Twelve in a series: Gentiles and the American songbook
Joseph A. Burke was a top composer from the mid-20s through the l940s and the most famous composer to be associated with Philadelphia. He worked with prominent lyricists such as Walter Donaldson and Al Dubin. His songs have been recorded by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Bing Crosby, Perry Como, etc. In l968 Tiny Tim blasted Burke’s tune, “Tip Toe through the Tulips” into the number one song in the US. Burke published 322 songs and was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in l970.
Burke was born in Philadelphia and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania. Like many musicians of his time, he began his career accompanying silent movies and then in acting in silent movies until 1929. Even though he began composing in 1911, his songs didn’t really take off until 1925 when he published “Yearning.” He was over 40 years old at the time. Interestingly, in the mid-20s he wrote music for George M. Cohan’s musical Little Johnny Jones. He did not achieve composing success for another three years when he published “Carolina Moon” in l929, sung by the popular singer, Gene Austin. Austin, forgotten now, bailed Fat’s Waller out of jail for lack of alimony payment. Burke went to Hollywood at the beginning of sound and wrote movie tunes for several years with Dubin. Burke was already an established Hollywood composer when he teamed up with Dubin and took the young lyricist under his wing. Philip Furia calls Burke’s songs, “rickey-tick” tunes.
Burke and Dubin wrote “Tip toe” for the 1929 movie Gold Diggers of Broadway. Dubin joked with Burke that the sight of the two fat men (almost 500 pounds of them) tip toeing through anything could be an popular act on vaudeville if they were canned by Warner Brothers. While Dubin drank and partied during the evening hours, Burke, ever the family man with young children, returned to hearth and home. Burke and Dubin, responding to James Burke’s 1932 request that his dad write an alma mater anthem for his college, Villanova University in Philadelphia, wrote the song which is still being sung by Villanova students. Burke wrote hit songs throughout the l930s for entertainers such as piano player Eddy Duchin, band leader Tommy Dorsey and Gene Austin.
In the 1940s he wrote a hit song for the Kay Kyser band and in l948 he wrote “Ramblin’ Rose” which was made popular by Perry Como and then was a huge hit for the Beatles in l962.
My favorite Burke song: “Moon over Miami.”
Burke’s Religious and Moral Worldview
Like another famous Burke, Jimmy, there is little information about Joe Burke’s church background or involvement. The articles that I have read are silent on this part of life as well as his personal habits. The assumption I make is that Christianity played no role in Burke’s professional or personal life. Based on his relationship with Al Dubin Burke was committed to his wife and children but little is published about his private life. Clearly, he did something right in raising one son, the Villanova James Burke who became Dr. James F. Burke, a respected physician in the Philadelphia area, and had, in turn, two physician sons of his own. By all reports, Dr. James F. Burke was a faithful Roman Catholic and a successful member of the community.
Burke died of a heart attack in Upper Darby, PA, in June, l950.He was 66 years old. Once again, it is a shame that men of Burke’s caliber have no written legacy to inspire younger composers and lyricists.