The Life and Career of Henry Burr
Henry Burr was incredibly popular as a solo
artist and was also important as a member
of various duos, trios, and quartets.
He probably recorded more selections than any other
singer of the acoustic era.
Not surprisingly for one
who recorded thousands
of titles, the tenor was
He was as deft with an
upbeat tune such as "I Didn't Raise My Boy To Be
A Soldier," sung with the Peerless Quartet
(Columbia A1697), as with a sentimental favorite
such as "In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree."
He won fame for singing the latter type of material.
On January 15, 1882, he was born Harry
Haley McClaskey in St. Stephen, New Brunswick,
Canada. He was raised in a house at 10 Armstrong
Street. In 1895, at age 13, he was known well
enough as a boy tenor to be engaged for appearances
with the St. John Artillery Band at the opening
of the city’s annual Exposition.
He attended Mt. Allison Academy at Sackville, New
Brunswick. His father, Alfred McClaskey, was a
candy and tobacco dealer.
His first important concert appearance was
on April 14, 1901, when he appeared at the St.
John Opera House with Scottish soprano Jessie
On September 30, 1901, Metropolitan
Opera baritone Giuseppe Campanari arrived in
McClaskey’s part of Canada to perform at the St.
John Opera House. Asked to listen to McClaskey’s
beautiful voice, Campanari — who was later a
recording artist for Victor, Columbia, and Edison —
insisted that the young man go to New York for
musical training. The singer quit working at his
father’s business and traveled to New York for further voice instruction.
While a student, McClaskey rose to tenor soloist with the Grace Methodist
Episcopal Church choir. Promotional literature
reprinted in Ronald Dethlefson’s Edison Blue
Amberol Recordings 1912-1914 states that the
singer (called Irving Gillette on Edison records)
"toured Canada in Scotch repertoire. For the last
ten years [he] has been tenor soloist at the Church
of the Incarnation, New York."
Henry studied with noted teacher John
Dennis Meehan (sometimes spelled Mehan) and
later Miss Ellen Burr. He adopted the latter's name
in tribute when he began making records for
Burr began his recording career with
Columbia in 1902 or 1903. At this time Columbia
did massive re-recording to take advantage of
improved technology. Some Columbia discs bearing
Burr’s name have master numbers suggesting
that they were made in 1901, but the Burr performances
were remakes of numbers originally sung
in 1901 by others. Tim Brooks reports that the earliest master
that seems to be originally by Burr is
1351, "My Dreams," from mid-1903.
In 1903 he recorded a song associated with Lillian Russell on
the stage, "Come Down Ma Evening Star"
(Columbia disc 1405 and cylinder 32174; Mina
Hickman had earlier recorded this for Columbia
disc 955), and he cut Neil Moret’s popular
"Hiawatha" (disc 1406; cylinder 32175). Another
successful early Columbia disc was "The Holy
City" (60). Harry Macdonough is on the earliest
pressings of "The Holy City," Albert Campbell on
some later pressings, and Burr on still later pressings
though the Burr recording was made early
enough to feature a spoken announcement
(J.W. Myers also recorded "The Holy City" for the company
but this version was issued as Columbia
None of his Victor discs open with spoken
announcements since by mid-1903 — long before
Burr’s debut with the company — Victor had discontinued
the practice of opening performances with
announcements, but Columbia used announcements
for a longer period, and Columbia discs made early
enough to feature Burr’s own spoken announcements
include "Old Folks At Home" (174), "Ben
Bolt" (208), "Absence Makes the Heart Grow
Fonder" (221), "My Old Kentucky Home" (320),
"For All Eternity" (846), and "Silver Threads
Among the Gold" (1810).
