Longtime Evanston resident Kenneth C. "Jethro" Burns, best known as an irreverent country comedian but also a mandolin player of extraordinary ability, died Saturday night at home in his sleep. He was 68.
A rugged World War II veteran of South Pacific combat, Mr. Burns had been in declining health for the last few years, but his wit was indomitable. Typically, he returned home from an extended hospital stay in 1985 with the acerbic summation that physicians had "found out they couldn't kill me, and I wasn't gonna die."
Such head-on, unsubtle humor brought Mr. Burns to national attention around 1950 in the company of his longtime partner, the late Henry D. "Homer" Haynes. The "Homer & Jethro" team took such pretty songs as "Doggie in the Window" and "Let Me Go, Lover" and pitilessly transformed them into such ugly hits as "Hound Dog in the Winder" and "Let Me Go, Blubber."
They filled the big rooms in Las Vegas and other top venues and appeared on the prominent network TV shows of Steve Allen and Johnny Carson. In such places, their humor wasn't just musical; their stage routines unforgettably combined the expected rural banter with brash, urban, street wisdom epitomizing their longtime hometown, Chicago. From 1949 until the '60s, they starred on Chicago's "National Barn Dance."
Like Haynes, Mr. Burns was born in 1920 in Knoxville, Tenn. He had humor in his genes, being the son of a traveling vaudeville dancer and old-style blackface comedian. He said that when his and Haynes' 1951 Las Vegas debut stunned critics into praise of their "fresh" material, the "fresh" material included a lot of jokes taught him by his father.
Mr. Burns and Haynes met as 12-year-olds at an audition for a Knoxville radio show; each had come there with another child-partner, but a radio executive teamed them up. They soon moved from Knoxville to the Renfro Valley (Ky.) barn dance and then to their own tent show. They settled in Chicago in 1949.
Early in their careers, they auditioned for Nashville's Grand Ole Opry, but were rejected because Opry executives didn't care for the work of the lead guitar player who worked with them; Mr. Burns often delighted in recalling that the guitar player was the masterful Chet Atkins, Mr. Burns' brother-in-law.
Until 1949, their musical stock-in-trade had been manufacturing humor by speeding up pretty instrumentals and playing them with the corniest possible bluegrass instrumentation. In 1949, however, record executives suggested they write words to their musical parodies, and their 1949 takeoff on the big national hit "Baby, It's Cold Outside,"featuring guest vocalist June Carter, became a hit, too, spawning all the rest.
After Haynes died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 1971, Mr. Burns, seemingly unable to find another partner who could supply the same chemistry, shored up the serious side of his reputation.
He and Haynes already had recorded for years with Atkins as part of a classy instrumental outfit called the Nashville String Band, and now he began playing hot jazz in Chicago nightspots, recording for Chicago's Flying Fish Records with jazz violinist Joe Venuti and appearing with such diverse artists as jazzman Pete Fountain and folkie Steve Goodman.
Mr. Burns' style of music and humor was memorably combined in the first Homer & Jethro appearance on the Johnny Carson show. After the duo had done a funny song, Carson challenged them to play something serious, and they obliged with "Autumn Leaves," Mr. Burns doing beautiful lead work on the mandolin.
Obviously stunned by the virtuosity, Carson came over and said:
"That's GREAT! How long have you been playing that thing?"
"Oh," Mr. Burns replied, glancing at his watch, "about two and a half minutes."
Struggling with bone cancer for a year and a half before his death Saturday, Mr. Burns did not want any funeral or memorial services, according to his sister-in-law, Leona Atkins. Instead of flowers, donations should go to the American Cancer Society.
Survivors include his wife, Lois; a son, Johnny; a daughter, Terri; two grandchildren; and three sisters.