Henry Burr was born Harry McClaskey on January 15, 1885 in the border town of Saint Stephen, New Brunswick. The son of a candy and tobacco store owner, his vocal talents were recognized early and by age 13 as he was performing as a boy tenor with the Artillery Band in nearby Saint John. In 1901, he appeared at the Opera House in Saint John for his first important concert with the Scottish soprano Jessie Maclachlan. Later that year, he was discovered by the Metropolitan Opera baritone, Giuseppe Campanari, who insisted the young boy move to the United States to further his musical training. Encouraged by Campanari’s endorsement, McClaskey ventured to New York, where he studied with John D. Meehan and Ellen Burr, from whom he adopted his most often used professional pseudonym.
Upon completion of his vocal studies, Henry Burr started his career at the Grace Methodist Episcopal Church in New York where he ultimately rose to tenor soloist for the choir. By the fall of 1902, while still in his teens, he became a recording artist for Columbia Graphophone, Edison Records, and then Victor Records.
In 1906, Burr was invited to join the Columbia Quartet, which later became the Peerless Quartet. Over the next 10 to 15 years, the Quartet and its offshoot, the Sterling Trio, became one of the most popular groups in the United States. Burr assumed leadership of the Peerless Quartet in 1912, and continued to manage the group until 1928. During this time, he collaborated with numerous ensembles and performed popular duets with Albert Campbell. He also returned to give concerts in New Brunswick, where even today, he is still remembered and appreciated.
Henry Burr also wrote lyrics for other artists, including Ray Perkins’ Stand Up and Sing for Your Father and Old-time Tune. Never content to rely solely on his singing career for income, Burr involved himself in numerous ventures, while still at the peak of his popularity, including record manufacturing, publishing and management.
Burr used countless pseudonyms for dozens of recording companies in order to protect his professional soloist reputation. He recorded not only as Henry Burr, but also as Alfred Knapp, Harry Barr, Henry Gillette, Irving Gillette, Robert Bruce, Lou Forbes, Harry Haley, Alfred Alexander, and Shamus McClaskey for any company able to afford his fee.
Despite the vast selection of great American songs available to him during his career, Burr continued recording songs written by Canadian songwriters including John Stromberg, Alfred Bryan, Lieutenant Gitz Rice-Morgan, Raymond Egan and Geoffrey O’Hara, as well as the international smash hit When You And I Were Young, Maggie, co-written by Canadian George W. Johnson and Englishman James A. Butterfield. Burr’s recording of this song was named as one of the Audio Visual Preservation Society’s 2004 ‘Masterworks’ in January 2004.
Major hits from Henry Burr’s extensive catalogue of 16 solo number one records include Come Down, Ma Evenin’ Star (1903), In The Shade of The Old Apple Tree (1905), Love Me and the World Is Mine (1906), To The End of The World With You (1909), I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now (1909), Last Night was The End of The World (1913), The Song That Stole My Heart Away (1914), Goodbye, Good Luck, God Bless You (1916), Oh! What a Pal Was Mary (1919) and My Buddy (1922).
The immensely popular duo of Henry Burr and Albert Campbell recorded eight number one hits including When I Was Twenty-One and You Were Sweet Sixteen (1912), The Trail of The Lonesome Pine (1913), I’m On My Way to Mandalay (1914), Close to My Heart (1915), Lookout Mountain (1917), Till We Meet Again (1919) and I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles (1919).
The onset of moving pictures, electrical recording technologies and changes in popular taste outdated the sentimental style of music with which Burr was familiar and he disbanded the Quartet in 1928. After making several solo recordings on smaller labels, freelancing, and working for a short while at CBS, in 1934, Burr became a regular performer on Chicago’s WLS radio program, a show whose popularity eventually rivaled that of Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry.
A true pioneer, Henry Burr was the most prolific artist of the acoustic era of recording and yet remains relatively unknown in Canada today. As one of the first Canadians to ever penetrate the United States market, Burr is credited with participation in an estimated 5,000 recordings, whether solos, duets, trios or quartets before 1929 – an incredible feat unparalleled in recording history.