A chameleon-like singer who was remarkably versatile stylistically, adapting his delivery to suit both the era as well as the record labels he was recording for, though he had little commercial success to show for it. By the 1960’s, though still recording, he was transitioning into producing when he was felled by a heart-attack robbing the music world of a unique talent.

Burrage was born in Chicago in 1931 and would remain a resident of the city his whole life and during that life would absorb seemingly all of its musical influences which came out on his own recordings.

He got his professional start on Decca Records as a 19 year old in 1950 with a lone release as the company was trying – very tentatively – to try their hand at rock ‘n’ roll, albeit with a pure jazz band backing him. After that early effort it’d be three years before he was back in the studio for Aladdin Records. Ironically those dead-end one-off releases would be the only times he really worked for high profile record companies.

He put in his longest stint starting in 1956 with Chicago blues label Cobra Records and while he never became a pure blues artist himself, he adapted some traits of it occasionally – notably on “Satisfied” – as well as being backed by some of the city’s best blues musicians, such as Otis Rush on guitar.

Burrage himself often backed those same blues acts on piano in the studio, earning a steady income as a session musician since his own records weren’t big sellers. Yet as a singer he showed he could easily handle whatever style was in vogue at the time, from his Amos Milburn takeoff in 1953 to a Fats Domino approach on “She Knocks Me Out”. He took on a breathy hiccuping style most often associated with rockabilly on his 1956 track “Messed Up” while channeling Larry Williams on “Betty Jean” in 1958. Throughout it all Little Richard was never far from his mind on many of the songs he tackled during this era.

Maybe that versatility and lack of originality was the problem in establishing himself as a viable singer in his own right but he finally seemed to come into his own late in the decade when he emphasized the gospel-esque emotion on 1959’s “Crying For My Baby” on Vee-Jay. This was a breakthrough record of sorts as it coincided with the rise of this type of singing which would dominate black rock ‘n’ roll over the next decade and stuck with that more or less for the rest of his career, roughening it up as time went on and eventually scoring his lone national hit in 1965 with “Things Ain’t What They Used To Be”.

By now he was ensconced in the city’s thriving soul scene and was acting as a mentor to up and comers Otis Clay and Tyrone Davis when in 1966, at the age of 35, he died of a heart-attack in Davis’s apartment, a tragic end for someone who had managed to survive in a professional sense all of the stylistic shifts rock ‘n’ roll had undergone almost since its inception.

HAROLD BURRAGE DISCOGRAPHY (Records Reviewed To Date On Spontaneous Lunacy):

(Decca 48175; October, 1950)
A compromised track in that it obscures the sexual message too much with a gimmicky approach while the jazz band is unsure of how to best frame a rock song, turning this into more of a novelty than what it had the potential to be under better circumstances. (4)

(Decca 48175; October, 1950)
A solid unpretentious effort that benefits from Burrage having a more straightforward song to work with, strongly hinting at the influence fellow Windy City teenage rocker Andrew Tibbs has on him before carving out his own style the more this goes on. (5)