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‘Sonny’ Burke, Pianist, Writer, Smokey Robinson Arranger, Dies At 76

He worked with many other soul greats and co-wrote Earth, Wind and Fire’s 1977 hit ‘Serpentine Fire.’

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Motown Studios photo - Courtesy: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Motown Studios photo - Courtesy: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Reginald “Sonny’ Burke, who was Smokey Robinson’s musical arranger, pianist, and conductor for more than 30 years and worked with many other soul greats, has died of heart failure at the age of 76.

In a long and illustrious career, Burke also co-wrote Earth, Wind and Fire’s 1977 hit “Serpentine Fire” and the Whispers’ 1978 R&B Top 10 single “(Let’s Go) All The Way.” Other artists with whom he worked included Frank and Nancy Sinatra, the Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Terry Callier, Johnny Mathis, Barbra Streisand, the Pointer Sisters, Quincy Jones, Ray Parker Jr., Lionel Richie, Donny Hathaway, Anita Baker, Natalie Cole, Aretha Franklin, Dizzy Gillespie, B.B. King, and Bill Withers.

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Growing up in Chicago, Burke took piano lessons at the Grace Daly School of Fine Arts from the age of five, and was playing organ at Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church from six. As a teenager, he started performing in live bands in clubs, earning his nickname for his tender years. Later, his Motown tenure began when he was flown from Chicago to Los Angeles to play on the Jackson 5’s Dancing Machine album.

Burke also brought his prowess to TV, films and the stage: he played the memorable piano on Mike Post’s Hill Street Blues theme, appeared on the themes for E.R., St. Elsewhere, China Beach, The Bob Newhart Show, and the Redd Foxx Show and was a conductor for the Broadway musical Dreamgirls.

Smokey Robinson – Cruisin' [Official Lyric Video]

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On the multi-million-selling Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, he played piano on Yvonne Elliman’s “If I Can’t Have You” and Tavares’ “More Than A Woman.” Burke also did the classy arrangement on Robinson’s 1979 R&B No.1 and pop crossover “Cruisin.”

EW&F’s Verdine White was quoted by the Chicago Sun-Times as saying: “Sonny was a fantastic musician, leader, musical director, songwriter. Most of all, he was a great person.” “He was irreplaceable,” added soul frontman Jerry Butler. “We used to do a 12-song set, and he would play all 12 from memory.”

Noted Robinson: “Sonny was so much in demand, he would have two or three different studios and two or three different sessions a day. [He] was one of the greatest musicians, I’m sure, to ever live. You could put a piece of music in front of him, a score written by Bach or Beethoven, something he’d never seen before, and immediately he could play it. He was brilliant.”

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