Ed Burke didn’t pore over trade magazines to see who was hot before deciding which musicians he’d book at his club. He picked performers according to his own taste. “I look for bands that can entertain people,” he once told the Globe.
Those bands were more than likely blues acts. From the 1970s to the ’90s, Ed Burke’s — the Mission Hill club he named after himself — was a mecca of blues, along with some rock and R&B. It was an unpretentious, 150-capacity roadhouse where the musicians played on a stage made of beer cases covered by plywood.
Many local and national acts performed there, including Luther “Guitar Jr.” Johnson, Toni Lynn Washington, Noel Redding of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Rick Danko of the Band, Shemekia Copeland, A.C. Reed, and James Montgomery.
“Ed Burke’s was the first place I played in Boston,” said Duke Levine, a noted guitarist who debuted there with the group Crockett in 1980 and now tours with the J. Geils Band. “You could tell he was a fan of the music. He knew what he liked, and if he liked you, he was always very supportive.”
Mr. Burke, whose club was named best neighborhood bar by Boston magazine in 1990, died of congestive heart failure March 9. He was 76, lived in Quincy, and formerly resided in Milton.
A legend until the end, Mr. Burke just last fall received a lifetime achievement award from the Boston Blues Community.
Though he closed his club in 1993 and later became a cab driver in Quincy, he often popped up around town for shows and annually attended the Chicago Blues Festival.
“He’d appear out of nowhere when you’d least expect it,” said Bruce Bears, a veteran Boston keyboardist. “He’d come up to you at the Chicago Blues Festival and say, ‘Hi, Bruce,’ as if he was still in Mission Hill.”
Holly Harris, a blues DJ at WUMB-FM who spearheaded the lifetime achievement award for Mr. Burke, knew him for 30 years.
“I always enjoyed talking to him,” she said. “He was a fast talker and sometimes you had to pay extra attention, but the music was always at the forefront for him.”
His drive and commitment also prompted other club owners to book blues acts. “His place inspired me to do blues in Somerville,” said Carla DeLellis, whose family owned Johnny D’s in Somerville’s Davis Square until it closed last year.
An only child, Mr. Burke grew up in Milton, the son of Ed Sr. and the former Mary Cosgrove. He graduated from Milton High School, attended Bentley College, and developed a love of music early on. One of his best friends was the Rev. Jack Izzo, a Jesuit priest who knew him since elementary school and recalled how he and Mr. Burke would spend Saturday afternoons in Boston shopping for records.
“He never lost his love of the blues,” said Izzo, who added that his friend did not have an easy life. Mr. Burke was 10 when his mother died, and he was sent to boarding school for a few years. “He learned how to be tough,” Izzo said. “Ed was a guy who was not afraid to insult anyone to their face.”
Mr. Burke didn’t tolerate foolishness at his club, either. He kept a baseball bat on hand and also a .38 pistol.
“I only saw the baseball bat come out once,” said Richard Gates, who played at the club with the Band That Time Forgot. “But he was always so welcoming to us.”
Mr. Burke had worked in a Stop & Shop warehouse before he inherited the club from his father, and then expanded it and added live music. The place was party central for a host of different factions, from medical workers at local hospitals and Museum of Fine Arts employees to local police officers and firefighters.
“It was a mixing bowl, just like the mixing bowl of blues that he booked,” Harris said.
The club could get wild, however, and sold T-shirts with the slogan: “Where civilization ends and wild life begins.”
One night, the club’s doorman didn’t recognize a man who looked intoxicated and refused to let him in. The would-be patron turned out to be Ginger Baker, the famed drummer from the British band Cream, who got through the door once Mr. Burke was summoned. Baker then jumped on stage to perform with that night’s band.
The club’s rather remote location on Huntington Avenue made it difficult to maintain and keep afloat financially. “It is a classic ‘destination bar.’ You need a strong reason to come here,” Mr. Burke told the Globe. “We’re not near any other clubs.”
Mr. Burke leaves no immediate family. A celebration of his life will be held at 11 a.m. June 3 in St. Agatha Church in Milton.
His club finally closed in 1993 as business faltered because of other factors. Much of Huntington Avenue was torn up while subway tracks were reconstructed, eliminating many parking spots.
Meanwhile, many people had begun avoiding the neighborhood after 1989, when Charles Stuart lied to police and said he was shot and his pregnant wife, Carol DiMaiti Stuart, was killed by an African-American gunman who had forced his way into their car in Mission Hill.
“Some people are still scared to come over here,” Mr. Burke told the Globe in 1990, adding that “Mission Hill got blamed for the whole thing.”
In 1993, while preparing to close, Mr. Burke told the Globe that he had “booked a lot of veteran bands and their followings haven’t wanted to come here. Lately, I’ve had success with young bands. Their followings don’t know about the Stuart case.”
Though those events contributed to the closing, Mr. Burke and his club offer fond memories for those in the blues community.
“I’ll remember how he was still excited by the blues right up to the end,” fellow club owner DeLellis said. “He would just bubble about the things he had seen and heard. There was a true flame inside of him for the blues.”Steve Morse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.