Kirkland Burke holds a photo of himself as a child with his brother Reginald “Sonny” Burke as they play a piano. (Karen Torme Olson/H-F Chronicle)
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History-making music: How the Burke Brothers made beautiful music

Kirkland Burke and his brother Sonny were each other’s best friend throughout their lives. Kirkland says he misses Sonny every day. (Karen Torme Olson/H-F Chronicle)
Kirkland Burke and his brother Sonny were each other’s best friend throughout their lives. Kirkland says he misses Sonny every day. (Karen Torme Olson/H-F Chronicle)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart began playing the clavier at age 4 and was composing at 5.

Michael Jackson started his singing career at 6 when he first took the stage with the Jackson Five, his family’s singing group.

And the late Reginald Waymond “Sonny” Burke, who spent the last 18 years of his life as a Flossmoor resident, was able to read music and play any instrument he fancied from the time he first sat down at a piano at age 5 at the Grace Daly School of Fine Arts on Chicago’s South Side.

“Miss Grace’s school was private, and she taught piano, acting, and ballet,” said Sonny’s brother, Kirkland, who had a storied career in music promotion. “We both were classically trained, and we both had perfect pitch, but Sonny could sight-read. We did duets in Illinois and Indiana, and I had to practice every day. He didn’t. Actually, I never saw him practice!”

Those early beginnings set the stage for Kirkland’s career in music promotion and Sonny’s as a composer, pianist, producer and more for dozens of music legends. But it is Sonny’s association with Smokey Robinson that was a constant throughout his long career: Sonny was Robinson’s arranger, musical director and conductor for 34 years, an association that was personal as well as professional.

Sonny and Kirkland Burke grew up in Chicago’s post-WWII Wentworth Gardens complex and later moved to 60th and Bishop with their dad, Alonzo, a chef who was a veteran of WWII and the Korean conflict, and his mom, Johnnie, a dietician for Walgreen’s food counter services. Neither parent had any particular musical aspirations, and neither played an instrument, but both recognized Sonny’s talent and they were committed to supporting both their sons’ strengths and interests.

“I don’t know if he wanted to go to Miss Grace’s,” Kirkland said, “but they [our parents] dragged me along with him. We all went together on one of those big red streetcars, and I was enrolled, too–as long as I was gonna be there anyway. That’s how I got into it.”

It didn’t take long for Sonny to become interested in playing instruments besides the piano, Kirkland said.

“Sonny decided he wanted to play trombone, so he went downtown to Lyon & Healy. In those days you could go there to play their instruments to try them out.

“After hearing Sonny play, the people at Lyon & Healy called my parents and told them that they needed to buy him a trombone. My parents were astonished because Sonny had just started to play the trombone a week before.

“There also was the time that Lyon & Healy sold Sonny a $4,000 organ. He was just 16, had no job, no money, but they heard him play one of their organs and it just showed up at our front door one day [with a bill, of course]. Four thousand dollars was a lot of money back then and my father wanted to send it back, but my mother said that we’d just have to find a way to pay for it and we did,” Kirkland said.

The brothers were inseparable throughout their lives, even though they weren’t in the same grade or even in the same place for long periods of time. “Sonny would take me everywhere,” Kirkland said. “He would just grab my hand and say, ‘let’s go’ whenever he was going somewhere.” That relationship extended through the boys’ teen years and only strengthened as the years passed.

When Sonny graduated from Tilden Tech High School in 1963, he went to work for the State of Illinois for a short while and then joined the Frank Bell Trio, a jazz group that played the club circuit, Kirkland said.
“Most clubs didn’t have an organ, so Sonny just played other instruments,” Kirkland said. Sonny also did gigs with Clarence Wheeler and the Enforcers and Jerry Butler during that time.

Kirkland graduated from high school two years after Sonny and immediately enlisted in Navy. Sonny enlisted two days after that, and he took brotherly togetherness one step further: He requested that he and Kirkland be assigned to the same vessel and they were. For a short time, the brothers served together on the USS Putnam (DD757), a destroyer, but even when they were deployed on separate ships, they often found themselves docked in the same port at the same time.

