Mixing it up at the Purple Martini

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Mixing it up at the Purple Martini

By Tim Farley

Charles and Barbara Burton have achieved more in their music careers than many entertainers, but life is far from over for the owners of Bricktown’s Purple Martini.

Having already enjoyed decades of success in the entertainment industry, the Burtons now are focused on bringing first-rate live acts – music and comedy – to their club, which they’ve owned since September 2011. As a way to kick start the live acts, the popular Burton Band is now performing on Tuesday nights with Charles as the lead guitarist and vocalist while Barbara sings a variety of songs with the sexiness of Nancy Wilson and the power of Aretha Franklin. But that’s not all. Their son, Tre’, is the drummer while Gary Clardy plays bass and John Harris tickles the ivory as the pianist.

“We would like to have live music all the time,” said Barbara, a former physics and biology teacher in the Oklahoma City school district. “We believe in live entertainment because that’s what we’ve done for so long. We want to bring in big-name jazz acts or comedy acts. It’s tough, but definitely something we can do. We want great musicians to come through here who will put on a great show.”

The Burtons certainly have the contacts to make it happen, especially on a local level. The Burtons worked as the house band at the luxurious Waterford Hotel for 30 years and are entertainment icons in Oklahoma. In 2001, the couple was inducted into the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame.

Their success as a band and as individual musicians spans five decades, including one magical summer in 1973 for Charles when he was asked to join Gladys Knight and the Pips, who was the opening act for legendary singer and performer Tom Jones.

“Our first gig was at Madison Square Garden in New York City and we had three days to rehearse,” Charles said. “I remember we were in 44 states, Montreal and the British of Columbia. It was crazy. We had a private jet, Norm Crosby was the MC and comedian and there I was as Gladys Knight’s guitarist.”

After the summer tour was over, Charles returned to Oklahoma City to continue his work as an assistant principal and leader of the Burton Band. In 1979, the Burtons retired from the school district and became full-time musicians. After enjoying several years of good times and steady work as a popular entertainment act, the Burtons returned to the education field, but not by choice. It was more of a necessity thanks to the oil bust, which affected almost everyone in Oklahoma. Charles and Barbara continued to work as educators until 2007 when they retired from the profession again, this time for good.

But during those years, their music never died.

“We’ve been real fortunate,” said Charles. “Most of our (music) jobs have been at hotels and not clubs.”

Longtime Oklahoma City music fans likely will remember the Burton Band and their performances at the Embassy Suites, Hilton Inn, the downtown Sheraton Inn, the former Cajun’s Wharf and the Sports Page Club.

Charles isn’t the only member of the Burton Band who achieved large-scale notoriety. Barbara was featured with the Jazz Messengers when she was recognized at the 15th annual Grammy Awards. During her career, she also headlined with Roger Miller and Brenda Lee. As a couple, the Burtons opened for music icons Nancy Wilson, Della Reese and Vic Damone.

Working the crowd

On a recent Tuesday night at the Purple Martini, 315 E. Sheridan, Charles and Barbara welcomed customers and friends with handshakes, smiles and hugs as the opening act finished its last set. They work the room side by side as if it were a political rally, but unlike politicians they show genuine interest in meeting new customers and seeing longtime club patrons.

The greetings continue until it’s time for the Burton Band to take the stage, much to the delight of club patrons who are there to hear first-rate music, which on this particular night included “Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone,” “Mustang Sally,” and “So Nice to Come Home To.” Their repertoire is vast, ranging from Gladys Knight songs to the Patsy Cline standard, “Crazy” or Peggy Lee’s “Fever.”

“We’ve always wanted our own place,” said Barbara, “and now we’re living our dream.”
Yet, obstacles and challenges remain, including competing nightclubs in Bricktown.
“Hey, we’re still open,” said Charles. “Bricktown is tough not only for us, but all the clubs down here. It’s very competitive.”

Typically, Friday and Saturday nights are busy times for the Burtons as disco takes the stage followed by comedy acts on Sunday.

But on Tuesdays, it’s all about the Burton Band, live music and lettin’ the good times roll.
For more information about the Purple Martini or the Burton Band, call 424-3694.

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