The Lucky Ron Show – 28 years and counting

January 23rd, 2014 by  |  Published in Features, News

Lucky Ron at The Chateau Lafayette - by Eric Thompson

The Chateau Lafayette is an unassuming watering hole in the heart of downtown Ottawa. Roughly the size of a living room, the cozy bar is filled with small tables scattered around in no particular order, roughly aimed at the lone flat screen TV that hangs on the far wall. The bathroom door has about a six foot clearance, making most men who enter duck their heads. Above the bar hangs original artwork parodying Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam (Adam is reaching for a refill, and God acts as the server). The bar itself is one of few that serves its beer by the quart: $7.50 for a domestic. A home for regulars mostly, the bar is never really a flurry of activity.

Until Saturday afternoons that is. At around 2:30 the tables begin filling as a steady stream of people work their way in over the next few hours. Eventually there’s not an inch of space to be found in the bar. To walk 10 paces to get to the bathroom means wading through a sea of around 80 people packed tightly around the bar. The crowd is a mixture of every demographic, all ages, races and income levels. They all laugh, and joke, but mostly wait for him to arrive.

He strides in a little after 4:30. He probably arrived sooner, but was held up outside talking to somebody. That’s how it goes here: everyone in the crowd wants to say hello, chat with him or maybe buy him a drink. It’s a task for him to move anywhere in the bar: luckily he’s got a good crew to help set up. At 5 o’clock he throws on his white cowboy hat and finally takes the stage; a small wooden box the size of a doormat. He asks how many in the audience are new to the show. About five hands go up this time. He explains what’s going on and welcomes them.

“Welcome to the beautiful ByWard Market in downtown Ottawa. We got the same show today nothing new or different. This is, (strums a few chords) the Lucky Ron Show!”

The “Lucky Ron Show” is the product of country music sensation Ron Burke. The one-man show has been entertaining Ottawa for 28 years, come this February 1st. For the last 15 years people have packed the Laff on Saturdays for a mixture of jokes, stories and old fashioned country music. The charm of the “Lucky Ron Show” is how little it changes week to week. With a set list as predictable as the morning sun, the audience has ample opportunity to join in. The popularity of the show has helped transform the simple man from Hintonburg into a local music legend.

Born Jan. 6, 1955 at the Ottawa Grace Hospital to Ken and Norah Burke, Ron has spent almost his entire life in the Nation’s Capital. He grew up in Centretown before moving out to the west end. He has fond memories of his time central Ottawa, even if the conditions weren’t great.

“It was a rough neighbourhood back then. A lot of the row housing didn’t have any front doors on them and everybody looked like the Fonz back then. It was a pretty tough place. It wasn’t like the Golden Triangle as they call it now. You had to be on your toes.”

Burke really got into music in the mid-60’s, around the emergence of the Beatles. He purchased his first guitar, a Regent Archtop, when he was 13. It cost him $25 and an extra $2 for the strap. He bought it with money he made working a Mountain Dew stand at the Ottawa exhibition. Burke still remembers the day well.

“It was a good guitar. It looked cool so I bought it, I didn’t even play it. I had been looking at it for months I just walked over and put it on the counter. Then I got a little confused at the last minute when my father drove me up, cause there was two that looked exactly the same. I didn’t know anything about them, so I grabbed the first one.”

Though that Archtop has long since played its last cord, Burke has held on to the tailpiece from that first guitar. Just a few years back, he reattached it to another guitar to keep tradition alive.

And if there is one thing Burke is about, it’s tradition. His show always opens with Ole Slew Foot by Johnny Horton, and he follows up with Six Days on the Road by Dave Dudley and Ghost Riders by Stan Jones. Then there is brief break while the crowd chants “number four!” as Burke pretends not to hear them, before he launches into Horton’s Battle of New Orleans. Little rituals like this give the show an intimate feeling, and have been picked up over a lifetime of performing.

His first live performance came when he was only 14, playing at school dances for D. Roy Kennedy Public School and Severn Avenue Public School. The first incarnation of the show didn’t come until 1986 when he began playing at Mexicali Rosa’s upstairs club. It was there he developed the stage name he’s known by today.

