On March 1, we lost Bill Burkette, the baritone lead singer and co-founder of the Pennsylvania vocal group, the Vogues. The Lettermen’s founding leader Tony Butala and current Vogues member, since 2000, Troy Elich share their fond memories with Goldmine.
By Warren Kurtz
Northeast Ohio native Dick Glasser, and future producer for the Vogues, first heard a vocal quartet from Turtle Creek, Pennsylvania, perform under the name the Valaires, in Cleveland in 1958 with teenager Bill Burkette as the lead baritone vocalist. He wrote on the liner notes for their “Till” album in 1969, “I took special interest in what they were doing vocally, the smooth blend they had obtained for such young guys.” In 1965, with a new name of the Vogues, the quartet signed with the independent Pittsburgh record label Co & Ce. Twenty years ago, in 1988, Rhino records released a four song compilation, in the short-lived 3” CD single/EP format on their “Lil’ Bit of Gold” series containing all four of the Vogues’ mid-‘60s hits for Co & Ce.
“You’re the One” was a 1965 cover of a song co-written by Petula Clark and her producer Tony Hatch from her “I Know a Place” album. The Vogues’ version went to number four nationally and number one in Cleveland.
“Five O’Clock World” followed, which also reached number four nationally and had another Cleveland connection, decades later, when used as a theme for “The Drew Carey Show” on ABC television.
Songwriters Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil provided their next hit “Magic Town,” a city song, following their theme of “On Broadway,” with caution. Bill Burkette sang that he had to find the magic in this magic town, before he could send for his wife. The group would also record the songwriting duo’s “See That Girl?” later in the decade, which would appear on their 1969 “Greatest Hits” album. The fourth Top 40 hit on the Co & Ce label was “The Land of Milk and Honey.”
There were two more singles in the second half of 1966 in the Top 100 on the label, “Please Mr. Sun” and “That’s the Tune,” each with decreasing chart positions. The next single, “Summer Afternoon,” written by the Addrisi brothers, with Bill Burkette’s composition “Take a Chance on Me Baby” as its flip side, failed to chart in 1967.
In 1968, the Vogues moved to Warner Brothers’ subsidiary label Reprise. In early February, the Association released “Everything That Touches You” on Warner Brothers and it reached the Top 10. With a recording on par with the Association’s style, Reprise released the Vogues’ “I’ve Got You on My Mind,” written by Roger Greenaway and Roger Cook, produced by Dick Glasser and arranged by Al
Capps. Surprisingly, this Reprise debut single did not chart. At the time, the vocal trio, the Lettermen, were enjoying their most successful single, an easy listening medley of “Goin’ Out of My Head / Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You,” returning them to the Top 10 for the first time since their early ‘60s single “When I Fall in Love.” Dick Glasser took note, brought in musical arranger and conductor Ernie Freeman, and the Vogues returned to the Top 40 that summer with their easy listening version of “Turn Around, Look at Me.” This single and the next one, “My Special Angel,” both reached number seven on Billboard and both became million selling gold singles. The flip sides of each song, “Then” and “I Keep It Hid,” respectively, were written by Jimmy Webb. All these songs were included on the Vogues’ debut album for Reprise, “Turn Around, Look at Me.” In a 2010 interview, Bill Burkette told Bo White, “By then it was mostly harmony, with very few leads, except for some of the album cuts. I still did all the leads on our albums and I felt that some of those songs could have been big hits. For instance, I sang lead on ‘Then,’ a great song that had hit written all over it, but it was passed over. Most of my favorite songs were never released as singles and they were kept buried in the albums.”
Flip side: Then
A side: Turn Around, Look at Me
Top 100 debut: June 15, 1968
Peak position: 7
Another strong song from the 1968 “Turn Around, Look at Me” album was the Vogues’ version of “Just Say Goodbye,” another Petula Clark and Tony Hatch composition, originally appearing on her “My Love” album in 1966.
