Catawba County and the Southeast region are remembering a “legend of Southern gospel music” today that you might have known for different reasons.
Charles Ray Burke was an area businessman who friends and family say devoted countless hours to the Southern gospel music industry. He was most known for his behind-the-scenes leadership that launched the careers of notable quartets and singers, but Burke tuned a long list of business ventures throughout his lifetime that continue to be felt today.
Burke died unexpectedly Friday, Sept. 23, in Maiden. He was 75.
For Southern gospel music, Burke was a leader. Music officials say he launched the careers of groups like the Singing Americans, Dove Brothers, The Whisnants and Reggie Sadler family. Under his leadership, the Singing Americans brought singers like Danny Funderburk, Ivan Parker, Clayton Inman, Rick Strickland and Michael English to the forefront of Southern gospel music, according to friends and colleagues.
His leadership in the Southern gospel music industry flourished when he became a board member of the Southern Gospel Music Association and National Quartet Convention.
Those who knew Burke say he was a good singer in his own right, belting out notes as a baritone in the Pine Ridge Boys and other four-man quartets. Jim Stewart, of Mooresville, was a fellow original member of the Pine Ridge Boys in 1963 with Burke.
“He was one of the finest men I ever knew. His children and my children grew up together and I’m proud to say I had a long relationship with him,” Stewart said. “Everything I would say about him would be good things.”
Stewart said he spent about 15 years with Burke touring Virginia, Delaware, Maryland, North Carolina, Georgia and other states around the Southeast.
“We celebrated our 48th year anniversary on June 15,” Stewart said. “Charles was one of the originals. Charles was able to come, and we had a ball.”
Last week, the Southern Gospel Music Guild officially gave credit to Burke’s impact on Southern gospel music. They awarded him the Lifetime Achievement Award at the National Quartet Convention.
‘Make it work’
As a businessman in Catawba County, Burke was influential. He owned two mortuaries in the area, and was invested in a host of real estate properties within and past the county borders. Some of his ventures include Burke Mortuaries, T.C.A. (cassette and CD company), Charlie’s Chicken, Grandaddy’s woodworking (furniture company), Big “B” Trucking Company , Burke Chemical Company and Charles Burke Leasing (buses), among many others.
In total, his family estimates his lifetime business ventures total more than 33.
On Monday, the Burke family held a public viewing for their lost loved one. Friends, colleagues and extended family packed the Burke Mortuary in Newton from wall to wall. The line to see Burke wrapped around three rooms and a hallway, and some visitors waited outside to see their friend.
Bouquets of flowers flooded every corner, doorway and hallway at the mortuary. In the chapel, visitors waiting to see Burke watched old videos of him through a projector screening on the wall.
“He was always busy and never liked to settle down with just one thing,” said Foy Williams, a co-owner of the Burke Mortuaries and 30-year friend of Burke’s. “He was never afraid to venture out and try something new. His motto was ‘make it work.’”
Though Burke had an office across the county line on U.S. 321, he stayed in it seldom, Williams said.
“He was always in the town doing business or helping someone,” Williams said. “You name it, he’s done it.”
Lifetime friends like Wayne Parker said Burke had a “heart of gold” and despite staying busy, always had time for someone else.
“He would do anything for anyone,” Parker said, noting that the large attendance at his viewing was evidence enough of his large impact on so many lives.
Parker said people swap stories about Burke’s generosity frequently, such as the man taking a friend’s tab unexpectedly at a restaurant and paying it off.
“He was one of the friendliest men I’ve ever known,” Williams said. “He was that way to everyone.”