The brothers stayed in the Navy until 1968, after which Sonny resumed his work in music and Kirkland enrolled in President Lyndon Johnson’s “Veterans in Public Service” program which had him teaching during the day and taking classes at Chicago State University at night, all on the Navy’s dime.

Sonny began to build a reputation as a fine composer and arranger. His big break came on Jan. 13, 1974, when he was asked to do some work for the Jackson Five in Los Angeles.

The gig was a huge opportunity even though it was supposed to take just three days. Sonny’s talent was immediately recognized by the music community, and he was inundated with job offers. As a result, he made California his home for the next 30-plus years, but still kept close ties with his brother and mom.

Sonny’s talent and musical versatility were so in demand that he became instrumental in the success of many well-known musicians of the time.

“He was probably stunned by the amount of money he was earning,” Kirkland said. “But, unlike many musicians who play by ear and can’t read music, Sonny could and that is one of the reasons he was in such demand.“

Kirkland eventually went into the music business, too–as a talent handler and record promoter.

He won many awards for his work and rose to Midwest Regional Promotion manager for Warner Bros. Records. He retired from Warner in 2000 and went back to teaching for the City Colleges of Chicago.

Some shifts in the family dynamic began just after Sonny made the move to LA.

“One day as my father was leaving the house for the barber shop, he turned and told me to take care of my mother,” Kirkland said. “I replied that I would. He smiled and said, ‘I know you will.’ That was the last thing we said to each other.” Alonzo was 66.

For the next 26 years, Kirkland and his mom remained in their Chicago house while Sonny lived and worked in California. Eventually, Johnnie Burke’s advancing age and care needs prompted Kirkland to move out of the city and make Flossmoor his next home.

“I was looking for a home without stairs as I was taking care of my mother and I also was thinking about accessibility for myself as I was approaching my senior years,” Kirkland said.

“My very good friend, Cathy Carroll, had moved to Flossmoor and she encouraged me to look at homes in the village, which is quiet, secure and the people are friendly,” Kirkland said.

Kirkland and his mom made the move in 1998. Sonny joined them six years later to help his brother care for their mom.

For the next decade Sonny kept up his arranging jobs and weekend gigs until 2014, when he retired.
In 2017, Johnnie Burke died at the age of 90, telling Kirkland to “take care of your brother.” Sonny’s health was failing and when he contracted MRSA, his doctors feared he wouldn’t make it. After six months in the hospital, Sonny finally was told he could go home, but that he was going to need home care.

Reginald "Sonny" Burke and his brother Kirkland (far right) pose for their Class of 1952 photo from the Grace Daly School of Fine Arts. Kirkland said that his parents bought the brothers new Maurice Rothschild suits to wear in every class photo. (Karen Torme Olson/H-F Chronicle photo of Burke family photo)
Reginald “Sonny” Burke and his brother Kirkland (far right) pose for their Class of 1952 photo from the Grace Daly School of Fine Arts. Kirkland said that his parents bought the brothers new Maurice Rothschild suits to wear in every class photo. (Karen Torme Olson/H-F Chronicle photo of Burke family photo)

“What they were saying is that he would need someone to live with to help him.”

Kirkland said. “I was teaching at Olive-Harvey at the time.” Without hesitation and remembering his mom’s request, he told the doctors ‘no problem’ and immediately went to HR to file his retirement papers so he could be a full-time caregiver for Sonny.

Reginald “Sonny” Burke died of heart failure on July 5, 2022, in South Suburban Hospital leaving Kirkland without his best friend.

“He always took care of me; we always took care of each other,” Kirkland said. “I miss him very much. The feeling of grief is an ever-present companion.”

For a sample of Sonny Burke’s musical talent, go to youtu.be/n9K7bI2afZo.

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