The Ronn Burke Story Parts 1 and 2
(a link to Part 2 is located at the end of this article)
Part 1 of 2
Ronn Burke was born in Grand Rapids on June 1, 1951. He is a totally self-trained musician and recognized by his peers as one of the most talented and refined singers from Grand Rapids.
He also plays a wide variety of instruments including tenor and baritone ukulele, piano, 6 & 12 string electric and acoustic guitar, bass guitar, and drums. He is well known in West Michigan for his lengthy tenure with Natchez Trace, which dates back to 1972. Yet he has actually been deeply involved with music since he was in elementary school.
As a fifth grader at Palmer Elementary, he performed with classmate Bob Vogel (current band leader and lead guitarist for Loretta Lynn). Their teacher, Mr. Russell McClean, had a significant musical influence on both boys. When McClean played the ukulele for their class, it encouraged them to learn how to play this instrument as well as enter and win the school talent contest. McClean worked with Ronn and Bob to teach them a few things and encouraged them to rehearse. Sometimes they did this during recess. That same year they performed for the Lowell Showboat audience with their group called the Combos, which also included Keith Smith and Dennis Bresnahan. While in Lowell, Ronn saw a rock band perform and decided that he would like to play the same type of music. The Combos stayed together for at least a year and performed at various school functions as well as at the Peninsular Club and a Friday night show at the Allegan Fair.
About this same time, Ronn received a Stella acoustic guitar from his father. He purchased the guitar at a bar that was part of his delivery route for West Side Beer Distributing, and brought it home to surprise Ronnie. His first electric guitar was a cherry- red Gibson Les Paul, Jr. When he was twelve, it was stolen out of his aunt’s car while they were attending a wedding in Chicago. But there were to be many other guitars for Burke as the years proceeded.
Like numerous other boys growing up in the early 1960s, Ronn spent much of his spare time refining his guitar playing as well as singing the songs that were popular at that time.
By the time he was in the eighth grade in 1965, he became involved with his first rock and roll band called the Laymen. Robin Nott, a drama teacher with the Gun Lake secondary school system and also a skilled guitarist, clearly recalls who the members of the Laymen were, their respective instruments and a bit of their band history:
“I was with Ronn Burke from 8th grade to 10th grade in The Laymen. Members were Ronn Burke on guitar and vocals, Robin Nott on Danelectro “tulip” bass, Brad Kick on guitar and vocals, John Throckmorton on compact Farfisa organ and vocals, and Clayton Jones on “blue-sparkled” Ludwig drums.”
“Cupid and the Intrepids were our rival Junior High garage band, and we’d meet them at various battle of the bands around town. They were from the upper east-side of Grand Rapids. I don’t remember any of their names, but they were pretty good.”
In 1966, Ronn switched to Tanglewood which included Roger Rosema (bass), Rick Sherwin (guitar and vocals), and Tim Waltcheski on drums. This band survived until the mid 70s, although Ronn had left during 1967. In 1972 and 1973, Tanglewood featured the voice and guitar playing of Charlie Huhn, who presently performs the same functions for Foghat. Charlie was also a member of Ted Nugent’s band from 1978-1982, and has performed with Gary Moore and Humble Pie.
Burke states that Tanglewood’s first engagement was at the grand opening of Albert’s Shoes at Woodland Mall, and that they performed the Beatle’s hit, “Ticket to Ride.”
His next move was to join the Jujus, a band that was already well established in West Michigan and had recorded songs that were receiving regular airplay on local radio stations.
The following excerpt from a JuJus’ biography, written by Chas Kit from his “Garage Hangover “ website, explains the context in which Ronn became a member in 1967:
“The JuJus first 45 featured two Ray Hummel originals, the amazingly powerful ‘You Treat Me Bad’ and the fifties-sounding ‘Hey Little Girl.’ The record sold well locally, supposedly reaching #2 on a chart in western Michigan in October, 1965. The future looked good and Drummond Records of Detroit offered Ray Hummel a contract based on his songwriting. The band couldn’t sign because newly-married Ray refused to tour out of state, and Ray soon left the band. “
“The JuJu’s made several personnel changes before making their next record. Brett Wells came in on vocals, and Bruce Essex, who had played guitar with Rick Stevens in the Paeans joined for part of 1966. Then Max Colley left and Bill Gorski was drafted, so the band found guitarist Ron Burke and drummer Ron Homrich. Before long Brett left and Ron Burke took over on vocals.”
“In the summer of ’67 their manager Jim Geeting opened The Island, a teen club in Ludington, in which the JuJu’s played regularly and supported touring national acts like the Kingsmen and the Electric Prunes. By this time the band had a tougher rock sound. “ ……“In late 1967 the band broke up as Rod Shepard and Rick Stevens went into the military.” “
(See: http://www.garagehangover.com/?q=JuJus to read this complete article)
Burke, who was under the legal age of 18 at this time, used his friend’s (Mike Butler’s) draft card for fake identification to gain admission into the bars and nightclubs that the Jujus played at.
Ronnie’s musical contributions with the Jujus are preserved on their anthology CD named “You Treat Me Bad.” Ronn wrote and sang two songs included on this release that are entitled “In the Park” and “Sometime or Other.” (This CD project was compiled and produced by Michael Greisman and Rod Shepard, © (p) 2009; Cicadelic Records)
- The JuJus
Further applying his recent experience of recording and songwriting for the Jujus, he created his first 45 rpm record at Cinema Sound, with Denny Cuson as the engineer. The studio was located near Burton on Division. The songs he wrote for this session were entitled “You Can Only Be Just What You Are” and “It’s Not Easy.” It was released on the Powerhouse label. The record was produced by Johnny Powers and Roger Bass. Burke knew Johnny Powers. He was doing some recording with Ronnie Fray at the same time Burke was recording this single. He played acoustic guitar and sang all the vocal parts. A string quartet from Michigan State University was used at the session and the string arrangements were created by Roger Bass, who also played piano on the tracks.
