Joe Bourne says that once people find out what he does for a living - and in whose company he has done it - they often ask him why he's living in Oro Valley.
A singer-entertainer in the style of Nat King Cole and Lou Rawls, Bourne has performed internationally for more than 30 years, making his home for most of that time in Holland. He has sung with, or opened shows for, such musical greats as Dionne Warwick, The Pointer Sisters and Natalie Cole and kept company with Fats Domino, Tony Bennett and Ray Charles. He's traveled to every country except Japan and China, performing in much of Europe.
So why is he here?
"The Netherlands is extremely damp and cold and my wife Flory suffers with arthritis," Bourne explained. "She has always supported me for the 30 years we've known each other. So when the time came, I said health was more important than any career and we moved to Tucson partially for the weather."
While Bourne still has contracts in the Netherlands and travels there a few times yearly, he is making his mark locally as well, performing at dinner theaters, lounges and private company galas.
"I do jazz, rhythm and blues, and popular evergreens, everything from the 1940s to now," Bourne explained.
The 60-year-old performer has twice-monthly shows at Fuego Restaurant on Tanque Verde Road, performed at this year's "State of Oro Valley" meeting and recently did a show at the Golf Club at Vistoso. He has a show with the University of Arizona band this month, a series of Christmas programs scheduled for Access Television in December and an invitation to perform with the Tucson Pops Orchestra on Mother's Day.
The road to Oro Valley was circuitous and started in Cambridge where Bourne was born the oldest of two sons to Johnnie Lee and Joseph Bourne, Jr. His father had a penchant for the opera and their home was situated next to a small, Pentecostal, four-times-a-week, constantly singing church. Bourne was almost destined to become a singer, surrounded as he was by so much song.
"Music was everywhere when I was growing up," Bourne said, recalling his childhood in Cambridge. "My father loved opera - my mother didn't. She would say, 'Turn that screaming stuff off!' I performed in some street corner groups and sang early in church choirs. No matter what else I was doing, the music part of me was constantly bubbling inside."
Bourne's father expected him to go to a university following high school, "but like a lot of young people, I decided to do other things."
He married at 18, immediately started a family and took night courses in management training to find employment in restaurant management. But even with family responsibilities necessitating a steady paycheck, Bourne found a way to work music into his job.
"When we would have management dinners, I would arrange it so I could provide the entertainment," he explained.
At one of those dinners, a friend heard Bourne sing and told him she had contacts in the music industry. One of those contacts helped Bourne produce his first album in 1967, which led to a yearlong contract singing at a Boston dinner theater.
"My career went very well for the first 16 months, but then the dip came, and I went back to restaurant work for a couple of years," Bourne recalled. "One day I got a call from a colleague in Atlanta. He had an agent and asked me to come down. By then I had divorced, so I packed my stuff and, with the reassurance that I could have my job back in the restaurant if needed, I headed to Atlanta.
"The agent had heard my tape, but when I walked in, he looked at me and said, 'Oh.'" Bourne said, remembering his first bout with racism in the industry. "He said he liked what I did, but that his customers might not be kind to me. Of course it was a blow, but what was cool about the South, if this can be cool, is that you always knew where you stood as a black person. In Boston, it was more subversive; you always had to wonder, 'Is this decision based on race or isn't it?'"
Bourne chose to stay in Atlanta and got a job as a room-service waiter at the Regency Hyatt Hotel, knowing that big-name performers would stay there. He served Elvis Presley and Lauren Bacall during his tenure and made contacts with convention schedulers, eventually being offered guest performance slots in the hotel. He was soon signed by an agency and performed for two years at various Atlanta hotels.
It was when he was doing a show at one of those hotels that he met Flory, who was at a reception honoring her employer.
"I was dancing with one of my superiors and we danced past where Joe was singing," Flory recalled. "Joe and I locked eyes and it was love at first sight. I told the man I was dancing with, 'I've just found my soul mate.'"
Bourne spoke with his future wife during his break between sets, making plans for lunch a couple of days later.
"We've been together ever since," he said.
Flory, a native of Holland and a Holocaust survivor, said inter-racial relationships are not unusual in her native country. However, "it was really a very brave thing to do 30 years ago in the South," she said, adding that her worst memories are those "dealing with racial prejudice."
"Some people have the bad luck to be ignorant and don't know there's no difference in human beings, that we are all alike inside," she explained.
While the couple suffered discrimination from a few friends and business associates, their families' concerns were not about race.
"My parents were a little worried about the age difference," Bourne said, explaining that his wife is somewhat older than he is. "Her parents weren't concerned so much with my color, but with my job: 'You're dating an entertainer?!' was their response."
The couple spent a year in Atlanta before relocating to the Netherlands so Flory could be close to her aging mother. They settled in Leiden, Holland, and, as fate would have it, they roomed next door to the manager of a rock band. Bourne played his music for that manager and through him was introduced to agents who arranged Bourne's first Netherlands recording contract.
"From there my career took off with a rolling start," Bourne joked. "It put me on the map in the Netherlands and led to performances on TV, radio and opening for American acts that were on their European tours."
Bourne performed throughout Europe for the 25 years he and Flory lived in Holland. When they decided to relocate to Arizona, he took a solo trip to Tucson to check on the construction of their house and fate once again intervened.
"I had a ticket for a certain seat and as I was walking down the aisle of the airplane, I passed a (different) seat and I just had the strong feeling I should sit there," he remembered. "So I did and when the owner of that seat came, I asked if I could stay there and he took my assigned seat. I was sitting next to a woman and her husband. She asked me what I did and I said I was a singer-entertainer from the Netherlands hoping to make my mark in Tucson."
As luck would have it, that woman's husband was a Tucson entertainer. He offered Bourne some names and phone numbers of agents and through that contact, Bourne got his first performance in Sedona through Mary Baker of MEB Talent.
With dogged self-promotion, Bourne became known in the Tucson area and gigs came steadily. But just as things were taking off for him, he became ill.
"Last February I thought I had the flu," he recalled. "I was really sick. We found out I was in kidney failure. I wasn't supposed to survive, but I recovered. After surviving what I was told was my deathbed, I was then told I'd be on dialysis the rest of my life. In addition, I completely lost my singing voice.
"I began dialysis and after eight weeks, a miracle happened - my kidneys reversed themselves," Bourne continued. "And 'miracle' is the doctors' word, not mine; they say they'd never seen this. I was able to come off dialysis and slowly, over a number of months, my voice returned."
After a summer of recuperating and working on promotion materials for his various shows and CD projects, Bourne began performing live again in September.
"Part of the reason we chose (the Tucson area) is because of its laid-back atmosphere and acceptance," he said. "I'm grateful there are musical opportunities here as well, and that I got my (singing) voice back. God has watched out for us."
For more information on Bourne's concerts and scheduling possibilities, visit www.joebourne.com