Bobby Burns

Posted on September 2, 2010 – 8:35 AM | by OldManFoster
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By Tony King  photos courtesy of Jerry Perry and Peter Wedel

It’s been ten years since Midtown Sacramento’s most colorful resident shuffled off this mortal coil.  While Midtown has always had its fair share of eccentric and offbeat characters, none can compare to the elderly hipster who dressed in wild outfits, sang scat as he danced down the street and played the drums like two jackrabbits on their honeymoon. So goes the legend of Bobby Burns.

Bobby Burns was an enigma, wrapped in embellishment and soaked in alcohol. Embraced by Midtown’s burgeoning underground music scene of the late 1980s and ’90s, Burns had more verve, vigor and vitality than most of the 20 and 30 year-olds he befriended. They loved him, and he returned their affections; he seemed to have neither a self-conscious or petty bone in his body.  Or a sober one.

Ten years after his death, the Bobby Burns story is even more embroidered in legend than it was in his lifetime.  People who never met Burns in life tell stories of his exploits. His friends, perhaps taking their cue from the man himself, usually let the half-truths go, let the myths accrue.  But underneath the crazy clothes, the wild stories, the antics and the ever-growing legend, there is one single question: Who was Bobby Burns?

Robert Francis Burns was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1924. He had two sisters and one brother, and his father worked the night shift at a local brewery. By age 10, he had discovered the drums.

“Bobby would set up his drums on the porch and start playing while his dad was sleeping,” recalls Eric Foemmel, Bobby’s ‘manager’ and closest friend at the end of his life. “His Dad would come down all mad, kick his drums out onto the lawn and then go back to sleep. And in just a few minutes, Bobby would have his drums re-assembled and start playing again.”

At 18, Burns was drafted into the Navy. “He was institutionalized after World War II from shell shock,” says Foemmel. “He was on a ship loading large artillery shells. His nephew told me that a friend of [Bobby’s] died in his arms during an attack and that really affected him.” According to Foemmel, his wartime trauma was never really addressed once he was released. “Post-traumatic stress syndrome wasn’t really treated back then.”

After getting out of the military, Burns re-joined his family who had relocated from Minnesota to Nevada City in the mid-fifties. Soon after, he formed the Bobby Burns Trio, and was playing shows in Sacramento, as well as burlesque clubs in San Francisco.  No one is quite sure when Burns arrived in Sacramento to stay.

“I can’t even put a timeline on when I met Bobby, but it had to be sometime around the mid ’80s,” remembers local music promoter, Jerry Perry.  “He kind of just appeared, but he was always there.”

Unsubstantiated conjecture, half-truths and mythmaking about Bobby Burns and the life he led before coming to Sacramento were rampant. There were rumors that Bobby drummed for Artie Shaw, Tommy Dorsey, and Benny Goodman; that his sister was singing legend Jo Stafford; that he once managed Frank Sinatra and was the only man to see Old Blue Eyes cry, etc, etc. It didn’t help that Bobby neither confirmed nor denied these tales.

“I’m at the Weatherstone one day, reading [the Sinatra biography] The Song Is You,” recalls Perry. “And Bobby walks over, ‘Say, what do you got there? Let me see that!’ And he grabs the book and thumbs through the pages until he stops on some of pictures. ‘There I am!’ he declares and then shuts the book and hands it back to me. ‘Back when I had a different name.’”

“He always said, ‘You gotta have a gimmick!” explains Foemmel. “’You gotta have a gimmick!’ That was his advice in life.”

Bobby Burns followed that advice, fashioning himself into the ultimate Midtown eccentric. His underbite smile, missing teeth and droopy eyes belied his youthful joie de vivre. His voice was rough and hoarse, whether singing or speaking. His slicked-back hair was constantly dyed black – yet always had a quarter inch of silver roots. And then there was his wardrobe.

“He had incredible taste in clothes,” recalls Ed Castro, the owner of Ed’s Threads. Bobby’s style was vintage thrift store chic, often mixing loud ’70s-era plaids with crazy Hawaiian prints or bright stripes.  Castro chuckles. “He was a real boulevardier.”

“He stood out,” adds Perry. “What I really think connected him to people, though, was that he was so personable. He’d walk into The Weatherstone like he was the owner or something and say, ‘Hey, everybody! How’s it going?’ Like you all were at his party and he was just arriving.”

Living solely off his military pension, Burns was a man of very limited means. The Midtown community that revered him became an impromptu social security safety net. “There were a lot of people here that really cared about Bobby, and he really represented that communal spirit,” Perry notes. “He’d say, ‘C’mon, I’m taking you out to dinner,’” recalls his friend Peter Wedel. “That meant you were buying him dinner!”

Burns was a member of the local neo-swing band Dutch Falconi and His Twisted Orchestra. He performed in skits and played 15-minute drum solos during the band’s intermission periods. “We were sort of the kind of music [Bobby] had a connection to, historically,” says Falconi. “He was definitely an emissary from [the jazz] period.”