Though the Jujus disbanded, Burke retained Jim Geeting as his manager. Ronn has pleasant memories of working with Jim, and maintains that he was a good person that was a bit older than him, was fun-loving and always busy creating new situations that kept Burke working. While still in the Jujus, before Ronn had his driver’s license, Jim would even drive him to rehearsals.
At the Town House, a restaurant and motel once located north of the downtown post office on Monroe, Jim booked a solo engagement for Ronn at the motel bar called “The Monastery.” Ronn recalls that the motel was being reconstructed at that time, and that a tool shed located behind the bar had electricity and a TV in it, and that he used the shed to relax between sets.
During 1968 and the following year, Ronn joined forces with The Boyfriends, comprised of the drummer and band originator Dick Webster, guitarist Gary Johnson, Jim Ranta on keyboards, and Paul Magnan on bass. Jim Ranta recalls Ronn’s contribution to the band: “Paul Scalici was eventually replaced by Ron Burke and the band took on a completely different sound. Ron had a special voice and stage presence that complimented Paul Magnan’s rich voice in a wonderful way.”
Paul Magnan: “I believe we played “The Place” at least once. I think we won a battle of the bands there. If I remember correctly, there was another band that played there that had some older members that were usually playing at local bars. Don’t know why they were competing, but they were not happy when we won.”
Ronn also played with a band named Hyde Park after leaving The Boyfriends, around 1969.
In 1971, Burke joined Ronnie Fray’s band. The other band members were Dale “Dusty Chaps” Thomas, Randy Panda and Tom “Crow.” The friendship and musical ties that developed with Fray were an influence in terms of initiating a change of direction in Burke’s music. Up to this time, he was primarily playing rock music. Though Fray could play almost any type of music, he displayed strong country music influences well before Burke hooked up with him. At that time, Fray and Burke were both in tune with a new trend in music. “County- rock” recordings had already entered the market, and this era kicked into high gear in May of 1972, due to the popularity of the Eagles hit named “Take It Easy.” It’s safe to say that Fray and Burke were and still are proponents of the country rock style, even though both can play just about any type of music.
Ronnie Fray remembers that “when Ronn Burke played and sang with us is Alabama and Michigan, it was always such a pleasure to hear his voice…and harmonies. He played guitar and bass with us…and that particular band was probably one of the best groups of musicians I ever had the great pleasure to work with…What a band!”
In 1972, while Ronn was in Alabama with Ronnie Fray’s band, the group split up. Burke joined a band named Natchez Trace that was already intact, and it included Dan Parsons, John Egger and Sonny Brewer. Reportedly, this original Natchez Trace band performed on an aircraft carrier in Alabama. In 1973, Burke returned to Grand Rapids with Parsons and Radeke where they recorded a single containing “I Miss Mississippi,” written by Ronnie Fray, and “Old 55,” both recorded at Cinema Sound in Grand Rapids. It was issued on the Ultra-Promo label and heard regularly on Grand Rapids radio stations. Eventually Natchez Trace was slimmed down to a trio format that included Dan Parsons and Kevin Radeke and Ronn Burke. It is this trio that many locals consider to be the original Natchez Trace, although it was actually Dan Parsons, John Egger and Sonny Brewer.
Due to the popularity of their recording and the mellow appeal of their vocal harmonies, the Natchez Trace trio became a popular West Michigan band, and was invited to perform at the WLAV Raft Race. Ronn claims this is the largest crowd that he has performed for, with possibly as many as 20,000 listeners.
Burke remembers an especially fun engagement that Natchez Trace played at Studio 28 Theater in 1975: “one of the highlights for me at that time was when we played a midnight concert at Studio 28 with Xebec. We started the show with our acoustic stuff and our last song was “I’ve Seen All Good People,” recorded originally by the band “Yes”. We did the acoustic part and behind the curtain was Xebec. They took over the rock part of the song, and that’s how they started their show. That night was electric! It was the first and only time we did that so the people who were there got a special treat. I’m sure they will remember that night for ever!”
Around 1975, Ronn moved to California with Natchez Trace. Accompanying him were Billy Chrysler, Dan Parsons, Kevin Radeke and Ed Kettle, their manager. Ed envisioned that Natchez Trace had the talent to obtain a contract with a major record label. Asylum Records was targeted. At that time Asylum had The Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, Joni Mitchell and Jackson Brown under contract. Martin Coen, the attorney for this label liked Natchez Trace but suspected that there were already too many bands that were “similar” to Natchez Trace at that time.
Initially, the band stayed with friends in South Pasadena then moved to the San Fernando Valley. It was there that they lived next door to a man who happened to be a friend of actor James Caan. It was a friendly neighborhood, and their neighbors helped the band by supplying food while they were low on funds. Family and friends were sending care packages from home. The band wasn’t working a lot. Then Kevin moved out and was hard to get in contact with for their occasional engagements.
Yet, while they were in California they performed at popular venues like The Troubadour, The Palomino, The Ice House, The Red Onion in Long Beach (which was owned by Glen Campbell) and the Red Onion on Rodeo Drive, in Brentwood. They also played at The Corral in Topanga Canyon, a place that the Everly brothers liked to frequent.
They also played at showcases for movie stars who were opening nightclubs. John Fogerty had started a new record label and liked the band but they decided to hold out for a more established recording company. Finally, they ran out of money and headed back to Grand Rapids, most likely in late 1976 or early 1977.