Tom Burns sometimes told friends, "You've got to live the blues to play the blues."
It was a fitting mantra for a man who just scraped by when he wasn't wailing on the harmonica in bars around the West Bank — once the epicenter of the blues in Minneapolis. Over the years his eclectic residences included a room over the Viking Bar, houseboats on Minnesota rivers and an old Winnebago parked in the Arizona desert.
A longtime fixture of the local blues scene, Burns died on Nov. 23 after suffering from lung and heart disease. He was 67.
"Music was his life," said Janet Bergstrom, who had an on-and-off relationship with Burns over many years. "He was a true blues man."
Burns took up the harmonica after falling in with a crowd of musicians at Wayzata High School in the early 1970s. His first band, Lake Street Stink Band, got its start with a regular gig playing to dancing crowds above a restaurant in Mound.
He would soon become a regular player at blues bars around the West Bank such as the Joint, the Cabooze, Whiskey Junction, the 400 Bar, Triangle Bar and Viking Bar, back when the area was a haven for hippie musicians.
John Franken, who played with Burns in the Joel Johnson Band in the 1990s, said Burns was well versed in blues masters like Sonny Boy Williamson and Little Walter.
"Tommy could speak that language on the harmonica," Franken said. "He had studied all those guys. To me that's what made him great."
He knew how to get a good sound out of a harmonica — even a cheap one, said John Beach, a longtime friend who played with Burns regularly in Arizona.
"He was an expert at what makes a harmonica tone funky," Beach said.
Burns' personal life was rocky at times. His heavy drinking — he enjoyed brandy and Milwaukee's Best beer — was a source of friction with Bergstrom. They had a daughter together but split up when the girl was young.
"He would take me to the Viking Bar to hang out with him when I was 11 — during the day," said his daughter, Jerusha Steinert.
Offstage, Burns was an enthusiastic storyteller, Steinert said, but a reticent musical performer. Steinert said she was in college when she first saw her father play at a public venue, at Famous Dave's in Uptown.
"I just broke down in tears," she said. "I could not believe what a different person he was on that stage, and just how everybody else looked at him when he was doing it."
Burns also played regularly with Lazy Bill Lucas, who broke through in the Chicago blues scene and moved to Minnesota later in life. And he toured at one time with Kent DuChaine — now a prominent blues musician.
"They didn't have any gigs booked. They just went down there and hustled their way across the South on their own," said Larry Hayes, a lifelong friend of Burns from Wayzata High and fellow blues player.
For a time, Burns lived above the Viking Bar in a suite of small rooms known to some as "hell house." Former Viking bartender Rick "Kelso" Nelson remembers about five men living there with a refrigerator full of beer
He also lived, often year-round, on houseboats at marinas on the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers.
"His winter regimen was not for the fainthearted," Beach said. "He was on this leaky, damp, small, dark boat."
Burns moved to Arizona several years ago and lived at Twin Buttes RV Park, where Beach also lives, in the desert near the Mexico border. He and Beach played gigs, Burns armed with a suitcase full of harmonicas, until the pandemic cut them short.
Burns is survived by Steinert of Stacey, brother James "Butch" Burns of Le Sueur, sister Deborah Mediger of Le Sueur, and sister Pauline Holz of St. Peter. A celebration of life will be held in 2021.