Image courtesy Victoria Ford
Remembering DJ Sam “The Man” Burns (1957-2020)
Sam “The Man” Burns was an essential fixture in DC’s nightclub scene.
His sudden passing over the weekend leaves us individually and collectively devastated. We each have contributed some thoughts on Sam Burns, what his work meant to us and his legacy within the DC nightclub scene. We have lost someone who wasn’t just an innovator and exceptional talent, but also a colleague and a friend.
I first met Sam “The Man” Burns at DJ Hut in Dupont Circle in the very early oughts, long before digital and streaming, when 12″ vinyl was the only format for new club music. As a full-time freelance designer in walking distance from DC’s then-best record store, I’d take advantage of a near-empty shop in the mid-afternoon. That’s when I met Sam Burns behind the counter. Sam was friendly, patient, generous with his time and knowledge, and with the quiet self-assurance that comes from being in the game a long time. Sam intuited my growing tastes right away, turning me on to releases I might have otherwise overlooked. “Check out the b-side on that one on the bottom row,” sending me back to the listening station to preview it, and he’d always be right. [The still? slept-on tribal house of The Doc Bongo’s “Drumslingers (Part 1)” from 2004 remains a cherished piece of wax to this day.] Sam was well-known for supporting and encouraging younger DJs but those afternoons made me feel like I was the exclusive recipient of his knowledge of the underground, regardless of genre. Sam was a house DJ but had an open format mind; he knew his downtempo, hip-hop, pop, jazz, etc. Those shop visits were my first genuine experience with Sam’s greatness.
Witnessing his greatness behind the decks came later. The way Sam could read his crowd was simply unmatched. I say “his crowd” because he’d start playing and they’d be his, no matter where he played or who he played for. His deft blends and impeccable taste were pure joy for his dance floor and school for any DJ in earshot. And Sam’s physicality matched his stature; he always seemed to be the tallest guy in the room. Every DJ in DC stands on the shoulders of this giant.
A few years back, DJ Rusty B. and I talked our way into a DC edition of the Motown on Mondays party at the [now-defunct] Den of Thieves. With little support from the spot other than staying open for us on Monday night, we started looking to guest DJs to grow our audience. Rusty invited Sam to join us for a night. He strolled in with a shoulder bag full of custom CDRs and very casually blew us away with some of the best Motown reworks we’d ever heard. His entire set was comprised of classics, stretched and chopped into new life-affirming anthems. Compared to his usually packed rooms, this felt like a private masterclass in selection and mixing. Sundays were famously and exclusively Sam’s domain, but here he was owning Monday too! After blowing our minds for nearly two hours Sam was characteristically modest, thanking us for inviting him out to play some tunes and wishing us well with our fledgling night. Simply a class act.
Sam’s passing leaves a gaping hole in DC’s music scene. But his inspirational legacy gives us DJs endless lessons to learn as we keep his memory alive with our own sets. Every DJ should strive to be as adventurous, as generous, and as genuine as Sam “The Man” Burns.
As America’s brief obsession with disco waned, it went back underground and began morphing into its next form, returning to the spaces in the margins that drive popular culture from the bottom up. Young kids – black, latino, queer – finding spaces to be in Chicago, Detroit and New York City. Latching on to new technology to stiffen the sonic pulse of the disco framework.
It was called house, because that’s where this thing happened, whether in the homes of pioneering producers tinkering with early drum machines and samplers, or in the Warehouse of dance music godfather Frankie Knuckles. In DC it was happening at the Clubhouse. And the Clubhouse gave us Sam Burns. And Sam “The Man” Burns gave us 40 years of happiness.
House happened in the dark when most people are sleeping. And this was where Sam ministered to his flock. The soul finds freedom in the weird part of the night. And over multiple decades, the people who needed freedom found it on Sam’s dance floors. His ministry was a tapestry of the sacred and the profane, the sweet and the rough, tension and release, all linked with a hypnotic 4/4 mantra of rhythm that insistently stripped away inhibitions.
The profession of nightlife is not an easy path. The whims of a fickle marketplace, rapidly shifting trends, shady business practices, readily consumed substances and long nocturnal hours don’t lend themselves to longevity. But through it all, Sam remained. Sam thrived because he was loved. He was consistently earnest when entertainment can be driven by artifice. He played for kids too young to be in the club. Then he played for their kids. Then he played for their grandkids. You could find four generations on his dancefloors.
