When James Tyron Burris takes the stage and bellows out the hits, he channels great soul singers who came before him like Marvin Gaye, Gerald Lavert and the Delfonics. The 37-year-old Harlem crooner is best know for his weekly shows at Melba’s Restaurant and Hudson River Cafe. His smooth, velvety voice can’t be missed, he says, because it’s one of a kind.
“I am the last of the soul singers,” he said. “Today’s music is missing a lot of soul. I listen to these artists today and they aren’t talking about anything.”
Born in Harlem, Burris (who also goes under his stage name, “Petawane”) has been singing since he was 6 and participated in his first talent show when he was in the second grade, singing the Lionel Richie hit “You Are.” He later moved to the Bronx, becoming a part of the emerging hip-hop movement going on at the time.
“Music to me is a very important part of who I am,” he said. “I grew up listening to all types of music. I listen to the Dean Martins, the Frank Sinatras and Bing Crosby. I feel the spirits of Marvin, Teddy, Michael, Gerald and Barry when I sing. Roll them all up into one and that’s Petawane.”
He got his first professional music experience when he was teenager by singing for the famed DJ Afrika Bambaataa. At age 16, Burris recorded a cover of the duet hit “Very Special” with Fonda Rae.
Burris contributed to rap music by making samples in his home using the “pause tape” method, an early and inexpensive way of sampling using a home tape player. His samples were bought by hip-hop artist and producer Lord Finesse. Burris co-produced Lord Finesse’s 1992 album, “Return of the Funky Man,” at age 17.
In 1993, Burris joined the all-male singing group Diverse. Along with help from promoter Maria Davis, the group did a show for Roc-A-Fella Records executive Damon Dash. The show was a success and made a positive impression on Dash. Burris soon sang background vocals for rap group Natural Elements, rapper O.C. and Whitney Houston.
Burris’ group broke up, leading him to take his solo act back to his community. Keeping his act local, he met Harlem restauranteur Melba Wilson while she was working at Sylvia’s. He performed at the restaurant on open mic nights. He also performed regularly at Londel’s Restaurant and the Den.
Five years ago, he started singing at Melba’s Restaurant and has been there ever since, performing on Tuesday nights. Burris can also be seen at Hudson River Cafe on Fridays nights.
“Just to see people dancing and smiling and their faces, it makes me feel good that I’m doing something great for them. I’m giving them a service and the service is great music. I love that,” he said.
In 2009, he achieved what he considers a huge step and won “Amateur Night” at the Apollo four times in a row. He considers the win even better than “American Idol.”
“A Simon Cowell insult doesn’t compare to 500 people booing you,” he said. “I don’t even watch the show. I prefer watching old clips of ‘American Bandstand’ and ‘Soul Train.’”
Burris attended the College of New Rochelle, where he graduated with a degree in psychology. He worked for the Department of Education and is currently in his first year as a music teacher for kindergarten through third grade at the Harlem Children’s Zone.