His earliest record for Edison’s National
Phonograph Company was Standard 8827, issued
in November 1904. The Edison company consistently
used the pseudonym Irving Gillette for the
tenor, and some other companies used this name at
times, including Columbia and Rex. The October
1904 issue of Edison Phonograph Monthly states,
"'Shine On, Oh Stars' is a ballad of the higher
order in which Irving Gillette makes his bow to the
Phonograph public. Mr. Gillette has a cultivated
voice of a fine tenor quality as all who hear this
Record will admit." At this time Edison also
issued Irving Gillette on Standard 8853, "The Star
For the next few years the Edison company
issued Gillette cylinders regularly. Although he
became increasingly popular, he worked less often
for the company by the time the company marketed
Diamond Disc and Blue Amberol products.
As a solo artist, Burr was issued on only one Diamond
Disc: "Sing Me The Rosary" (80132). The team of
Campbell and Gillette was issued on several Blue
Amberols but not on Diamond Discs. After a disagreement
with Edison executives, Burr never sang
for that firm again. The final Gillette recording for
Edison was "When The Angelus is Ringing" (Blue
Amberol 2428), issued in October 1914. At this
time the final Campbell and Gillette duet on Blue
Amberol was issued: Fisher’s "When It’s
Moonlight on the Alamo" (2422).
His first Victor session was on January 4,
1905, and two performances from that session were
issued in March: "Loch Lomond" (single-sided
4240, later issued on double-sided 16062 — Burr
redid this for Victor in early 1919) and "Daddy"
(single-sided 4239; Burr redid it on February 24,
1909 and this was issued on double-sided
16314). His next Victor session was four months later, on
April 7, and especially popular from this session
was Van Alstyne's "In The Shade Of The Old
Apple Tree" (single-sided 4338; Burr redid it for
Victor on June 5, 1908 — decades later one of the
Victor takes was issued on Montgomery Ward #M-8128
and falsely labeled "electrically recorded").
Months earlier, Burr had recorded this for Edison,
and Standard 8958, issued in April 1905, was a
Victor valued Burr in early sessions for
singing airs of Scotland. In the three Victor sessions
of 1905, he recorded, along with "Loch
Lomond," the songs "Ye Banks and Braes o’Bonnie Doon"
(4426), "John Anderson, My Jo"
(4557), and "Scots, Wha’ Hae’ wi’ Wallace Bled" (4558).
Burr appeared on virtually all American
labels of the acoustic era, including the early disc
labels Talk-o-phone, Imperial, Busy Bee, and American.
The July 1906 Zon-o-phone catalog
shows Burr singing "Please Come and Play in My
Yard" (21) and the popular "Teasing" (24). As a
solo artist he made a couple of dozen U.S.
Everlasting cylinders. He cut duets for that company
with not only Albert Campbell but John H.
Meyer, who used the pseudonym John Wilbur.
Burr was a successful recording artist
from the onset, becoming especially important
to Columbia around the time that the career of
a once-prolific tenor — George J. Gaskin — was
in rapid decline. Burr served Columbia in the
early years of the century much as Harry
Macdonough served Victor. Both were tenors
whose performances of ballads such as
"Absence Makes the Heart Grow Stronger"
sold well, as did their records of hymns. In
1905 the Talking Machine News, a trade journal
published in London, praised one of Burr's
gospel hymns and added, "We count Mr. Burr
one of the foremost recorders of today."
He was a member, with Frank C.
Stanley and Elise Stevenson, of the
Metropolitan Trio and the Manhattan Mixed
Around 1903 Burr replaced second
tenor James K. Reynard in the Columbia
Quartet, which then also consisted of first
tenor Albert Campbell, baritone Joe Belmont, and
bass Joe Majors. Belmont and Majors left around
the time Reynard did, so for a few years after 1903
the quartet was Campbell, Burr, baritone Steve
Porter, and bass Frank C. Stanley. In late 1906 the
quartet began recording for other companies in
addition to Columbia, and called itself the Peerless
Quartet, which became probably the most successful
vocal group of the acoustic era, with only the
American Quartet rivaling at times the Peerless in
popularity. Until his sudden death of pneumonia in
late 1910, bass Frank C. Stanley managed the
Peerless Quartet. Burr then managed the group.
