Born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, composer and arranger Joseph Francis “Sonny” Burke studied piano and violin as a child. He later switched to the vibes, which would become his signature instrument.
He began playing in dance bands at an early age, leading his own group at Duke University. When Detroit orchestra leader Sam Donahue left his outfit in 1938 to work with Gene Krupa, Burke inherited the band. With encouragement from famous music critic John Hammond he brought the orchestra to New York, where they eventually landed a booking at the Roseland Ballroom and a recording contract with Okeh Records. The band never really achieved stardom but did produce some nice sides in its short life. The group's female vocalist was Lynne Sherman.
In 1940 Donahue left Krupa and asked for his band back. Burke put it to a vote of his sidemen, who choose to go with Donahue, since Donahue was a much more dynamic frontman. Burke bowed out gracefully.
In spite of this setback Burke went on to have a very successful career, serving as chief arranger for both Jimmy Dorsey and Charlie Spivak and also composing and arranging for television and film. Perhaps his most famous work was for the Disney animated feature Lady and the Tramp.
Burke recorded several albums during the 1950s and 1960s and produced many of Frank Sinatra's best recordings. He also composed and conducted for such artists as Mel Torme and Ella Fitzgerald. He served as musical director for both Reprise and Warner Brothers Records and founded his own company, Daybreak Records. Sonny Burke died in 1980.