From NKAA, Notable Kentucky African Americans Database (main entry)

Burdette, John McKinley

(born: 1896  -  died: 1995) 

At the age of 25, John M. Burdette left his hometown of Lexington, KY seeking employment and the opportunity to further his singing career in Chicago. [He was actually born in Garrard County, KY, according to his World War I and World War II Draft Registration Cards.] 

Burdette was one of several lodgers living on South Parkway in Chicago, as was Kentucky native Ernest Covington, according to the 1930 U.S. Federal Census. Burdette sang part-time; both he and Covington were employed full-time as elevator operators, Covington at an official building and Burdette in a furniture store on Wabash Avenue.

Burdette's big break came in 1930 when he won a local contest at the Oriental Theater singing "Old Man River"; he was declared the best baritone among the competitors. He would next sing at the Chicagoland Music Festival at Soldiers Field and was invited back to perform the next three years. Burdette was also a jubilee singer who in 1934 won the audience over with his rendition of "Old Man River." By 1940, he was singing with a theather company, according to the 1940 U.S. Federal Census.  

Burdette was still singing professionally in the 1950s: he was a member of the first integrated chorus in Grant Park Concert's Cole Porter High Program, held in Chicago August 18-19, 1951. Guest star Etta Moten, an African American soprano from Weimar, TX, was one of the four featured performers accompanied by the chorus that included African American members John Burdette and Albert Yarborough.

Burdette was born in Garrard County September 7, 1896, the son of Johshua Burdette from Danville, KY and Sallie Keaiser Burdette. John was the husband of Rosella Griffin [source: Ohio Indexing Project, Reference ID #2:3JX47SS]; they married in Hamilton, OH December 23, 1919. John lived in Ohio during World War I; the couple lived in Cincinnati in 1920 [source: U.S. Federal Census]. Rosella Griffin Burdette was born July 1, 1896 in Lexington and died at the age of 96 in Pennsylvania on August 31, 1992 [source: U.S. Social Security Death Index]. John died in Washington, D.C. at the age of 98 on July 31, 1995 [source: U.S. Social Security Death Index]. 

For more see "Former Lexington Negro wins singing contest at Chicago," Lexington Leader, 8/17/1930, p. 16; J. B. Lieberman, "Mundy-led jubilee singers delight audience," Daily Illini, 1/16/1934, pp. 1 & 5 [online at Illinois Digital Newspaper Collections website]; and "Moten, Etta: soprano" in the 1952 Negro Year Book, ed. by J. P. Guzman, p. 56.

Kentucky County & Region

Read about Garrard County, Kentucky in Wikipedia.
Read about Fayette County, Kentucky in Wikipedia.

Kentucky Place (Town or City)

Read about Lexington, Kentucky in Wikipedia.

Item Relations

Cited in this Entry

NKAA Source: Lexington leader (newspaper)
NKAA Source: Negro year book: an annual encyclopedia of the Negro (annual)
NKAA Entry: "Ol Man River" / "Long Haired Mama"  Song Controversy

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“Burdette, John McKinley,” Notable Kentucky African Americans Database, accessed July 21, 2024,

Last modified: 2023-07-31 16:03:14