“Sometimes he’d be playing a drum solo, and it would make no sense at all,” notes Mark Helms, Falconi’s former drummer. “Then all of a sudden he’d snap into something, and it would be phenomenal. Gene Avery, one of the horn players, would always look at me and be like, ‘Did you hear that fill he did?’”

“Bobby’s hands were arthritically deformed,” adds Foemmel. “But if you put the drumsticks in his hands, it was obvious that his hands had formed around them. They fit perfectly.”

Bobby was a drinker. His usual haunts were The Press Club, Old Tavern, the VFW Post 61, and The Zebra Club. He also loved a party, and usually outlasted his younger friends. “I remember people saying to me, ‘Eric, you’ve got to take Bobby home!’” says Foemmel “It would be 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning.”  Bobby always drank, but he rarely drank alone – he had too many friends.

“My last day of drinking was on Sunday, Sept. 20th, 1992,” recalls Jackson Griffith. “I came out of a stupor and I just felt like someone had basically buried an axe in my head. I was curled up with a bottle of Jack Daniels, and there was Bobby beating on the drums with an Ornette Coleman record blasting from the stereo. He’s scatting at the top of his lungs, and I’m just going, ‘Oh, fuck! This has to stop.’ I quit drinking the very next day.”

Bobby Burns died on September 16th, 2000, reportedly of hypertension and congenital heart failure. His body was found in his apartment three days after the fact. Word of Bobby’s passing quickly spread through his close-knit network of friends.

Weeks later, a memorial honoring Burns’ legacy took place at The Crest Theater, with home movies and videos of Bobby performing in the Doo-Dah parade and at the Stucco Factory art complex projected on to the big screen. The lobby of the theater was filled with displays of Burns’ suits, personal effects and photographs.

To raise the funds to give him a proper Catholic funeral, Foemmel and Perry took Bobby’s bowling bag and went to all of Burns’ favorite watering holes; they collected nearly $5,000 in donations.

Over 700 of Bobby’s friends and family packed St. Francis Church at K and 26th Streets on October 4th, 2000. Eric Foemmel delivered the eulogy, and he, Steve Vanoni, Michele Whitnack, Zach Sloan, Peter Wedel, Jackson Griffith and Mark Miller were Bobby’s pallbearers.

“Before we buried him, we went through the pockets of his burial clothes, and there were little action figures wrapped-up in Christmas paper,” notes Foemmel. “They were gifts that he was going to give to some little kid. He’s buried six feet deep with those presents still in his pocket.”

“If he were alive today, he’d be going to the house parties and the live shows,” Perry says, smiling. “He’d be at the Press Club or Townhouse. And he wouldn’t be just some weird guy sitting alone and lonely at the bar. He’d be walking through the crowd, starting conversations and greeting everybody. Not necessarily lucidly, but lively.”

“I hope that one day I get to be an old guy in this town, treating the young kids just as good as Bobby treated us,” Foemmel says, welling up a little. “I absolutely adored that man.”

Bobby was laid to rest in the military veterans section of Saint Mary’s Cemetery. Among the sea of solemn tombstones honoring American servicemen, sits a plaque surrounded by some musical notes, a treble clef and, on any given day, a splash of Pabst Blue Ribbon. Bobby Burns’ marker:

Sacto’s Happy, Happy, Happy Gimmick

Bobby Burns

April 25, 1924 – Sept. 16, 2000

Bobby Who?

Bobby Bee-Bop Da Bee-Bop Burns


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  1. 8 Responses to “Bobby Burns”

  2. avatar

    By Sarah on Sep 2, 2010 | Reply

    An awesome tribute to an awesome guy.

  3. avatar

    By Dennis Yudt on Sep 6, 2010 | Reply

    Great piece on a great guy. Well done, Tony!

  4. avatar

    By Bella Q on Sep 7, 2010 | Reply

    He was such a character. I can’t imagine Midtown being midtown without him. Great piece.

  5. avatar

    By Bongo Pete Poulos on Sep 29, 2010 | Reply

    Bobby, I miss seeing you around and our “jam sessions” at Ed Castro’s shop, got some crazy beats on the bongos. No kidding,that laugh!! I miss how Midtown used to be. Kudos to Tony King and Jerry Perry for sharing this with everyone!

  6. avatar

    By Jason Ring on Nov 22, 2010 | Reply

    Bobby used to make the circle visiting, The Press club, Old tavern, popping over to The zebra, and if he made it before last call you would find him having drinks with Benny. @ what was then Benny’s! He was certainly a character, and if you had the pleasure of hearing him on the drums. That was certainly a remarkable experience, and one you would never forget.

    There is a place that opened about a year ago called The Shady Lady a place where Bobby would have loved. There is a drink there named after him… And I am sure he would have been honored.

    When Bobby Passed a bit of magic left with him…

  7. avatar

    By stephan jacobs on Jan 30, 2011 | Reply

    He was the essence of that time and place to me. Great article.

  8. avatar

    By Michael Julian Mills on Feb 6, 2011 | Reply

    I wrote a song about this fantastic dude. Hear it here:

    this article almost made me cry… rest in peace Bobby Burns

  9. avatar

    By sevita on Jun 9, 2011 | Reply

    great tribute

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