An outpouring of love, grief, and reverence almost instinctively followed the untimely passing of a local veteran in entertainment, described by many as one of the greatest musicians Barbados has ever seen.
William Smokey Burke, who passed away on Wednesday morning, continues to live on in the minds of many for his determination and versatility in navigating the murky waters of a music industry that was awash with talent in the late 20th century.
Cultural Ambassador the Most Honourable Anthony The Mighty Gabby Carter recalled Burke’s firm grasp of numerous genres, including gospel, spouge, calypso, folk, pop, rock and reggae.
“The thing about it was that Smokey not only performed, but he wrote in all of those genres. He was that good, and it is a pity it took so long for some of us to recognize his greatness,” Gabby told Barbados TODAY.
Though his career began some decades earlier, Burke soared to the top of local charts in 1995 with hit songs I’m on Fire and Help me Love.
Prior to this, he performed as a drummer with popular band The Organisation and later toured with The Drifters as lead vocalist.
Despite Burke’s eventual success, Gabby recalled that he struggled for some time to climb the ranks of the music industry here, and eventually moved to Canada.
In fact, the Cultural Ambassador remembered Burke often saying that his recognition occurred by accident, after mentioning to some influential figures that he was a Harrison College old scholar.
“He said from there he found that a lot of people started to treat him better and accept him and his work, and he always thought it was a pity that this is how he got his recognition,” recalled Gabby.
He and Burke became friends from 1965 and their relationship never faltered.
“We had no quarrels, disputes or arguments. We just loved each other as human beings and we would praise each other’s work and he would let me hear his songs long before the public, on so many occasions, and I would do the same.
“I am going to miss my friend dearly and to his family and his children, to his sisters, I send my deepest sympathy,” the local music icon said softly.
Burke competed multiple times in numerous national competitions and up to 2018, made the finals of the Pic-O-De Crop competition before falling ill. Though he wanted to perform, his management did not allow it based on expert medical opinion.
The year before, he also reached the finals with his songs Portrait and Persona Non Grata.
“It was tough seeing him through his period of sickness but when the sickness came on, he was still telling jokes…. He never gave up until the last day. It was tough, but his spirit kept all of us going,” Gabby said.
Heart-warming tributes were also given by Minister of the Creative Economy, Culture and Sports John King and fellow calypsonian Colin Spencer, as well as numerous other songwriters, artistes and musicians.
“I am saddened to learn of the passing of my dear friend, entertainer par excellence,” said King, himself a former calypsonian.
In a statement released on social media, the Culture Minister added: “He was an amazing talent, humourous, outspoken and passionate about the arts. I wish to convey my heartfelt condolences to his family and friends. Smokey, we will miss you.”
Spencer, meanwhile, told Barbados TODAY that his relationship with Burke became extremely strong over the last two decades as they performed in four different calypso tents together. The two would also be often seen at cricket together and frequenting bars and restaurants across the island.
“Mr Burke was truly one of the legends of Barbados’ entertainment. He contributed to and was a part of Barbados’ entertainment when we had several live bands around.
“His music spoke volumes to the type of artist he was…. The entertainment fraternity and the music-loving people of Barbados have lost a legend in Smokey Burke. He will be sorely missed and I want to extend sincere condolences to his friends and family,” Spencer said. [email protected]