In the '20s, Henry Burr was what would eventually come to be known as a pop phenomenon, although back in his era people might have thought that was some kind of new soft drink. Henry Burr was a stage name, and not the only one used by Harry McClaskey. He was also known as: Alfred Alexander on Pathe records; Alfred Knapp on Diva, Harmony, and Velvetone; Harry Barr on Harmony; Harry Haley on Apex and Cameo; Henry Gillette on Aurora; Irving Gillette on Edison and several other labels; Robert Bruce on Empire, Operaphone, Pathe, Perfect, and Emerson; Shamus McClaskey on Pathe and Emerson; and Lou Forbes on Crown. With the exception of Edison, he also used the Henry Burr monicker with all of these labels. The resulting discography would make even the most prolific denizen of New York's Lower East Side avant-garde scene weep with shame. Under all these names, the vocalist was credited with making some 5,000 phonograph recordings. He also performed throughout North America, and was one of the first and few Canadian artists to crack the market in the United States. Despite all this, he remains one of most the forgotten recording artists of all time.
He began his singing career as a young tenor performing in local churches in the colorful port town of St. John, New Brunswick. His first important concert appearance was in 1901 at the St. John Opera House with the Scottish soprano Jessie Maclachlan. The same year, Metropolitan Opera baritone Giuseppe Campanari came to perform at the same venue and was asked to listen to McClaskey sing. His reaction was to insist that the young man head to New York for more advanced musical training. Following the older performer's advice, he headed for New York City and found singing work as a church soloist. More importantly, he was one of the first artists to record for Victor, at that a point a brand new company, as well as what was then called Columbia Graphophone and the daddy of them all, Edison. He studied with noted teacher John Dennis Meehan and Ellen Burr, swiping the latter's name in tribute when he began making records. His first hit came with "In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree." He joined a vocal group called the Columbia Quartet, which later evolved into the Peerless Quartet. He began managing this ensemble in 1912 and over the next 15 years it, and a later offshoot called the Sterling Trio, was one of the most popular recording groups in America, churning out hundreds of popular songs on 78s. Between 1916 and 1928, in addition to recording, Burr managed and toured North America to smashing success with the Peerless Quartet, Billy Murray, and others in an ensemble accurately called the Eight Famous Popular Victor Artists. But the group could have eventually changed its name to Eight Artists Who Are Out of Style. Radio, movies, and new developments in jazz resulted in Burr's sentimental style becoming no longer in demand. He disbanded his group in the late '20s and made several solo recordings on smaller labels, then started freelancing and working for the CBS network. He was a regular performer on Chicago-area radio programs, but apparently lost a great deal of the fortune he had accumulated in the stock market crash. At 59, he died of throat cancer and heart failure, and was buried in an unmarked grave in Kenisco, NY. The largely forgotten legend began to be revived near the end of the 20th century, when several enthusiastic record collectors began a Burr research project. ~ Eugene Chadbourne