After 95 years, a legacy of songs, bridge mastery and dear friends left behind

Published 12:00 am Friday, February 8, 2013

SALISBURY — Billy Burke was Salisbury’s piano man. Yes, its “Mr. Music.”

He always seemed to be in the background, playing his own show-tunes-medley soundtrack for whatever event he was attending.

But beyond that, Burke was maybe the city’s best friend. He adored people, and people adored him.

“He was a loving person,” longtime friend, relative and former employer Leon Zimmerman said Thursday. “I can’t tell you how much he enjoyed his friends and how loyal he was to them.”

Salisbury might never again see the likes of Billy Burke, who died Wednesday night at the Lutheran Home at Trinity Oaks. He was 95.

Burke was always the fixture, playing piano at Rotary, church, the Holiday Inn, community fundraisers, concerts, weddings, reunions and parties.

He was dependable, hardly ever turning anyone down. Many times he wouldn’t accept pay. He just walked over to the piano and started playing. When he did receive money, he charged less than he deserved.

His musical talents were considerable and well-recognized in his day. They went far beyond the local events and included stints in a dance band and as an accompanist for singers on television and radio.

He once had a daily 15-minute show on local radio — “Billy Burke at the Piano.”

Burke composed the songs for “Huck Finn,” a musical comedy presented by Catawba College’s Blue Masque first in 1955, again in 1958 and once more last year.

In 1957, the N.C. Symphony performed an orchestrated medley of five of Burke’s songs, arranged by Thomas Cousins — one of the proudest moments of Burke’s long life.

The “Huck Finn” musical found playing time in various other local productions in this region and in summer stock theater in New York. The Salisbury Symphony performed Burke’s “Huck Finn” songs on several occasions, including the symphony’s 25th anniversary.

Last spring, Catawba College kids performing in the updated version of his “Huck Finn” would stroll around campus humming and whistling his songs. Burke was the biggest cheerleader for the 29 cast members, and he attended some of their practices and, of course, the show itself.

ggg  He was meant to live this long — just for the chance to hear his songs again on stage.

Burke faithfully supported Blue Masque and Piedmont Players Theatre. Every year, he also took off for New York so he could catch as many Broadway productions as possible.

He kept a large stack of all the playbills at his Salisbury home, Zimmerman says.

Beyond his love for music and the theater, Burke was a Life Master bridge player, who up until last year had written a bridge column for the Salisbury Post since 1969.

He also directed local duplicate tournament games.

Until his health issues caught up with him last year, Burke was still playing bridge every Monday afternoon. Far back in the day, Burke played for decades at a Wednesday night couples bridge club, which was founded with his help in 1934.

A lifelong bachelor, he also was a founder of a stag duplicate bridge club in the early 1950s.

Burke built up the necessary point total toward earning his Life Master designation by competing in the many local and regional tournaments.

It was last year, too, at 94, that Burke finally had to give up playing the piano for Rotary and his Sunday School class at First United Methodist Church — something he had done for 80 years.

ggg  What kind of guy was Billy Burke?

He was the only person who received coffee at Rotary from the women servers.

Miss Salisbury beauty contestants sought out his coaching help on the talent portions of their competitions for Miss North Carolina.

It was Burke who remembered all the birthdays and anniversaries of his friends and family, and the one who always sent a card, maybe with some money.

On his own birthdays, he could hardly count the stacks of cards he received.

“Until almost a year ago,” Jake Alexander says, “I received a birthday card from him every year of my life and a Christmas card as well.

“I once told my friend Billie Johnson about this, and she said, ‘Jake don’t think you’re special, he’s done that to more people than you can imagine.’ ”

Alexander’s late father was one of the men who started the stag bridge club with Burke. Alexander describes Burke as one in a million.

“Communities are fortunate when they get a rare individual like that, and he was one of them,” Alexander adds.

In the work world, Burke served long stints as personnel and human resources manager for N.C. Finishing Co. and Zimmerman’s Department Store.

“He knew everybody and their families,” Leon Zimmerman recalls. “He was there to help them when they needed it.”

ggg  William Preston “Billy” Burke had played the piano since he was 9, when he enrolled in Miss Merriman’s public school piano classes.

He learned a system called “The Melody Way,” in which children played at cardboard keyboards while waiting their turns at the lone piano in the room.

The lessons cost 25 cents a half-hour. He followed up a year of Miss Merriman’s public classes with four years of private lessons from her at 50 cents a half-hour.

Charlie Peacock, who grew up in the same block with Burke and became a lifelong friend, said the men had a running joke between them. They both took lessons from Miss Merriman, who Peacock describes as succinct with her assessments.

One day she wrote a note home to Burke’s mother saying, “Billy’s got talent.” She also sent a written message to Peacock’s mother that said, “Save your money.”

Peacock played in some of those early bridge games on the Burke porch with Billy and his older sisters.

Peacock has a joke for that experience, too. “Regardless of the hand I was dealt, I was always a dummy.”

ggg  By the time he was an eighth-grader, Burke was playing the piano at school assemblies. As a ninth-grader, he was part of a dance band. When he was 17, he bought his Baldwin baby grand piano.

Burke wanted a career in music, but during the Depression he could only afford one year at Catawba College — “and I cleaned the music building for that,” he said once.

Burke left Catawba and enrolled in business school in Charlotte. Meanwhile, he played on the side for the Henderson School of Dance in Charlotte.

During World War II, Burke served four years in the Army. He once recalled playing “People Will Say We’re in Love” over and over in the recreation room at Fort Jackson because of all the requests.

Burke eventually enrolled and graduated from Salisbury Business College and landed a job as employment manager for N.C. Finishing Co.

ggg  In the community, Burke worked tirelessly for Salisbury Jaycees, serving as their president and being named Salisbury’s “Young Man of the Year” in 1951.

On the music side, he directed annual entertainment shows given by local Baptists for the children of a Thomasville orphanage. He also performed frequently in shows at the VA Medical Center in Salisbury.

Until the “Huck Finn” production and the 15 songs he would write for it, Burke never considered himself a composer.

He had written only a radio show’s theme song and some music for the distributive education program at Boyden High School.

Burke picked up his first bridge hand at age 12 because his five older siblings played it. “We had six or seven people between the ages of 12 and 16, and we played bridge on the front porch in the summertime,” Burke recalled for the Post in 1979.

After his 30 years at N.C. Finishing Co., then 19 years at Zimmerman’s, Burke worked several more years for Leon’s Zimmerman’s New Brands company.

ggg  Late in Burke’s life, he still lived by himself, but nieces Phyllis Zimmerman and Jackie Fuller looked in on him daily, as did Leon Zimmerman, Phyllis’ husband.

At the Lutheran Home, frequent visitors included other relatives and friends, such as Walt Wagoner and Charlie Peacock.

Fuller and Phyllis Zimmerman, his treasured nieces, say Burke constantly looked after them when they were growing up in a big house on East Innes Street with Billy and his mother.

Billy accompanied the girls to church and helped them with their homework. When Jackie would sing, Burke accompanied her on piano.

“He set a great example for us,” Jackie says.

Both women said he was a father figure to them and like a grandfather to their children.

Fuller says Burke didn’t drink, smoke or cuss. Phyllis Zimmerman never saw him lose his temper. Both women are thankful their uncle’s mind remained sharp until his death, still able to name all the professional tennis players on television.

Burke played bridge up until last August, Phyllis says.

As Peacock might say, he was never a dummy.

“I don’t know of anyone who didn’t admire him,” Peacock adds.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263,or