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Sam “The Man” Burns, an influential house music DJ, died unexpectedly Saturday at the age of 63. The term “legend” is often used loosely and hyperbolically, but when describing the 40-plus year career of Burns, it is certainly appropriate.
Burns, a D.C. native, began DJing in 1978 and made his name through hard work and dedication to the craft, performing iconic sets throughout the 1980s and 1990s at D.C. nightclubs like Chicago’s, The Ritz, State of the Union, The Clubhouse, The Roxy, U Street Music Hall, 18th Street Lounge, and other local venues. He also worked at the DJ-friendly record stores 12 Inch Records and DJ Hut, where he dispensed musical advice and life lessons to customers and fellow DJs.
D.C. is not widely recognized as a house music mecca, but when Burns performed, he would often have a line out the door and down the block with people trying to get into the club. I remember waiting in that line myself outside of Chicago’s to see Burns spin in the main room. Sometimes it was a little bit cold outside. It might even be raining, but it didn’t matter because when you walked through the door you always got more than your money’s worth.
Burns was a perfectionist by nature and every time he put the headphones on, his number one objective was to satisfy his audience. In a 1998 City Paper profile of Burns, Holly Bass captured the genius of his pre-show preparation, attention to detail and comprehensive knowledge of music.
Even in 2020, after DJing over 40 years, Burns was still recognized as one of the best DJs in the business. He was scheduled to headline an event Saturday night at Flash on Florida Avenue NW. He also performed frequently at Baltimore nightclubs.
The impact of Burns’ sudden death was felt far beyond the Beltway. The Chosen Few DJs, a collective of the original house music pioneers from Chicago, issued a heartfelt statement expressing their condolences.
But of course, the tragic loss hit us hardest here in the nation’s capital. Many of his friends and fans gathered Sunday afternoon at the Eaton Hotel, and later that evening at the 18th Street Lounge to comfort each other, share memories, and, at least for a moment, dance their sadness away. A fundraiser to help the Burns family is planned for March 22 at Tropicalia featuring DJ Biz Markie and other surprise guests, and a separate fundraising effort is active on GoFundMe. Proceed from Mirror Company‘s March 21 show at Backbar will also go to Burns’ family.
Kymone Freeman, the co-founder of We Act Radio, announced that every night the 12 a.m. to 2 a.m. music slot on his station will be forever titled the “Play It Again Sam” show in honor of Burns.
Burns’ accomplishments behind the turntables were legendary, but his humility, generosity, and willingness to help the next generation of DJs are the qualities that really made him special as a musician and as a man.
“Sam gave me my first opportunity and I am forever grateful for his belief in me,” DJ Paul Howard, a friend and collaborator, said after learning of Burns’ untimely passing. “Whenever I saw him, he would always say how proud he was of me. He was a giant but he walked amongst us like a normal human being.”
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