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Chester County Press

'He was the very definition of a good human being'

01/23/2018 12:39PM ● By Richard Gaw
By Richard L. Gaw

Staff Writer

On Jan. 6, the music community of Delaware and Chester County lost a piece of its soul when West Grove musician and recording artist Billy Penn Burger died.

He left behind a wife, a daughter, a small nation of friends and colleagues, and a catalog of songs and performances that will be remembered by those who admired him as a musician and loved him as a friend. Musicians are storytellers, so in compiling a retrospective of a musician’s life, it seemed fitting to let their voices be heard.

Four years ago, I walked into the Kennett Flash to hear a singer/songwriter I had been hearing so much about named Billy Penn Burger. I sat down, not knowing what to expect from the music or the artist. Billy and I had crossed paths many times over the years but never formally met until that night. Well, the performance began and I was blown away. Billy was an unpretentious performer, with sincere songs and an energy that filled the room. After meeting Billy that night and having a chance to chat, we figured it was time for us to share the stage.
“Billy already had a great band, so a bass player was the last thing he needed, but since I played upright bass, we made it work. We did our first gig together at the Bellefonte Cafe -- just a duo -- and it really was a great night of music.
“Over the next few years, I had the opportunity to share the stage a few more times with Billy and spend more time during rehearsals. I can say that he was one of the kindest, most gentle and talented individuals I have ever met. The music community suffered a great loss, but all that knew him will feel the loss of a wonderful person. I will miss him.”

Tony Cappella

“In 1970, I was a 17-year-old with a guitar and big dreams, and I walked into the Main Point in Bryn Mawr to perform at an open-mic Sunday. Also there that day was a tall, skinny kid with a huge afro, who performed with his songwriting buddy. That skinny kid – Billy Burger – and I would eventually become lifelong friends. We discovered we had so much in common, especially when it came to our taste in music. I loved his descriptive way of expressing how certain songs affected him in his early days of listening to AM radio.
“What really mattered to Billy, both as a listener and as a writer, was the emotional impact a song could have. He was very aware of the power of a great song from a very early age and strove to achieve that in his own music. The amazing thing about Billy -- what astonished so many of us who played music with him -- was his ability to do this again and again. To be a really good songwriter, you need to not only have great musical ability, which he had, but you need to be, if not poetic, very good with words. Billy was poetic. A song he never got to record, “These Are the Times,” is a great example. I love all the words, but I just love this line: 'Sometimes we lock our arms and go/one blind leap into the net below/ These are the times that I am living for.'

“I haven’t written yet about what a wonderful, gentle, loving man he was. Much has been written about that already, and it’s all true. He was also funny, witty and a joy to spend time with. I had the great fortune to spend a lot of time with him. I wish there could be more, but Billy would probably tell me not to be greedy. I will love him forever.”

Steve Prentice

“My son Michael and I were rehearsing for a Crossroads concert with Billy when he brought us his song, 'For The Ones I Love.' I played a rehearsal recording of it in the car the morning after the presidential election last year. When Billy sang the line, 'It won’t really matter what I say in this song, if I’m not strong for the ones I love,' I lost it. I called Michael, who told me that on his morning break, he too had listened to the song over and over again, sobbing.

I had the honor of the playing the Pacem in Terris Peace Concert with Billy just this past June, the only time I played bass and sang harmonies with the Billy Burger Band. We kicked out a soaring version of Bob Dylan’s 'Blowin’ In The Wind' and a gentle rendering of Billy's 'Four Words,' which urges, 'Make love not war, give peace a chance.'
“Billy intended on performing with me, my wife Donna and Michael at an event at The Flash this past September, but he was too ill to be there, so our family performed a version of Billy’s haunting song 'The Other Side,' which includes the refrain: 'Is it a circle of life that’s goin’ round and round, or more like a river flowin’ on and on, or just the sun comin’ up on one side of the world, when the light on the other side is gone.' Billy’s songs and the person were one and the same, the expression of a gentle, caring, compassionate, loving person. I know that his songs will live on in our hearts and through our voices.”

Dennis Melton

Billy was one of those musicians who continuously reinvented himself. From The Get Right Band in the late 1970s and 1980s to The Billy Penn Project in the 1990s, to his latest solo work as a singer/songwriter, he truly did it all. His songs are gorgeous, his lyrics evocative, and he churned them out at an almost alarming rate. He won awards, received critical accolades, and played to sold-out houses. Anyone who ever worked with him will tell you all of those things.
“But invariably, any discussion of Billy will quickly turn into a discussion of what an incredibly nice guy he was. He was the very definition of a good human being. It sounds corny, but he just exuded calm, kindness, and peace. Billy was extraordinarily giving to young songwriters and musicians, and always with a smile and an encouraging word, no matter what. There really just aren’t enough superlatives.
“Billy Burger was hugely talented without a hint of arrogance, sweet and kind without being saccharine, and socially passionate without being angry. I admired him in so many ways. He was a true gentleman, and a truly gentle man, and there is surely a little less light in the world without him.”

Biff McNeil

Easy Flow. This is probably the best way I can capture Billy Penn Burger’s essence in a few words. After he passed, I really dug into his catalog of music. There was something special about Billy that transcended directly from his personality into his music. This was his ability to make you feel like things were going to be OK, no matter what was going on.
“In person, Billy was known for his inclusive, warm-hearted character, which truly defines a piece of his soul that he shared in person and through music. Whether he was singing a sad song about heartache or death, or just telling a non-dramatic story about the weather, Billy’s music relaxed you. It made things feel easy.
“I am sad that I never got the chance to perform with Billy. He was a true songwriter, and like many of us musicians, he let his heart bleed through music so that listeners could rest easy knowing that pain was not unique, but it is something we can all share and celebrate as humans.”

Bill Rose

To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].