Many of you may have heard about Burr Oak Cemetery in the south suburban area of Chicago, where families learned the horrors of their loved ones begin moved, or lost as workers reportedly buried new bodies where old ones once lay. The tragedy that is Burr Oak is made even greater with the knowledge that it is a historic place, where many great African Americans with roots in Chicago have been laid to rest. One of the often forgotten great men who was buried there in a prominent location with a grave maker that incorrectly credited him with being a Negro League baseball great is journalist, musician and activist Daniel Burley. Although Burley never actually played in the Negro Leagues his life was so remarkable that one might believe him to be as fictional as Forrest Gump.
Born in Kentucky, the son of a preacher. Burley’s father died at a young age and his mother moved the family to Chicago in 1915 after remarrying. Burley became a newspaper boy for the Chicago Daily Defender, and learned Boogie Woogie Piano playing while attending Wendell Phillips High School with classmates Lionell Hampton and Louis Jordan. He developed an interest in journalism while working for the Defender and becxame editor of the high school school newspaper. While still in his teens Burley began writing for the Daily Defender and was named sports editor of the newspaper at the age of 21, Not content to just cover sports, Burley began writing various columns for the paper which were eventually syndicated nationally. In the 1920’s Burley moved to New York to further his career. He became Managing Editor of the New York’s Amsterdam News in the 1930’s and continued his music career. His writing crossed over into the mainstream “white” media, a rare feat for an African American at the time, and somewhat controversial among his peers in the Negro press. Eventually his works appeared in Esquire, Life, Look, and The Saturday Evening Post. His writing drew the attention of such forward thinking New Yorkers as Gertrude Stein, Langston Hughes, Lucille Ball, and Walter Winchell.
Meanwhile Burley continued his musical career, writing songs for Hampton and Cab Callaway among others. In the 1940’s he recorded the LP Dan Burley and the Skiffle Boys, with Brownie McGhee and Pops Foster, a groundbreaking CD that is still available today. This recording was discovered by Lonnie Dunegan andis credited with helping influenced Dunegan’s recordings that created the Skiffle music craze in England. Skifle music went on to influence such British rock music legends as the Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks, as well as American groups like The Hollies. Even Spinal Tap mentions skiffle music as an influence in their movie. Some claim the Beatles’ classic Lady Madonna is a take off (some say rip-off) of a Dan Burley melody. In 1941 Burley wrote an influential piece that was the “Urban Dictionary” of its day, called “The Harlem Handbook of Jive.” The guidebook to Harlem’s scene helped define Jive talk in the Harlem community. This book is even credited by some with the birth of Rap music and hip=hop culture. Burley is also credited with coining the term “Bebop.”
During the war Burley served as a war correspondent and in 1948 led the first black led USO Tour under Bob Hope. All the while he continued sports writing and is regarded among baseball historians as the epitomy of sports writers covering the Negro Leagues. His work also gave insight into the black perspective of Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the color barrier in Major League baseball in 1947. In the 1950s Burley moved back to Chicago and was named managing editor of Jet Magazine and Associate Editor for Ebony Magazine, At the same time he was managing editor of Mohammed Speaks, the publication of the Black Nation of Islam. He died in 1962.