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Tommy Burton: 1935-2000
Tommy Burton
Piano, saxophone, vocals

Born: January 10, 1935 in Bilston, England
Died: September 3, 2000 in Wolverhampton, England

Entertainer in the Waller Mode

Copyright © 2000 

The Scotsman, 2000

Tommy Burton was first and foremost an entertainer. His hero was Thomas “Fats” Waller, and he was best known for his remarkably accurate recreation of Waller’s vocal style and his command of stride piano. Burton was a popular performer at traditional jazz gatherings up and down the United Kingdom, where his ebullient presence was always a tonic.

He was born Thomas William Burton in Bilston, near Wolverhampton, on 10 January, 1935, and began to learn piano at the age of eight, then added clarinet and saxophone in his teens (he also played guitar). He played his first gigs on clarinet with band leader Pete Young in 1950, then became the pianist with Johnny Fenton and The Fentones until he was called up for national service in 1953.

He served in the RAF until 1958, and was active in leading several service bands. He also made his first radio broadcast during that period. It would be the first of many, and he was also featured in an extended engagement on BBC television’s Pebble Mill At One.

On leaving the RAF, he formed the wonderfully named Thunderfoot Burton’s Celestial Three in Walsall, and hopped on the rumbling rock and roll bandwagon for a time with his own group, The Ravemen, in which he sang and played guitar. He formed another band, the Tommy Burton Combo, in the 1960s, this time playing tenor and soprano saxophones. His best known group, however, was his Sporting House Quartet, which featured the Waller-inspired repertoire most associated with him.

He formed the band at the end of the 1960s, and carried it on into the 1990s. It provided an excellent setting for his stylish piano playing, his quirky vocals, and his often risque humour. He also played solo piano gigs, and performed in a duo with guitarist and banjo player Spats Langham for a time in the mid-90s. He visited New Orleans as a performer on several occasions from the late 1980s onward, and performed both as a solo pianist and with the local musicians there.

He ran a pub in Wolverhampton for six years from 1972-78. He suffered a stroke in 1999, but had returned to playing, and performed at the Bude Jazz Festival shortly before his death. He is survived by his wife, Dot, and their daughter, Jackie.

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