For several years after Stanley's death the
Peerless consisted of Albert Campbell, Henry Burr,
Arthur Collins (who replaced Porter in 1909 when
that baritone joined the American Quartet), and
John H. Meyer(Stanley’s replacement).
Campbell reported to Jim Walsh that Collins finally left
(probably in early 1919) because the baritone and
Burr could no longer get along. Collins sometimes
sang lead on Peerless recordings, which added
variety to the quartet’s records, but after Collins
left, Burr sang lead on nearly all Peerless recordings.
Frank Croxton joined the Peerless soon after
Collins’ departure, taking the bass part. John H.
Meyer, who had been singing bass, assumed the
baritone part. The American Quartet had been
going through changes in personnel around this
time, and from 1920 onwards the Peerless and
American quartets were identical aside from second
tenor Burr in the Peerless and second tenor Billy
Murray in the American.
When the Peerless members worked as a
minstrel troupe on records Burr played a
stuttering minstrel and was addressed
by the other performers as
"Harry," his real first name.
Labels did not actually use
the Peerless name but the
four quartet members
made many minstrel
records, especially from
1908 to 1913.
examples are "Virginia
Minstrels" on Victor
35095, "North Carolina
Minstrels" on Victor
35307, and "Missouri
Minstrels" on Victor 35321.
From around 1906 to
1910, Burr cut many duets with
Stanley, who had earlier used tenor
Byron G. Harlan as a recording partner —
presumably the success of Collins and
Harlan brought an end to pairings of Harlan and
Stanley. In the 1909-1910 period, Edison issued a
new Stanley and Gillette duet almost every month.
Stanley’s death in late 1910 led to Burr joining, for
a few years, baritone Edgar Stoddard, who was
really Andrea Sarto, for Columbia recordings.
One successful recording was "There’s a Girl in the
Heart of Maryland" (Columbia A1360; 1913).
After Stanley's death, Burr also began
working regularly with fellow tenor Campbell, and
the team of Campbell and Burr enjoyed a popularity
matched by few other duos of the acoustic era
(years earlier they had cut a duet—"While the Old
Mill Wheel Is Turning" was issued on Columbia
3453 in October 1906).
include "Take Me To Roseland, My Beautiful
Rose" (Victor 17339), "Piney Ridge" (Columbia
A1827), "Always Take A Girl Named Daisy"
(Victor 17438), "Carry Me Back To My Carolina
Home" (Victor 18975), "Those Days Are Over"
(Victor 18877), "Angel Child" (Victor 18903), and
"At The End Of The Road" (Victor 19530). The
final Campbell-Burr duet recording appears to be
"I Need Thee Every Hour," recorded in the early
months of electric recording, probably
on July 2, 1925 (Burr and
Campbell were in Victor's
Camden studio on this day as
members of the Peerless
Quartet and Sterling
The new take of
"I Need Thee Every
Hour" was issued on
Victor 19884, replacing their old take of
the Lowry hymn on
Burr normally recorded
Unusual for the duo was
"Theda Bara, I'll Keep
Away From You," issued on
Pathé 20021 in late 1916.
They were the only artists to record this song
about the silent film star, who became famous as a
"vamp" in the 1915 motion picture A Fool There
Burr recorded duets with many other
artists such as Elise Stevenson, Ada Jones, Helen
Clark, Marcia Freer, Frank Croxton and John H.
Meyer. Despite a long association, Burr recorded
with Billy Murray only one duet issued in the
United States: "I Wonder Where My Baby Is
Tonight?" It was recorded on December 12, 1925.
The label of Victar 19864 calls the performance a
"duet with piano" but adds that Burr and Murray
are "assisted" by tenor Carl Mathieu (the reverse
side features the tenor who was quickly eclipsing
Murray and Burr in popularity — Gene Austin).
