By Alan Whittaker
Few people today have heard of the tenor known as the Lancashire Caruso. But at his peak Tom Burke enthralled discerning opera audiences at La Scala in Milan and New York’s Met.
Although he was comparatively unknown in Britain, Dame Nellie Melba, one of the era’s great divas and a woman of formidable authority, heard him sing in Italy and insisted he appear as Rodolfo opposite her in a 1919 production of La Boheme at Covent Garden – a performance that earned him four encores at the end of Act One.
‘At last an English tenor with a voice of pure Italian flavour,’ enthused one critic.
Away from the opera circuit his lyrical voice and vibrant personality endeared him to packed provincial theatres in Britain who delighted in his repertoire of sentimental Irish songs and popular Edwardian drawing-room ballads such as The Minstrel Boy, Killarney, The Mountains of Mourne, Roses of Picardy, Mary, Because, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, and You Are My Heart’s Delight. He was billed as The Minstrel Boy.
Tom’s career was as dramatic and turbulent as any opera storyline, and in the space of 20 tumultuous years he enjoyed wealth, fame and the favours of many beautiful women, only to sink into penniless obscurity as a barman in a golf club.
Tom’s early recordings are now rarities; crackling, scratchy remnants of the Celluloid Age of cylinders – as distant as the Jurassic Age from modern recording studios with their sophisticated electronic gadgetry.
But there is no mistaking the quality of the voice first heard at the coal face of a colliery entertaining fellow miners; the feeble yellow glow of helmet lamps for footlights and a huddled audience of intensely respectful coal-streaked faces sipping cold tea from tin cups, a mile underground and four miles from the pit shaft.
It was a voice that years later, when Burke was an international celebrity, intrigued King George V, not the most mentally athletic or artistically inclined monarch in Europe. After seeing Burke perform the King decided he would like to meet the singer. It was a command, not a request.
Tom’s response was not the most courteous or diplomatic. “Tell the old bugger to wait,” he told the hapless royal emissary.
It was a stupid throw-away gesture but typical of Burke who carried an invisible coal wagon of smouldering contempt and loathing for the wealthy toffs from privileged backgrounds who seemed to control the destinies of working class people without ever working or making any contribution to society or caring about the plight of poor families.
It was an attitude carved into his character from bitter childhood memories. Tom was born in 1890 and brought up in the Lancashire pit town of Leigh, the eldest of nine children of an impoverished Irish miner. Like so many of his generation, memories of his childhood, often in relentless poverty, left an indelible scar that refused to heal. Bread and margarine as a meal, no milk for a pot of tea, slum housing in Mather Lane, four children in one bed, scavenging for coal on slag heaps during the pit strikes, the queue of disconsolate decent people at the charity soup kitchen and the sight of his mother Mary patching piles of second hand clothes by candlelight. Even in ‘good times’ meat was a luxury reserved for Sunday lunch.
It was a scandalous scenario all too familiar to hundreds of poor families but light years from Sandringham or Balmoral.
As a small boy, Tom acquired a love of singing from his father, Vince, who would sit him on his knee and sing Irish lullabies. He left school aged 12 and after a year working FULL TIME in a silk mill, he became a coal miner, joined Leigh Brass Band and learned to play the cornet. But singing was his greatest pleasure.
Vince and Mary were loving parents and with two wages now coming in decided to buy a second-hand piano. Mary pawned her precious sewing machine to help pay the weekly instalments.
It was a four-mile walk from the pit head to Mather Lane and by chance a music teacher heard Tom singing as he made his way home with a group of fellow miners. He liked what he heard and was instrumental in sending the 17-year-old to a singing teacher in nearby Atherton, who suggested Tom should enrol at Manchester College of Music.
To raise the tuition fees, Tom sold tripe in pubs, entertained customers by singing, and worked as a waiter. When he was 19 he walked from Leigh to Blackpool to hear the world-renowned tenor Enrico Caruso sing at the Winter Gardens. It was a wearying round hike of some 60 miles but it inspired young Burke to dream of becoming a professional singer.
He auditioned for the Halle Choir but was rejected by the musical director as ‘too ordinary’. The orchestra’s conductor thought differently and arranged for Tom to sing for London impresario Hugo Gorelitz, who was in Manchester searching for talented vocalists. He reckoned the raw young lad from Lancashire showed promise and after an audition Tom was given a contract, told to enrol at the Royal Academy of Music in London, and pay his fees by singing at various venues selected by Gorelitz. His voice coach was Edgardo Levi and he persuaded his friend Caruso, who had popped into the Academy for a chat, to listen to his pupil.