“When I first started the show here, there was a guy that was in here for two months before I was, his name was Lucky Jim. So I just scratched his name off and put Ron on the posters. I wouldn’t have picked that name myself, but it’s gotten popular to the point where you can’t change it.”

Music is not Burke’s only livelihood though. At a young age, he got into woodworking and carpentry, and picked up plumbing and electrical skills during and after high school. They were easy skills to learn, as he puts it, “Electrical eh, it’s pretty simple stuff. If you wire it wrong you’ll know, through it not working or shock.”

Working in the contracting business became Burke’s main source of income and led to him meeting his future wife.

In 1990 during a dry spell, he went to work as a painter for a general contracting company, which is where he met his future wife, Kathleen. She initially thought that he was a good worker and an honest, reliable person. The two were eventually married at the Laff in 2001. It was anything but a traditional wedding, the wedding cake was shaped like a giant Jos. Louis, and Ron and Kathleen whittled figurines of each other, complete with their real hair, to go on top of the cakes. In the end they drove off in a 1974 Cadillac limo.

The couple are still as in love as a pair of newlyweds. Just a few years ago, Burke set out to write a song about his wife. The end result was My Sweet Kathleen, which she was delighted with. She knew he had been working on a love song, and didn’t want it to be too mushy as “it’s not her style.” The “fast and gnarly” song is perfect by her standards. And the guitar with the tailpiece from that first Regent Archtop, is the one he recorded the song with.


Lucky Ron at The Chateau Lafayette - by Eric Thompson

When Burke says the show is every Saturday, he means it. Even during the Ice Storm of ‘98 people braved the conditions getting downtown just to hear him play. Since coming to the Laff, Burke has only missed one show: Christmas happened to fall on a Saturday so they decided to give the staff the day off.

“There’s nothing important enough to cancel the show. That’s one thing I pride myself on, is people don’t have to phone. If somebody’s coming in from Stockholm or Warsaw or Melbourne, they don’t have to phone ahead. It’s a Saturday, if they’re going to be here they know the show is going.”

It sounds crazy but Burke really does have a global following. Burke says even if country music isn’t their thing, people have so much fun when they come, they crave more and more. Brent Cook, 36, has been going to the show for about three years. He took his parents once, and he’s never heard the end of it.

“They’re from Winnipeg, and back in the day they used to print the lyrics to these types of songs in the paper and my parents would collect them, so when they came down here my mom was in heaven… The show is exactly what you want out of a vacation.”

Recently Burke has been added to Facebook, Twitter and iTunes. He said he wasn’t sure how it happened exactly, but it has helped his growing following stay in touch.

The “Lucky Ron Show” is described as a family show, and that doesn’t just mean the PG content. The crowd is incredibly well-behaved, even though they’re surrounded by alcohol and crammed into tight quarters. The Laff has no bouncers working the show. There’s never a need.

“The show has such a small town feel,” says Cook. “It doesn’t matter if you’re mayor, MP, making $40,000 a year or homeless. Everybody just gets along.”

“We’ve had couples that have met at the show, and Ron has played their wedding and now they have kids that are old enough to come,” said Kathleen.

Kathleen believes that “when it’s all said and done, Ron will be a bigger Ottawa legend that Big Joe Mufferaw” (the folk hero made popular by Stompin Tom Connors). Burke tries to remain a little more level-headed, but he has received recognition from Connors himself. Once when signing autographs a fan asked Connors if he had ever heard of Lucky Ron to which he replied, “Of course I have! But I doubt he’s ever heard of me!”

Connors had sent Burke signed memorabilia over the years as encouragement, and most of it hangs up in the Laff now. Burke knows if it was in his possession it would just end up getting lost in his basement.

The only change to Burke’s lifestyle since he gained celebrity status was having to switch to an unlisted phone number. For a man that played a weekly show at an “underground bar,” he was shocked at the amount of unsolicited calls he got. He still can’t imagine how greats like Springsteen and Lennon dealt with it.

But for anyone who does need to get a hold of Burke, they should know exactly where they can find him on a Saturday. In the words he ends every show with, “My name’s Lucky Ron, I’ve been playing here every Saturday since they hired me, and I’ll be here every Saturday til they fire me.”

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