Lifetime in the arts: jazz singer Shelley Burns

Friends and fellow singers applaud Shelley Burns’ performance. Photograph by Joan Cusick

By Joan Cusick

Jazz singer Shelley Burns has been performing since she was 5 years old, and she has no intention of stopping any time soon.

“Are we ever going to retire?” she asks. “Because wherever I am, I am working. … But I love everything I’m doing.”

Burns, 72, leads a weekday exercise class for older adults, teaches singing lessons, and performs with her band, Avalon Swing. As someone who started in a childhood sister quartet, she has always found the intersection of family and music. It’s magic, she says.

“It’s like that energy when you’re falling in love. You see the person you love, and you get that wonderful glow,” Burns says. “That’s what it feels like when you’re singing and the pianist and you are with each other throughout the whole song. You end the song and just look at each other. It’s like falling in love.”

What’s your first memory of music in your life? 

I remember my sister Susan — the oldest [of five] — playing piano. My sisters and I would stand around Susan while she was playing, and we would decide on a song we wanted to learn — or probably Susan decided what we would learn. Sally and Sherry would sing the melody. Then Susan and I would make up our harmony parts. We did that for many, many years.

How old were you? 

I’m going to say 5 or 6. Sherry was probably 4. So Sally would have been 7 or 8 and Susan would have been 11. That was when we were here in Sacramento, but then we moved up to Nevada City, California. I remember we would sing at various clubs, like Lions Club, Elks Club, Job’s Daughters, and events that would happen in the town like the Nevada County Fair. 

We started taking dancing lessons together, so we would sing at the dance recitals. We didn’t have an accompanist, so we would just sing a cappella. We were all born with really good ears for singing in tune and for finding harmony parts.

The Burns Sisters with their band, the Jet Set. Photograph by Joan Cusick

How did your sister act evolve?

One time, the DeMolay Show and Band showed up to do a performance in Grass Valley, and my sisters and I were invited to be their little warm-up act, without accompaniment. So as little girls, we stood in front of this band and performed, and then the band performed. Somehow, they got the news to us that if we ever moved to Sacramento, we could join the band. 

Then we moved back to Sacramento when I was in the seventh grade and we joined The DeMolay Show and Band, so we got to sing with big band accompaniment. That was fun. We already knew how to tap dance, so we did The Burns Sisters singing and tap dancing. And my mom made all the costumes.

You continued with music all the way through your life. Was there ever a time you turned your back on it? 

No — unless you decide to really go for it and try to be famous, which I never did. I’m just happy getting to perform with really good musicians. That’s wonderful. And I think there’s respect for what I do. 

There were times where I had to take emergency jobs because I had two kids and they needed dental work or braces — whatever it was they needed. I didn’t have that kind of health coverage. So, I got a job at a coffee shop that made fancy coffee drinks here in town. Then I got a job at Raley’s grocery store bagging groceries when I was in my late 30s. I’d be bagging people’s groceries and they’d go, “Aren’t you Shelley Burns the jazz singer?” It was kind of humiliating for me, but I was doing something for my family.

Then I taught singing at a place called Skip’s Music. I decided just to be true to myself and at least teach singing. And that’s what I’ve been doing ever since — teaching, playing gigs and performing. 

My husband, Bill Dendle, who’s a jazz musician, is part of my band, Avalon Swing. The band has been together for 41 years, and we do a lot of gigs yearly — mostly concert-type of gigs, not background music. Until just recently, my husband was the director of a jazz camp for about 25 years and I was the singing coach. We met there. We had this big Dixieland band, including all the instructors at the camp — world-class jazz musicians that came from all over the country to work two weeks at this jazz camp. We would do different jazz festivals around the country.

Tell me about one of your more memorable performances — whatever comes to mind.

The funniest one was when my sisters and I were performing at some officer’s club with our band, the Jetset. We were mostly teenagers with a 22-year-old band leader, and we worked the military bases in California. 

One time, we were coming [out], two sisters on one side of the stage and two sisters on the other side of the stage. And unbeknownst to us, the floor had just been waxed. Here we come, running out to meet each other at the microphone — prancing out — and we run into each other. My sister Sally falls down, gets back up like a Carol Burnett routine or something, and we go right into the song. 

