, and people like yourself writing about me, giving me good reviews, you know it really helps out a lot.

PD: I noticed you and the band have a real connection, you guys are really tight.

MB: You know, I'm not just doing it (performing) for my health, I do because I love it. Yea, I started at a real early age, and I've loved it ever since. It's not all about me either. A lot of people love what I do and enjoy it with me. I'm just one of the fortunate ones who happen to have the talent to do this. Yea, these guys over there, they're real good... they love it too. Yea, we've got it going, really though... it's all about the music.

PD: Michael, you've played with some very famous blues artists along the way. Which blues artist would you still like to perform with?

MB: Oh wow, that's a hard one...let's see, if I had a choice, the one I'd like to be on stage with? You know... it would have to be more than one.

PD: O.K., give me more than one, how about two or three choices?

MB: It would be, if I had a choice... Freddie King, Albert Collins, and Albert King, all on the stage at the same time! Then you all can go on and just bury me then (laughing) I'll be done.

PD: How about any female artists out there?

MB: There's some real talented woman, let's see... I like Deborah Coleman, she's real good. I like Susan Tedeschi, I've had fun with them, they're real good artists. Oh yeah, I can't forget my little sister (no relation, just best of friends), can't leave her out... Shemekia Copeland, man I love Shemekia. I also did a show with Trudy Lynn over in Europe, it was great meeting Trudy, I really enjoyed that.

PD: What was it like performing over in Europe for the very first time?

MB: I'll tell ya, I was a little leery about what it was gonna be like, you know. But then, after that first show, I was like... man I like this! Everybody over there, well, they took me in with open arms. Then after we left, they we're calling my agent you know, saying, "man we want him back!" So, I wasn't gone a month and a half, and we went back over there for another tour. When we got off the plane, the promoter met us, picked us up in the bus. He looked right at me and said, "Michael..." I said, "Uh oh...what's wrong." He had that look ya know, then said, "Man, every one of your shows is sold-out!" I just looked at him, "Are you for real?" He goes on, "I don't know what you did... well, I know what you did when you came here the last time, people feel in love with you." I just kept lookin' at him, you know, and he kept going on, "Man, I mean every single one of your shows is sold-out!"

PD: You know Michael, after tonight's show, I can see why you're playing to sold-out crowds. It's about you and how the music comes right through you, honestly, I could really feel it.

MB: Music does that to me, not only blues, but all music. You know, I can't help it, that's how it is for me when I get playin', especially with blues. With blues, there's so much...(sigh) I think so much about what goes on in this world, you know, even the stuff that's gone on in my life, you know. I can't help but think about those things a lot of times, you know, I try not to dwell on it. I try not to let those things bring me down, you know. I think of those things as life experiences, and that's what blues is, blues is life experiences. Those things that one goes through in life, it's the truth, it's what you've been through, what you've lived, and that's what I play, you know. When I'm playin', I go into that place deep inside (pointing to the area just below his chest) and the music... it's comin' from my heart, and my mind. I have to play what's comin' from in there, I just can't help it. You know (chuckle)... a lot of times, I gotta bring myself back... back to the club in front of the audience. Try to do it so, you know, they won't realize how I gotta pull myself back, the music does that to me. I'll tell ya, of all the things I've been through, you know, things that happened, I've been blessed in so many ways. Cause I'm still doin' those good things, still doin' the good things people love.

PD: You're on a wave right now, really going places. Where do you see yourself, let's say... four or five years from now? Have you thought much about where you'd like to be?

MB: I hope to continue doing what I've been doin', God gives me my health to keep doing what I been doin', to carry that torch, man... I plan to stay out there. I hope to be playin' this music for a long-time, cause I love the blues, you know. Man, I wouldn't give it up for nothing in this world, you know, but things happen. I quit for a lot of years, you know.

PD: That's when you worked for Lockheed-Martin... Yes?

MB: Yea, I stopped playing in '92, you know, that was hard... But I'm not gonna give it up no more. So... four, five more years from now, well, I hope to be more stable, maybe some Handy's (starts laughing). Whatever God gives me, you know. I want to keep on workin', hopefully playin' at more and more places. 'Cause I really love it, you know, playin for all these people. I want to keep recording, get as much stuff out there as I can.

PD: Where do you see the future of blues music? Where do you see the blues headed?

MB: I think, to be realistic about it, I think I have a really good chance to stay strong, keep the blues going. Plus there's a lot of young players out there... not that I'm old you know.(really laughing) You know, there's these younger guys out there, and there's some great players. I had this guy ask me, if I felt threatened by guys like... Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Johnny Lang. I looked at him and said, "Man... naa!" I think it's a Godsend cause you know, not only do they keep the blues alive, but they also bring in that younger crowd to this music. You know, they reach those kids they're age all the way up to kids my age, giving them the blues, man I think it's great. Plus that makes younger kids interested in music, the more you get kids interested in music, the more you help get these kids off the streets and out of trouble, you know.

PD: Yeah, your Dad got you started with music really early, right?

MB: That's what my Dad did with me and my brothers, me and my older brother. Man it's like this, he had us practicing, we were in the house and he knew where we were. He knew we were in the back room, beatin' on the drums and guitars.

PD: That's half the battle with kids, needing something to focus on, like when you and your brother were kids.

MB: My Father kept us focused, and it works. He didn't have to worry if we were out in the streets gettin' in trouble, you know. Nowadays, a lot of these kids don't have that. Just having someone there, you know, keeping them focused on something, that's all. It makes all the difference, that's one of the things my father gave to me, you know, and it works.

PD: With many of the legends now gone, and only a few remaining, people look to artists like yourself to keep the blues going. I mean real blues, that original sound. For example, B.B. King... I've seen him in a couple of commercials on TV, God love him, boy he's still going strong. It's a lot on his shoulders though, carrying the music. What are your thoughts about someday carrying the torch?

MB: I agree, we've got to keep that sound alive. People need to better appreciate who B.B. King is, especially while we still have him with us, you know. Yeah, I've seen his Burger King commercial, and the diabetes one. He even has this commercial for a satellite cable thing where he falls out of the sky, into this barn. He dusts himself off, and they start playin his music, they start showing the different music stations available, you know, blues and pop music you get from the satellite, yeah, that's somethin' to see. He's such a great artist, man, I can't say enough about him, and what he's done for all of us who love the blues. You know, I've been real lucky, and I'm so grateful for the people in my life and the talent God has blessed me with. I hope I can have the kind of career playin' the blues like B.B. King. Right now, you know, I plan to keep doing the things I'm doing. You know, stick with recording and writing more, and playing as many places as I can.

contact info: www.michaelburks.com

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