Whether Caruso was genuinely impressed or merely humouring an old friend is not clear but over a warm hand clasp he told the wide-eyed Burke: “One day you will wear my mantle, but first you must go to Italy. There you will find your voice.”
Burke took his advice and headed for Italy with his young wife Marie, who came from a well-to-do show business family. In Milan he learned the language, lost his flat Lancashire dialect, sang in several opera houses and once stepped in as a substitute for Gigli, the world famous tenor.
The Great War of 1914-18 saw Tom back in London and ready for military service but the Army authorities decided he would be far better employed entertaining the troops than slogging it out in the infantry.
Following his appearance opposite Melba at Covent Garden he made 14 records for Columbia and during the next decade became the toast of London society.
He appeared at Covent Garden in 1920, with Beecham conducting, and the composer Giacomo Puccini, who heard him at rehearsal, was so impressed he insisted Tom be given roles in two more of his operas. It seemed as though the world was at his feet for that same year he was offered £400 a performance – the highest offer ever made to a British singer – to appear in America. He and Marie set sail for New York.
Then the wheels came off. His agent had advertised him in the States as ‘Ireland’s greatest ever tenor’ – not the smartest publicity stunt when John McCormack was around, delighting packed theatres, and proving the nostalgic voice of Home to every Irish exile in America. It was the equivalent of attempting to pass off George Formby as the new Elvis.
The critics were unanimous and venomous. “John McCormack can sleep easily,” wrote one. There were concerts in small theatres but the £400 a night flow dried up and Marie, an accomplished singer, returned to England to raise cash. She appeared in the London stage production of Showboat with the incomparable Paul Robeson. But Tom’s philandering had strained the marriage and they were divorced.
Left to his wayward ways, Tom regularly made the headlines with his drinking and womanising. There had to be questions about his judgement. Would any sensible person pick a quarrel over a pretty girl with Jack Dempsey, the undisputed ex-world heavyweight boxing champion who was known as the Manassa Mauler? Or cross a Mafia boss in a dispute involving another woman; an altercation that left Burke in hospital with a gunshot wound and a compelling urge to get out of town?
A surprise offer to return to Britain with an engagement at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall with John Barbirolli conducting was gratefully seized. He couldn’t quit America too soon and left the next day leaving a pile of debt.
Back home he visited Leigh where he was given a rapturous welcome by the adoring mining community that spawned him, but London and the bright lights beckoned. He sang to a packed Albert Hall and toured the country enchanting provincial theatre-goers. It seemed The Minstrel Boy was back in business; his American experience an unfortunate hiccup. He could afford a flat in the West End, a Rolls-Royce and a butler.
But the self-destructive streak was never far from the surface. He quarrelled with Barbirolli, agents and impresarios, and even slated the people who queued at Covent Garden to hear him perform. “They are not music lovers,” he sneered. “They go to opera because it’s the thing to do, rather like appearing at Royal Ascot. Just showing off.”
His philandering lifestyle – revolving around booze, broken promises, and attractive women – made him unreliable and on many occasions he failed to turn up for singing engagements. As a result he was shunned by agents and theatre managers and earned nothing for a year. He was an outcast.
Worse was to follow. He lost £100,000 – an enormous amount at the time – in the Wall Street Crash and in 1932 was bankrupt. By 1934 he was renting a tiny threadbare room; a washed-up, disgruntled has-been. The man who had taken Covent Garden by storm became a bookies’ runner, steward at a golf club, and a waiter.
He tried running a club in Leigh but a police raid and charges of illegal drinking forced its closure and Tom moved to Sutton, Surrey, where in 1969 he died aged 78.
A selection of the recordings he made during the 1930s with film of him entertaining soldiers wounded in the Great War can be found on YouTube including Puccini’s soaring Nessun Dorma, a rigorous test for even the most talented tenor. Tom’s version would have pleased the composer.
He is buried in the cemetery at Wallington, Surrey, and the inscription on his headstone reads: ‘Never have I heard my music so beautifully sung’- Puccini.
The glitzy, costumed world of grand opera may no longer remember the Minstrel Boy but for some time after his death a group of admirers in workaday Leigh would meet occasionally to play his records and, over a few beers, talk with pride about the local lad who became The Minstrel Boy and the Lancashire Caruso.