Jerry Burruss was scheduled to play the biggest stage of his life when his 71-year-old body pulled the plug on that dream.
He was going to be the opening act for the National Federation of the Blind annual convention this summer. It was a big deal, the last of many in a few short years, for a poor, blind, black man who taught himself to play the guitar over-handed and sing country blues and just about everything else with an irresistible, soulful twang.
This is a story that might start with the phrase, "If only ..."
There are many options for the end of that sentence, but the one most appropriate is, "If only Jerry Burruss had been discovered earlier in life, imagine where he might be today."
One can only imagine what the life of this country blues singer would have led, if he had only been introduced to Del Bittle and Sean Crane long before he was in his late 60s. In just three years Burruss has found a measure of fame and a lot of fans; he's hungry for more -- much more. The trouble is his body does not appear up to the challenge, most likely due to the many years of neglect.
Burruss grew up in the home of his alcoholic mother, stepfather and grandmother near Avondale. His younger sister, Pat Gray, went to live with their father elsewhere when she was very young, and Burruss virtually was left to his own devices in a room with a radio for the next 30 years. When Burruss was 13, his stepfather thought he should learn to play an instrument and gave him a guitar and introduced him to the piano. He eventually learned to play all his favorite songs from the radio without any instruction. Of course he had never seen anyone play a guitar, and no one even showed him how to hold it. He played over-handed and learned hundreds of songs. He said his favorites are "early '50s stuff, like blue grass and folky stuff and cowboy stuff."
According to his manager, Sean Crane, Burruss never learned how to take care of himself -- how to use a cane or read Braille or even take care of his bodily needs. He never went to school. He mostly sat in the dark and played music. Everything he learned, he learned from the radio. Crane credits his large vocabulary and sophisticated wit to the radio.
"His mother's dysfunction created his utter helplessness," he said.
As she grew up, Gray was curious about her mother and brother and found out where they lived. She would skip school in her teens to make the long walk to visit. While her life was not ideal, being cast off to a host of her father's girlfriends, she got her education and created a successful life for herself. On the other hand, she said, "Jerry's life was "bad, real bad."
When she learned their grandmother had died and the stepfather was gone, Gray came back to take care of her mother and her brother. Burruss was then in his 40s and was, as he is now, a child in an aging body. But, he became involved with the Avon Grove Lions Club and attended its Beacon Lodge Camp each August where he would play his music for the other campers. She also took him to play at the old Sunset Park before it closed. But, Gray said, she was unable to change his sedentary ways and he continued to spend most of his time sitting around doing nothing.
Three years ago Burruss needed new pegs for his guitar and asked his sister to buy him some. She went to Del Bittle's music store and that's when things started to change for Jerry Burruss. Bittle asked her what color pegs she needed and she said, "It doesn't matter; he's blind."
That was enough to spark Bittle's interest, and as he asked more questions, he said he knew he had to hear him play. He asked her to bring Burruss to Delstock, his annual blue grass and country music mini-festival on his farm outside of Unionville in August.
"I was so nervous," Burruss remembered. "I tried to do my best and do my thing. They seemed to like it. They were applauding."
According to Bittle, the crowd was mesmerized, and Burruss loved his reception.
"He's a diamond in the rough. He's this little man, all bent over, but he's amazing to watch. He plays off the crowd and in his head he has a wonderful repertoire of songs. It's magic."
After Burruss had played awhile, it was time for the next act. Bittle said he suggested that he play just one more. "Jerry whined to the crowd, 'Del says I can only play one more.' And, of course, the crowd went wild and the next group offered him some of their stage time."
Bittle said he took one look at Burruss' guitar, went into his shop and took a new one down from the display. "He left here with a lot of friends and a new guitar. It made my day," Bittle said.
Crane was in the audience that day. He was a practicing Quaker who felt compelled to take this little old man under his wing and help him find fame and possibly fortune. Over the next three years he arranged gigs, put together a band, had a CD made and put the word out about the offbeat blind musician. A documentary film is even in the works. Through Burruss' inspiration, a format has been developed for Braille labeling on CDs.
Several months ago the Martin guitar company contacted them and offered to place Burruss on its famous artist list. If Burruss could raise half the money, Martin would build him a guitar custom made for his arthritic fingers and over-hand style -- a left-handed guitar body with a right-handed bridge and bracing. The Lions Club chipped in half of Burruss' half and the rest was up to Burruss.Since then he has played all over Philadelphia, even in the WXPN World Cafe Live. A special evening performance was arranged for him at the Lower Brandywine
Presbyterian Church. Interest grew and grew.
But, by April 2006, Burruss had worn himself out. He could play well, but couldn't walk to the car. He was run down.
Doctors warned he might seriously jeopardize his health, if he continued to go to gigs without first taking care of his health by eating well and exercising.
Crane said he had to "pull the plug" on all Burruss' plans because he was not willing to do his part to keep himself healthy. He explained he just wanted him to walk to the mailbox and back, but Burruss has not complied. Crane cancelled gigs, put the Martin Guitar project on hold and called the National Federation of the Blind and told them Burruss would not be appearing. He is not allowing Burruss to play anywhere until he fulfills his end of the bargain and begins to walk.
Last week Burruss said, "I really want to get out on the road again, play some festivals. I would still like to play in Greenwich Village. I want to keep the old time country music alive."
With sisterly exasperation, Gray said, "If we can get rid of Mr. L-a-z-y ...| That's all he has to do. It's hard to make him understand that he has to get up and do it for himself. But he wants that life. It was the happiest time of his life."
Bittle disagrees with Crane's ultimatum. He said he has high hopes that his friend will build his strength enough to appear at Del Stock on Aug. 20.
"I'm not playing right now," Burruss explained. "I have a leg problem. If I'm going to entertain, I have to have good legs. I have to do a little work on myself, get in the frame. Once I get fired up I'll be playing again. Even if I don't get a record deal, I'd be happy playing in pubs and clubs just to make a penny or two."