February 12, 2005 by

Big Joe Burrell

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Categories: Musicians

Big Joe Burrell, a larger-than-life blues singer and saxophonist, died on Feb. 2 from complications following abdominal surgery. He was 80.
One of seven children, Burrell spent his early years in Port Huron, Mich., listening to his mother sing and his father play the guitar, harmonica and piano. At 10, the boy’s mother borrowed $5 from her boss in order to buy him a saxophone. The request was granted and changed his life.
For the next six decades, Burrell sang and played jazz, rock and blues on his sax. He dropped out of high school in the ninth grade to pursue a music career, and was already working gigs at local clubs when World War II called him into the service. Burrell joined the U.S. Army in 1943 and played in the military’s show band, then spent two years battling tuberculosis — a condition that temporarily hindered his ability to play.
After recovering from the disease, Burrell moved to Toledo, Ohio, and formed the Red Tops Organ Trio. At a dance in Akron, the band opened for legendary blues guitarist B.B. King. King loved Burrell’s big sax sound, and immediately invited him to join his band. Burrell agreed and spent the next two years touring the United States. When Count Basie heard him play, he also invited Burrell to join with his orchestra in New York City. Through Basie, Burrell landed a job backing The Miller Sisters as they toured Bermuda, the Bahamas and Europe.
Burrell spent the next decade living in Toronto and playing in a jazz band with Big John Little. He was en route to New York in 1976 when he stumbled upon the burgeoning music scene in Burlington, Vt. For the next 30 years, Burrell became a fixture in the area, and even received a key to the city from the mayor.
His informal jam sessions at the now-defunct Hunt’s club drew standing room only audiences. With guitarist Paul Asbell, keyboardist Chuck Eller, bassist Tony Markellis and drummer Russ Lawton, Burrell formed the Unknown Blues Band, a group that performed in clubs and jazz festivals all over New England and released the albums “Live at Hunt’s” and “Every Time I Hear That Mellow Saxophone.”
One person who heard the gregarious saxophonist perform was Trey Anastasio, a University of Vermont student and guitarist who later formed the touring rock band Phish. Once he became a successful musician in his own right, Anastasio invited Burrell to open for Phish and play in a solo project he formed.
Until his death, Burrell played a gig every Thursday night at the Halvorson’s Upstreet Café. He also performed benefit concerts for the Multicultural Center of Greater Burlington, Women Helping Battered Women and the Flynn Center Endowment Fund. His autobiography, “We Call Him ‘Big’ Joe! Big Horn, Big Soul, Big Man: A Musician’s Odyssey,” was published in 2002.

2 Responses to Big Joe Burrell

  1. Michael Gitto

    My daughter and I loved Joe’s music. We’ve seen him Live at Hildene Craft Fair, and in Shepard Park in Lake George n.y. He is missed by us “Big Time”!!! Mike Gitto

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