In 1919, during a Canadian tour, Burr and Murray
harmonized beautifully in a studio on "They're All
Sweeties," issued only on Canadian Victor 216068.
On November 18, 1913, Campbell and
Burr joined Will Oakland to record the successful
"I’m On My Way To Mandalay" (Victor 17503).
On June 24, 1914,the tenors cut an additional three
titles for Victor. Labels identify the trio as
The popular Sterling Trio, consisting of
Meyer, Campbell and Burr, recorded for many
labels from 1916 to mid-1920, then exclusively for
Victor from late 1920 to 1925. The trio’s final
Victor disc was issued in October, 1925: "Down
Deep in an Irishman’s Heart" (19749).
It was backed by Burr singing "Sweet Little Mother of
Mine." When Burr, as manager of the Peerless
Quartet, dropped Campbell and Meyer in the fall of
1925,the latter two singers took the name The
Sterling Trio and made recordings for Gennett in
1926, using another tenor instead of Burr. The new
Peerless Quartet consisted of first tenor Carl
Mathieu (1894-1973), second tenor Burr, baritone
James Stanley (1881-1963), and bass Stanley
Baughman (1892-1963). This was the Quartet featured
with the Eight Popular Victor Artists that
toured from 1926 until it disbanded around 1928.
In 1910 the Columbia Phonograph
Company issued a ten inch demonstration disc
("This Record is NOT For Sale") that emphasized
the superior tone quality of Columbia double-sided
discs. One side featured the Columbia Male
Quartette singing Geibel's "Kentucky Babe" with
Burr as second tenor, and Frank C. Stanley spoke
on the other side, praising the quality of Columbia
"double-disc" records. In 1913, the newly named
Columbia Graphophone Company issued a second
demonstration record, and this is among the most
common discs featuring Burr. One side featured
solo artist Henry Burr singing J.C. Macey’s "Good
Night, Little Girl, Good Night," the reverse side
featuring an unidentified man giving a briefer version of Stanley’s
1910 talk. He states about the Burr performance,
"The other side of this sample
Columbia record affords the best possible evidence
of the quality of Columbia recordings." The 1913
promotional item was priced at 25 cents.
Burr was issued on many small diameter
discs of the World War I period.
Although seven inch discs had been common when discs were first
marketed, they had been phased out by 1906, with
the ten inch disc becoming standard for popular
music. The Little Wonder Record Co. of New
York, founded by Henry Waterson (of the music
publishing firm Waterson, Berlin & Snyder), introduced
single-sided 5 1/2 inch discs in October
1914. They sold for ten cents. The first Little
Wonder featured Henry Burr singing the 1848 song
"Ben Bolt." He had recorded this over a decade
earlier as a Columbia artist, with that early recording
featuring piano accompaniment. On the Little
Wonder disc, Burr is backed by an orchestra.
Little Wonder discs were pressed by Columbia but they
are not Columbia dubbings — songs were recorded
specially for Little Wonder release.
Victor most often used the name Henry
Burr for the tenor but sometimes identified him as
Harry McClaskey. Columbia used the name Burr
most often but also used the names Irving Gillette
(usually for duets with female singers, including
Ada Jones, Helen Clark, and Frances Fisher) and
Harry McClaskey (not surprisingly, this was used
for some songs with Irish themes, such as "The
Lament of the Irish Emigrant" and "What an
Irishman Means by 'Machree'").
Most companies issued the tenor as Burr but Allan Sutton’s A Guide
to Pseudonyms on American Records,
1892-1942 (Greenwood Press, 1993) indicates that other
names used were Henry Gillette (Crescent), Alfred
Alexander (Pathé), Shamus McClaskey (Emerson),
Robert Rice (Emerson) Harry Barr (Harmony),
Frank Knapp (Harmony), Harry Haley (Banner
and Cameo — "Haley" was the tenor’s middle
name), and Al King (Oriole).