A passion for creating music

  • In tune: veteran musician and studio owner John Burch is hoping to revive Bermuda’s live music scene (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

At the age of 8, John Burch was called into the kitchen where his three brothers and his father, Reginald, waited.

Told to stand on a chair, he was handed a bass fiddle and given a chord to play; his father accompanied him on guitar.

“We probably played something like Yellow Bird,” said Mr Burch, a career musician who is about to release his third CD.

“The notes were C-A-F-G. He picked up his guitar and played with me, and all my brothers clapped their hands.”

Now 72, the memory has stuck as his first introduction to an instrument although it wasn’t until years later that he learnt how to play. “I always wanted to play the guitar and, at 13, I bought my own,” he said, adding that he earned the money as a packer at A1 Supermarket in Paget. “It cost me Ł5, 2 shillings and sixpence from Eaton’s catalogue. I got a guitar and an amplifier. They were worth it, but it was a lot of money at that time.

“I started picking, one string at a time, and then moved to two strings. Eventually, I got to play a chord.

“My father showed me a few things, but I mainly learnt by listening to records and trying to [play that music] on the guitar.”

At 16, he started performing, first with his brothers, Earlston, Herman and David, whose nickname is “Papa D”, at Warwick Workmen’s Club.

At 18, he was invited to join a Somerset band, The Formations. “They needed a guitar player and I wasn’t all that good, but it worked out,” said Mr Burch, who is often called “JB” by friends. “The leader of the band was Maxie Maybury who played sax, Sheldon Thompson played bass and Reggie Woods was on drums.”

It led to stints with other popular groups here: The Invaders, The Watford Bridge and, ultimately, The Bermuda Strollers.

“I travelled with them extensively for 33 years, with Ted Ming and the boys.

“We went to Boston on various occasions every winter for about 25 years. We spent every winter up there in that cold weather; I don’t know why it stopped.”

The Strollers’ performances weren’t limited to Beantown. Audiences also turned out to see them on the US West Coast; New York, Philadelphia and New Jersey were some of the places they played that were closer to home. “We played all over America,” Mr Burch said. “I had a great experience travelling. I wouldn’t change it.”

His claim is to have played in every single hotel on the island “back in the day”, making roughly $150 a night at the Southampton Princess, Elbow Beach, Grotto Bay, St George’s Hotel and other tourist resorts.

“After the Strollers died off, I had to keep going for myself,” he said.

As part of that he opened JB South Shore Studio out of his Warwick home ten years ago. It’s where he recorded his CDs, Just Relax, Bermuda Island Rock and the yet-to-be released Slam It.

“My new one is a cross between hip-hop, reggae and calypso — African sounds,” he said. “The first one, I wrote three years ago. I backed off from creating for a while. I’ve been trying to get work, but it’s been frustrating.”

With veteran entertainers Cleveland “Outta Sight” Simmons and June Caisey, he is now trying to resurrect Bermuda’s live music scene.

“Their performance repertoire includes cocktail music, dance music, show music, reggae and jazz,” he said. “A lot of the music coming out today, I don’t understand it. I’m working with Cleveland trying to get a show together to present to the hotels; we’re trying to get something happening.

“We’re now playing for seniors, at Victor Scott School, at Packwood Home.

“We did a memorial for [the late Bermudian drummer and singer] Charles Taylor at Leopards Club.

“We’re trying to create an environment where there’s lots of entertainment going on.

“Our hope is to get some jobs going and get people interested in having events.”