Later that year, “Till” reached number 27, with Dick Glasser’s “I Will” as its flip side. The “Till” album also included the group’s final Top 40 single “No, Not Much” and its popular flip side “Woman Helping Man,” which, charting separately, reached number 47. With the shift to an easy listening style, the Vogues recordings became popular on reel to reel tape for smooth background music for adult audiences. The 1969 reel to reel recordings of the “Till” and “Memories” albums did well in that format.
Bill Burkette upper left
The Vogues’ final album for Reprise was “The Good Old Songs” which included a pair of singles which each peaked at number 101 in the first half of 1970. That summer, the beautiful single “Come Into My Arms,” not on the album, failed to make the pop chart.
Bill Burkette on the left
In the early ‘70s the Vogues recorded for a couple more labels. Their Bell single “Love Song” reached number 118. They continued to tour, mainly close to home in Pennsylvania. Tony Butala, of the Lettermen, helped found the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in his hometown of Sharon, Pennsylvania, which has inducted the Lettermen, the Vogues and many others. He told Goldmine, “Bill Burkette was one of the most pleasant, easy going men I have ever met. I remember once back in the late 70's, when my group, the Lettermen, were finishing a three week engagement at the Holiday House Night Club in Monroeville, Pennsylvania. On our closing night a few guys got into an altercation over a girl in their party in the showroom lobby. The Vogues were attending our show because they were following us in as the next headlining act there in a few days. Bill, with his six foot plus stature, and the demeanor of the big "teddy bear", calmly walked over to the commotion, stepped in between, separated the guys by putting one of his large hands on each of their chests and said, "Boys, why don't you both settle down, can't you see you are upsetting this pretty lady?" His act immediately calmed the situation and a few nights later when his group opened their run, that "pretty lady" was at a front table watching the show, with about four other of her girlfriends. Bill was one of the very first group singers, truly dedicated to the Vocal Group Hall of Fame, and he grasped its mission and all the other facets that it would soon mean to the music industry. He was the epitome of what a good vocal group singer should be, a selfless person who was completely dedicated to the Vogues, contributing his immense talent of harmony as well as his very pleasant solo voice and demeanor on stage to his group."
For a couple of decades, Bill Burkette stayed close in Pennsylvania, only touring a portion of that region, and accepted a local sales manager position at a home improvements company, so he could be with his wife Elaine and their three children while they were growing up. After they were grown, he returned to the road with the Vogues. In 1997, in Roanoke, Virginia, he jokingly promised the audience before singing “The Land of Milk and Honey,” with its jam-packed lyrics, “This will be good if I can get all the words out.” He delivered and the audience cheered.
Bill Burkette, top center
Bill Burkette continued to tour through 2017 with the Vogues and had planned on returning in 2018. Troy Elich has been a member of the Vogues since 2000 and shared that story with Goldmine, “Bill’s final performances were in Arizona. He was very ill and had a terrible time breathing. We were in Prescott, which has an elevation of 7,000 feet so we just assumed bronchitis and the elevation were the reasons for his difficulties. When we came off the stage he needed to sit immediately. In Tucson, the following night, he seemed slightly better. We flew back to Pittsburgh the next day and said our goodbyes in the baggage claim area like we had done a million times before. He called me a few days later and told me he had been diagnosed with lung cancer. In less than a year, he is now gone. Being the true professional that he was, no audience member at either of the two Arizona shows had any idea how ill he was. He gave them what he gave every audience, even though he could barely breathe. It is very sad that he is gone. I never imagined that the Tuscon show would be his last. I thought for certain he would get better and sing with us again. He did too. We would talk on the phone and he would tell me that he couldn’t wait to get back out on the road with us as soon as he got stronger.”
Warren Kurtz is a Contributing Editor at Goldmine, known for “Fabulous Flip Sides” along with interviews, CD, DVD and book reviews. “Warren’s Fabulous Flip Sides” can be heard most Saturday mornings, in the 9 a.m. hour, Eastern time, on WVCR radio as part of “Moments to Remember.”