Henry Burr was the most prolific recording artist of his time, with more than 12,000 recordings to his credit by his own reported estimate.
He was born Harry McClaskey on January 15, 1885, in St. Stephen, New Brunswick. He began singing as a young child and at age 13 (1898) was a boy soprano with a Saint John concert band. When Giuseppe Campanari of the Metropolitan Opera heard Burr's singing, he suggested that Burr go to the United States to study voice. In 1902, he left New Brunswick for New York City, where he studied with John D. Meehan and Ellen Burr (from whom he adopted his most often used professional pseudonym) and sang at Grace Methodist Episcopal Church.
While still in his teens (probably in 1902), Burr began recording for Columbia. The first Columbia recording on which his name appeared was released in 1904. In 1906, he joined the Columbia Male Quartet, which recorded under the name Peerless Quartet for the Victor label. He assumed the leadership of the group in 1910, managing it until 1928.
Over the years, he recorded under many names -- Harry McClaskey, Henry Burr and Irving Gillette, to name a few. He also sang with a number of ensembles, including the Heidelberg Quintette and the Sterling Trio, and performed many popular duets with Albert Campbell.
In 1915, he assembled a touring troupe of the most popular Victor recording artists, including singers Billy Murray, Arthur Collins, Albert Campbell and banjo player Vess Ossman. After several years of recording as a freelance artist, Burr signed a lucrative, exclusive contract with Victor and continued to manage and tour with the "Eight Popular Victor Artists" troupe. The troupe also starred on the "Goodrich Zippers" and the "Cities Service" radio programmes. When, after a management change in 1927, Victor decided not to renew the ensemble's contract, Burr disbanded the group and assumed the position of programme director for the Columbia Broadcasting Company (later CBS).
Burr was never content to rely solely on his singing career for income, involving himself in other ventures while still at the peak of his popularity. In 1915, to try his hand at record making, he established the Paroquette Manufacturing Co., which soon went out of business (1917). He was joint owner of a banjo factory with Fred Van Eps and for a few years, ran a music publishing company in New York City. He wrote lyrics for other artists, including those for Ray Perkins' "Stand Up and Sing for Your Father an Old-time Tune".
Though his recording career was largely over by the late 1920s, due to changes in both recording technology and popular taste, Burr made a successful comeback on Chicago radio station WLS's "National Barn Dance" in the 1930s. The programme's popularity rivaled that of Nashville's "Grand Ole Opry".
Henry Burr died of throat cancer in 1941 and was buried in Westchester, New York. He was survived by his wife Cecilia.
To accurately estimate Burr's recording output is difficult, due to both the quantity of his recordings and the multitude of pseudonyms under which he recorded. You can find a partial discography can be found in Roll Back the Years. A few of Burr's most popular songs include "In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree", "The Song that Stole My Heart Away" and "My Buddy", recorded as a soloist, and "Let Me Call You Sweetheart" and "My Bird of Paradise", recorded with the Peerless Quartet.
Selected recordings available
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- "Burr, Henry". Encyclopedia of Music in Canada. Edited by Helmut Kallmann et al. 2nd ed. Toronto : University of Toronto Press, c1992. xxxii, 1524 p. AMICUS 12048560
- "Henry Burr" [vertical file]. Library and Archives Canada, Music Section
- "Henry Burr (vocalist : tenor vocal)". Discography of American Historical Recordings. UC Santa Barbara Library, 2014.
- Hoffmann, Frank et al. Billy Murray : the phonograph industry's first great recording artist. Lanham, Md. : Scarecrow Press, 1997. x, 544 p. AMICUS 14865920
- Makosinski, Arthur. Henry Burr – When You and I Were Young, Maggie – 1923. Canadian Masters and their Works. Gala Records. Brossard, Quebec
- Moogk, Edward B. Roll Back the Years : history of Canadian recorded sound and its legacy : genesis to 1930. Ottawa : National Library of Canada, 1975. xii, 443 p. AMICUS 80154. Also published in French, under the title: En remontant les années : l'histoire et l'héritage de l'enregistrement sonore au Canada, des débuts à 1930