Songs of empathy and gentleness
● By Richard Gaw
By Richard L. Gaw, Staff Writer
A little more than a year ago, Billy Penn Burger stood on a stage with his band at Burlap and Bean in Newtown Square, performing songs from his latest album, when he felt a rocketing pain in his chest that would not subside.
He began to sweat profusely. He couldn't catch his breath, but he finished the song he was singing. He called for a stool and a glass of water. Exit now, stage right? No, Sir. He'd worked too hard to get here. For the next hour, Burger played through the pain, and it wasn't until after the show, when he was in a hospital having two stents placed near his heart, that Billy Penn Burger knew that he had just performed his music through a heart attack.
In many ways, the story is a tell-tale allegory to the swerving, spiraling journey that Burger, 61, has had with music since his childhood in West Chester more than 50 years ago.
On Dec. 19, local audiences will be able to see the latest stop on that journey, when Burger performs in a show titled "Crossroads," along with Michael and Dennis Melton, Bob Beach and Tommy Geddes.
"You've heard of a group called The Beatles?" Burger said. "I was one of those kids in my pajamas watching them on 'Ed Sullivan.' I loved music before that moment, but the Beatles really changed everything."
Like any future American musician born in 1950s and who came of age in the 1960s, Burger ws raised on his parents' records, stuff like Eydie Gorme and Steve Lawrence, the Kingston Trio and The Brothers Four. The easy listening ended when his older brothers came home with Bob Dylan records, cat-swampy blues recordings and the glorious backbeat of Motown. As a teenager in the early 1970s, he hung out at the Main Point and saw Jackson Browne, Bill Withers and Muddy Waters. He saw them own the stage like it was rightly theirs. He had to eventually do what they did.
By the time he'd reached his early 20s, Burger had joined the Get Right Band as its bass player, where he stayed for nearly a decade, knocking around stages in Wilmington, West Chester, Philadelphia and everywhere in between. His daughter Rae was born in 1987, and for the next several years, Burger found himself pulled away from music to be available to his young daughter. He was a single father, and there were no instruments in the Burger home. The notion of someday owning a stage like the heroes he used to see seemed light years from reality.
There is a downplayed code in local music circles that nearly everyone who performs regularly lives by: Look out for your brothers and sisters. Support them. Give them opportunities.
Burger credited his fellow musicians and the camaraderie he shared with them for bringing him back to his music. A friend loaned him money to buy a new guitar, and he joined a cover band, along with several of his musician buddies.
"Over the next six, seven years, I'd discovered what I'd always been afraid to do, which was to be up front, center stage, leading a band," Burger said. "Little by little, there was an artist that was emerging."
He also picked up a pen and began writing songs again. Although Burger helped write songs for the Get Right Band, his writing now was taking on a new, more mature voice. A newly found confidence was finding its way not only on the stage, but to the page.
In 2013, he released "Living Documents," an award-winning, ten-song recording of his own songs, and followed that with "The Night Outside," a nine-song CD released on Nov. 21. As a result of these two recordings, the accolades for Burger's songs have poured in from the local musical community. "Billy's songs reach you where we are are all in one heart," said Bert Harris. "That is unique and powerful."
Burger's intentions are just to keep playing music, and hopefully make another record soon, in collaboration with his band: Steve Prentice on keyboards; Nick Bucci on guitar; Chuck Whiteman on saxophone; John McGovern on bass; and Chris Sherlock on drums. Burger said that the biggest thrill he has in music is being included in a fraternity of local musicians, all of whom work very hard to write, promote, perform and produce their own music.
"These last few years have been satisfying for me, to have musicians whom I so admire want to play my songs," said Burger, who is now a resident of West Grove. "To have an audience for these songs is very satisfying as well -- to know that I touch someone in a way that I want to touch them, through words and music.
"Hopefully, there is a humanity that comes out in my music," he added. "I want to be a voice of love and peace and all that's good in life. I don't mind performing a sad song, but I'd like to sing it from a certain perspective, from empathy and gentleness."
For tickets to "Crossroads" on Dec. 19 at the Kennett Flash, visit www.kennettflash.org.
To learn more about Billy Penn Burger, visit www.billypennburger.com.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, e-mail email@example.com.