From his cluttered office tucked behind the coat-check room on the second floor of an art-deco dance hall in downtown Vancouver, Drew Burns presided over the greatest run of musical acts the city, and maybe Canada, has ever seen.
For more than 25 years, Mr. Burns, a throwback to the old days of snappily dressed, chain-smoking impresarios, welcomed them all to his famed Commodore Ballroom, where it seemed impossible not to have a good time. By the time a financial dispute drove him out of business in 1996, the Commodore was renowned throughout the music world as an incomparable place to play before wild and appreciative crowds. At its peak, there was no venue like it.
"There was this great sense of intimacy. It was fantastic," recalled Live Nation Canada chairman Riley O'Connor, who cut his early promoter's teeth by booking a stream of shows into the Commodore with Perryscope Concert Productions. "Once the room filled up, and everyone got all hot and sweaty, the excitement level could be absolutely delirious."
On a good night, the Commodore could pack in more than a thousand people. No barrier separated the low stage, putting bands virtually on top of the audience. The room's large springboard dance floor – built on a foundation of wood, horsehair and rubber tires – famously bounced when you bopped. At times, the pounding of hundreds of feet shook books from the shelves in the bookstore below. Transparent pillars illuminated by tacky sparkling lights, and old-style tables surrounding the floor, added to the funk. There wasn't a bad sightline in the house.
It was only after Mr. Burns came along in 1969, when the Depression-era ballroom seemed on its last legs, that it came to life as a music showcase. "He sustained it. He gave it a reason to keep on living," said Mr. O'Connor. The name Drew Burns became synonymous with the Commodore.
The extraordinary list of bands and performers who played there during the Burns era is a concert dream list. U2, Talking Heads, the Clash, Nirvana, the Police, David Bowie, the Pretenders, Kiss, Iggy Pop, James Brown, Tina Turner, Blondie and the Red Hot Chili Peppers all took the stage for unforgettable shows. In 2009, before a full house at the city's cavernous BC Place, U2 singer Bono asked: "Is anybody here from the night we first played Vancouver at the Commodore?" The crowd roared back: "Yes!"
Drew Burns, who died on Sept. 27 at the age of 82 after a bout of ill health, was the last of Vancouver's lost legion of colourful, independent nightclub owners. He had a boat, a big-finned blue Lincoln, a thick thatch of coiffed hair, a gravelly voice and a deep love of white shoes. He was willing to take chances on non-mainstream bands and young promoters such as Mr. O'Connor.
Mr. Burns's easy-going mantra that everyone have a good time was as important to him as the bottom line. For him, a handshake was as good as a contract. Taking care of business often seemed secondary. "You just don't see that any more," said Aaron Chapman, author of a new book, Live at the Commodore.
Over time, Mr. Burns's flexibility led to the Commodore becoming a vanguard of new wave and punk that emerged in the late 1970s. "He was smart enough to see winds of change were in the air. He thought, 'Well, let's give it a try,'" Mr. Chapman said.
It was an unlikely role for a guy who once earned his living peddling carpets and whose own musical tastes rarely strayed beyond jazz and blues. Mr. Burns befriended many of the old blues greats, booking them whenever he could. But he was also up for anything that would bring people to the Commodore and its large bar. He once said: "If you just book the music you like, you'll go broke."
When there wasn't a headline act, Mr. Burns didn't hesitate to turn the stage over to local bands. For many it was their first time in a big club, a sign that maybe they were on their way. Among those who found a home at the Commodore were Vancouver's punk bands, at a time when they were relegated to dingy, dilapidated dives. "People really hated punk rock back then, but we played the Commodore many times," said Joe Keithley of D.O.A. "I asked Drew what he thought of the music, and he said, 'Joe, as long as it gets 500 people in here drinking beer, that's fine with me.' We developed a friendship. He was a great man."
Mr. Burns was also that rarity in show business – someone universally liked. He treated everyone, from the famous to unknown kids, with the same generous respect. "He loved the perception of being a tough guy. Yet he gave more misfits a place to work than anyone I know," Mr. O'Connor said.