Another time we were performing with the DeMolay Show and Band in this beautiful theater. It was amazing. And so once again, we come out to the center of the stage and it’s got one of those mics right in the center, the old-fashioned type. I don’t know what the sound man did — if he thought it was funny — but as we were singing, the microphone started sinking down into the stage and we just followed it down, all the way down. Then it went up too high, and we tried to follow it [over our heads]. Finally, he brought it down to us. 

We did not laugh. Usually, when something like that happens, we don’t care — we laugh hysterically. But that was hilarious. There are those moments that really, really stick in my head.

On a Thursday at Twin Lotus Thai restaurant, Shelley Burns has chosen to perform “My Romance.” 

When did you decide to step out on your own? 

It was kind of organic because my oldest sister, Susan, went to sing in Alaska. Sally had gotten married, and my sister Sherry was never comfortable on the stage. She just did it because we did it. My youngest sister, Shauna, always felt kind of left out. When my sisters and I had gone out touring, she was at home feeling like “I didn’t get a costume.”

So when I was 18, I started working with a band on and off. The guy’s name was Tony Reed, and he was a clarinetist. He had a little band that did military bases, and he hired me several times to perform with that band. 

Then, I performed with this band that was working at the traditional jazz festival in Sacramento. I worked with them [for] maybe only one year, and then I had my own band, Avalon Swing. We worked that festival for many, many, many, many years until it stopped.

What do you remember about being alone on stage versus being part of a sister act?

I remember that it allowed me more freedom. It was very freeing because then I wasn’t limited to singing my harmony part. I could make up my own melodies, change the melodies however I wanted to, phrase however I wanted to, move however I wanted to. But it’s a different kind of fun singing with somebody else and blending with them and both being exactly in tune, I think is so rewarding.

How do you know when you find that magic during a performance?

I first started working with Bob Fylling when I was about 22. He was one of the most sweet, brilliant men that I’ve ever met. … One time we’re on stage at On Broadway, and it was a very loose thing. I looked at Bob and I said, “Do you know the song ‘Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year?’” And he said, “I think so.” So he immediately found a key that he thought I could do it in, because I’d never sung it before. I remember listening to it when I was younger and I thought I knew it. 

Bob just plays this intro and we just do it rubato. And then it just felt so — I don’t know — it was this amazing energy. It’s like that energy when you’re falling in love. You see the person you love, and you get that wonderful glow. That’s what it feels like when you’re singing, and the pianist and you are with each other throughout the whole song. You end the song and just look at each other. It’s like falling in love.

Shelley Burns performs with Joe Gilman on piano. Photograph by Joan Cusick

At your Two Tunes Thursday performance, there are mostly solo acts but there is so much support for each other. How does that feel?

It’s really, really wonderful. 

I have my own meetup, called Singing the Great American Songbook. I’ve had this for 10 years, and my husband, Bill, brings his guitar and the PA system, and Shelley Denny plays bass, and we become a very loving and supportive family. …

Not long ago, Dr. Joe Gilman approached me and said, “I have this idea about having people sign up to come sing.” And I said, “Oh, that sounds like my meetup.” And he said, “I don’t want to get in the way of your meetup.” And I said, “No, we will support each other. It’s gonna be great. All the singers at my meetup would love to come and sing with you.” And, of course, he started Two Tunes Thursday at Twin Lotus Thai restaurant. 

Some of my students come and get the opportunity to sing with Joe, who is an amazing pianist. They learn so much. I learn so much watching them sing — what it is they need from me as their singing teacher.

It sounds like you have always been at the intersection of family and music, starting with your sisters, and now you’ve found this sense of family in your music.

Yes. It makes me want to get teary because I love people and I love teaching, helping people learn how to sing. Even people that can’t find a note, I help them find a note. 

For the complete Shelley Burns interview and photo essay by photographer Joan Cusick, visit story was funded by the City of Sacramento’s Arts and Creative Economy Journalism Grant to Solving Sacramento. Following our journalism code of ethics and protocols, the city had no editorial influence over this story and no city official reviewed this story before it was published. Our partners include California Groundbreakers, Capital Public Radio, Outword, Russian America Media, Sacramento Business Journal, Sacramento News & Review, Sacramento Observer and Univision 19.

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