Born: July 30, 1957 in Milwaukee WI
Died: May 6, 2012 in Atlanta GA
Blues guitarist Michael "Iron Man" Burks earned his nickname by delivering hours-long, physically-demanding performances night after night, his soulful vocals matched by a fierce, unique guitar style that would leave audiences breathless. A charismatic performer, nobody left a Burks' show without a smile on their face, and the artist would climb behind the wheel of his van and drive hundreds of miles to his next show. A true blue-collar bluesman, Burks developed a worldwide audience one fiery performance at a time.
Born To Play The Blues
Young Michael was literally born to play the blues, his grandfather Joe a noted acoustic Delta bluesman in the family's Camden, Arkansas hometown. Burks' father Frederick was a bass player who worked the steel mills of Milwaukee, Wisconsin during the day and played the city's run-down blues clubs at night, frequently backing blues harmonica legend Sonny Boy Williamson. Burks first held a guitar when he was two years old, barely out of the crib when his father began teaching him the instrument.
By the age of five, already having learned musical scales on his child-sized guitar, Burks began teaching himself individual songs from his father's collection of 45rpm vinyl. His father came up with an effective motivation for the young guitarist, promising him a dollar if he could learn a song by the time he returned home from work, a challenge Michael excelled at accomplishing. At six years old, Burks made his first public performance, playing with his cousin's band down in Arkansas. A few years later, a mere 14 years old, Burks earned his first professional gig, touring California as part of Michael Clay's band.
Bradley Ferry Country Club
Sometime in the early 1970s, Frederick Burks moved his family back to Arkansas where Michael and his siblings helped build the family's Bradley Ferry Country Club, a 300-seat juke-joint. The teenaged Michael was already fronting his own band by this time and would play behind the visiting performers, gaining valuable experience backing blues and R&B giants like Johnnie Taylor and O.V. Wright. The club's business thrived, with Burks leading the house band through its paces Thursday through Sunday nights.
Married and with a new baby daughter to consider, Burks decided to pursue a regular paycheck and home life as opposed to the hit-or-miss lifestyle of the musician once the family's club closed down. Mechanically skilled – Burks had also enjoyed success in rebuilding and racing motorcycles – he took a job as a technician with Lockheed-Martin, where he would spend much of the 1980s, putting his career on the back-burner. Burks' love of music and his desire to perform wouldn't go away, however, and by 1994 he had put together a new band and began playing regional clubs and festivals, including regular appearances at the King Biscuit Blues Festival in nearby Helena, Arkansas.
An Emerging Career
Burks' incendiary guitar style and dynamic, high-energy performances quickly began earning him an audience and offers to play festivals across the country. Recognizing his employee's immense talent, and being a fellow blues lover, Burks' boss would accommodate his gigs with long weekends, the company even entertaining customers by flying them to Burks' festival performances. In 1997, Burks recorded his debut album, the independently-produced From The Inside Out. Critical acclaim came quickly, the album earning Burks a Blues Music Award nomination as "Best New Artist" while Living Blues magazine called it one of "the best debut discs of the year."
In the wake of the acclaim heaped on From The Inside Out, Burks stepped up his performance schedule, appearing as such well-regarded events as the Chicago Blues Festival, Telluride Blues Festival, and the Arkansas River Blues Festival, among others. It was his strong showing in Chicago in 2000 that brought him to the attention of Alligator Records' founder Bruce Iglauer, who quickly signed the guitarist to his label. Burks made his Alligator debut with 2001's Make It Rain, earning even more national and international attention and cementing his status as a rising star in the blues stratosphere.
Show of Strength
Burks followed up Make It Rain two years later with the acclaimed I Smell Smoke, the album earning the guitarist his second Blues Music Award nomination for "Contemporary Blues Album of the Year," losing the award to fellow Alligator artist Marcia Ball. The album also garnered Burks the Living Blues magazine critic's award as "Best Guitarist" in 2004. Touring heavily during the early 2000s to meet enormous demand for his live appearances, Burks wouldn't release another recording until 2008's Iron Man, working with his road band in the studio and achieving a more dynamic live sound than previous. The album earned Burks rave reviews and comparisons to legends like B.B. King and Buddy Guy.
Burks entered the studio with Alligator's Iglauer in early 2012 to record what would tragically become his swansong album, Show of Strength. Working once again with his tight-as-a-fist, road-tested touring band, including keyboardist Wayne Sharp and drummer Chuck "Popcorn" Louden, Show of Strength showcased Burks' rapidly-maturing songwriting skills, the guitarist co-writing five of the album's twelve songs. Tragically, Burks would suffer a fatal heart attack in May 2012 at the Atlanta International Airport after returning from a successful European tour. Show of Strength, basically completed at the time of Burks' death, would be released posthumously in August 2012.
Recommended Albums: If Burks' universally-acclaimed Iron Man album was the guitarists' breakthrough effort, his final album, Show of Strength, provided a fitting end to his too-brief career. Burks also delivered an electrifying extended jam on his "Voodoo Spell" for fellow guitarist Tommy Castro's Legendary Rhythm & Blues Revue Live! compilation album.
Michael Burks Discography
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