It seemed anything could happen at the Commodore, and did. James Brown left a pair of pants behind, after a costume change, and Mr. Burns kept them for years, in case the legendary soul singer wanted them back. Patti Smith dared to take a bath in the grotty, tiny tub backstage, despite a warning she might want to avoid the experience, given what had gone on in there in the past. As recounted in Mr. Chapman's book, Ms. Smith replied: "Oh, it's okay, I'll rinse it out afterward." Joe Cocker threw up in the toilet after drinking a perilous amount of vodka, then returned to the stage to put on a dynamite show. Altercations were quickly handled by the Commodore's beefy bouncers, who seemed to enjoy pitching unruly patrons down the stairs to the front door, which came to be known as taking a trip on "Commodore Airlines."
More positively, Bryan Adams's rewarding, long-time association with Tina Turner was hatched at the Commodore. Mr. Adams went there to catch one of Ms. Turner's shows in 1983 and met her backstage. Two years later, his song, It's Only Love, sung in a duet with her, was nominated for a Grammy Award and became a highlight of Ms. Turner's tours in Europe. "It was a real breakthrough for him over there," said Mr. Adams's manager, Bruce Allen. "Everything stemmed from that meeting at the Commodore."
Drew Burns was born in Winnipeg on Nov. 6, 1931, the youngest of four children. The family moved to Vancouver, where he graduated from Kitsilano High School. He drifted through a number of jobs before settling into the carpet and flooring business, which took him to Toronto, then back to
He did well, but found his calling in 1965 when he and partner, Grayson Hand, started a social group for unmarried men and women called the Fifth Day Club. Young Vancouver singles were looking for ways to meet, and the venture took off. Each Friday, the club booked a large ballroom for a night of dancing and socializing. Membership was $5. Married people were banned.
"It was pretty wild," recalled frequent attendee George Mattis, who became a close friend of Mr. Burns. "You'd go Friday to line up a date. Then you went somewhere with her on Saturday night."
Mr. Burns would work the room, drink in hand, doing what he did best: ensuring that people were enjoying themselves. With 15,000 members, the Fifth Day Club became one of the largest of its kind in North America.
Destiny beckoned in 1969. The owner of the Commodore, which was feeling its age after nearly 40 years as an unlicensed establishment catering to banquets, company parties and occasional dances, wanted to sell. He offered it to Mr. Burns, who bit.
Not long after concluding the sale, which included Mr. Hand and another partner, Ray Tyrell, Mr. Burns went up the steep stairs to stand alone in the storied ballroom. As he related to Mr. Chapman, he thought to himself: "What am I going to do with this place?" The answer didn't arrive until July, 1971, when the Commodore staged its first rock 'n' roll show – Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels. The joint sold out, by then the room had a liquor licence and the future was clear.
In the process, Mr. Burns's second marriage dissolved. He and office worker Judy McEntee had married in 1969, but divorced five years later. "The Commodore took him away from me," said Ms. Burns, who remained friendly with her ex-husband. His first marriage, which also ended in divorce, produced his only child, Randy. Despite his public prominence, he kept his private life to himself; few of his many acquaintances knew of his two marriages, or his son. Mr. Burns leaves his sister, Dorothy, and his son.
At the Commodore, Mr. Burns was a permanent fixture in his office, filled with stacks of documents, bags of cash, tapes and posters. "It was a completely disorganized mess, but it was like walking into a showbiz museum," Mr. Chapman said. For anyone who walked in the door, there was almost always a drink, a good word, a corny, off-colour joke and story after story. Mr. Burns often saw the night through to the dawn, as friends, musicians, promoters, hangers-on came and went. "He might as well have lived in that office," Mr. Allen said. "We all went there. We'd talk music and we'd talk bullshit."
The good times ended in 1996, when Mr. Burns got into a tussle with the building's owner, his lease was cancelled and the club's doors were shut. Three years later, new owners came to the rescue of the darkened ballroom, and the Commodore continues as a beacon in the Vancouver music scene, hailed by Billboard magazine as one of the 10 most influential clubs in North America.
Current general manager Gord Knights said none of this would have been possible without Mr. Burns's long stewardship. "He was our mentor, guiding us through the years," he told reporters after Mr. Burns's death. "Anybody who was touched by Drew found their lives changed for the better."
A public memorial service will be held Wednesday at the Commodore.
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