Alfred Burt and Burt Christmas carols

A Burt Family Christmas Card, cover and interior from 1947 is pictured. (Photo courtesy of the Marquette Regional History Center)

MARQUETTE — Alfred Shaddick Burt was born in Marquette on April 22, 1920. His father, the Rev. Bates Burt, was the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. When he was two, his father accepted a new position at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pontiac, and that’s where Alfred grew up. Except for summers at the family camp on Middle Island Point, he spent most of his life elsewhere.

The Burts were a musical family. Al played piano and sang in the church choirs from a young age. He didn’t own an instrument until he was ten years old and needed an appendectomy. The family story is that he refused to go into the hospital unless he was given a “silver trumpet” as a reward. The family obliged, but Alfred realized it’s hard to blow a trumpet when your stomach is in stitches.

Al mastered the trumpet and began winning awards. When he was in high school, he began writing arrangements for a local orchestra. He majored in music theory at the University of Michigan, graduating in 1942. He was first trumpet with the University Symphony, composed and directed music for plays, and earned money playing with dance bands at the Michigan Union and League.

While Al was at the University of Michigan his father decided his musical son should take over an important family holiday tradition that had begun in 1922– sending an original Christmas carol to friends and parishioners. His high school friend, Anne Shortt, was at the Burt family home in Pontiac when the senior Burt reminded Al that it was November and the deadline for printing the card was approaching quickly. They had the text but no music. Anne Shortt recalled that Al sat down at the family Steinway and 15 minutes later handed the completed music to his father.

The war was on, and Al was inducted into the Army Air Force, where he spent four years directing army bands and providing the music for recruiting broadcasts. Anne Shortt spent the war years as an operating room technician with the WAVES and off-duty hours singing with naval bands. The couple reunited after the war and married in October 1945, with the Reverend Burt presiding.

For 15 months, the couple toured with a Texas-based group, the Hal Richards Orchestra. Then they went to New York, where Al got a job teaching at the American Theater Wing, and composed a series of concert waltzes.

This was the era of big bands. In 1949, Al left New York to join the California-based Alvino Rey band. Anne was pregnant and had gone back to Pontiac. When their daughter was only six weeks old, the young family was reunited in California. Al joined the Hollywood music scene, playing with the orchestra and helping to put together a television show that Alvino Rey and the King Sisters were doing.

Al and Anne continued the annual Christmas carol tradition, eventually reaching a mailing list of 450 people. In 1952, Al was finishing a carol as the Alvino Rey Orchestra’s singing group was rehearsing and he asked them to sing it so he could check the harmonies.

They insisted on singing it at the annual King Family Christmas party, where it was a huge hit. The King Family connection in turn led to a contract with Columbia Records for an album of carols.

In August 1953, Alfred Burt was diagnosed with lung cancer. Friend and lyricist Wihla Hutson wrote the words for four new carols. A volunteer chorus recorded the carols in a Hollywood Mormon Church which was wheelchair accessible so that Al could lead them. He declared it was the happiest day of his life, knowing that something he had written would live on.

He completed the final edits to his last carol on February 5, 1954. Knowing the end of his life was imminent, he asked Anne for two promises–to care for his music and to care for his daughter. He died on the way to the hospital on February 7th.

The carols have indeed lived on. Tennessee Ernie Ford’s first full-length Christmas album, “The Star Carol” was named after the Burt carol and rose to number four on the Billboard charts during the 1958-59 Christmas season.

Fred Waring included six Burt carols in his 1959 “Sounds of Christmas” album. Nat King Cole’s recording of “Caroling, Caroling” has remained in print since it was first published in 1960. Simon and Garfunkel recorded “The Star Carol” in 1967, and it was released in 1997.

The Burt family continues the family tradition of writing carols. Each Christmas, a new carol premieres to a regional listening audience on Minnesota Public Radio. In all, there are 52 carols.

The Burt Carols will be featured at the Marquette Regional History Center’s Annual Holiday Open House on Wednesday, December 7 at 6:30 pm.

The museum will also host two other holiday music programs, Tuba Christmas on Sunday, Dec. 4 at 1:30 p.m. and Brass Choir on Sunday, Dec. 11 at 4 p.m.


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