Sam remembered you. Your favorite song. Your signature dance move. He was always happy to see you. He knew EVERYBODY, but he always made you feel like you were his best friend. The only thing that could darken that love were party fouls. But a stern (and humorous) cuss out on the microphone for spilling drinks on his floor, stepping on fellow dancers’ feet or bumping into his DJ booth was just the act of a patriarch taking care of his family. He’d love you again after the necessary chastisement.
There is no bigger figure in DC nightlife than Sam “The Man” Burns. He’s the root and trunk of a tree with infinite branches. Sam was the ultimate connector. His passing leaves a huge hole but also a huge legacy of dedication to craft, to community and to good times.
DJ Ty Hussell
It is with great sadness that I sit and contemplate the passing on of Sam “The Man” Burns. My heart goes out to his family, his global network of friends, his many fans, and especially to his beloved son Mason.
Sam’s DC roots were deeper than deep. In his over 40 impeccable years of rocking dance floors, he paved the way for countless DJ’s through his nurturing and supportive spirit. He was a force of positivity, someone everyone relied on without question. You always knew he’d be there, because he was. Humble as hell, yet with the unflappable strength and confidence of an elder statesman, he seemed beyond time.
DC will not be the same without Sam. Scores of DJ’s and dancers will be thanking you for your guidance, tutelage, and wisdom for many years to come. May you rest in Peace and Power Sam Burns.
Sam Burns and his son Mason at ForwardFest. Image courtesy Mukul Ranjan
If you were a DJ in the pre digital days you knew Sam Burns. As soon as you walked into 12” Dance Records his personality was there larger than life. Not his ego but his personality. A character with endless stories and the charisma to tell them. If you asked him about a new release or music you were looking for he would happily help. He was the antidote to the stereotypical moody record store employee.
As a young DJ talking with Sam about his past made you realize you were part of something even cooler than you could have imagined. I’ll always remember him talking about the closing of Club 5. He said back in the day he would DJ in that building weekdays for a “lunch disco” where people would come in with records they had just bought and hand them to him to play. No one was eating, they were just dancing during their lunch hour.
I never knew the origins of “The Man” monicker but it just fit. He was the coolest, most respected DJ in the city who was also the kindest. Unless you were smoking on the dance floor then he would bust out his flashlight, get on the mic and if you were at club Red, crank up the air raid siren and call you out.
I remember a playful argument between two DJs talking about hosting their own party on a Sunday. Someone else said yeah but that’s Sam’s day, to which one of the DJs said “it’s called Sunday not Samday”. We all laughed because we knew it was his day, like an exclamation point at the end of the week, the place “where the happy people go.”
DJ Neville C
When I moved to Washington, DC in 1988 one of the first things I did was find the local record store(s). 12″ Dance Records in Dupont Circle was THE spot in DC—hell in the Mid-Atlantic states—to go to for dance singles. Disco, house, hip-hop, techno if you could dance to it they carried it. I was fairly new to “dance music” having mainly bought rock n roll records up to that point in my life and some of the guys who worked there could be more than a little intimidating if you didn’t know your stuff but there was one guy there, Sam Burns (aka Sam “The Man” Burns) who was instantly nice to me. He’s put records in my hands and say “if you like [such and such], you should check this out.” Sam knew my name after my second visit there which really impressed me.
A few years later I finally got to hear Sam DJ. I should have suspected from his knowledge how good a DJ he was going to be but I was blown away. Sam defined smooth and made it look so easy (when I knew it wasn’t). Sam was a DJ who thought about the whole evening, not as in planning out his whole set record by record but in having a beginning, middle (peak) and an end. Sam could read a crowd and then take them where he wanted. His knowledge of music was unsurpassed.
Thanks for the music Sam! You made me a better DJ and a better record store owner and you made DC a better place. You’ll be missed.
DJ M Dot
Sam Burns taught me about house music and without being able to put my finger on the moment, made me love it. He may have been schooling me (us) on the good stuff, but the way he taught us was like hiding veggies in a toddler’s lunch- you don’t know you’re getting something so good for you because it’s cooked up in something so delicious.
Years before my residency at the 18th Street Lounge, I found myself in the Gold Room, around that cadre of dancers, thinking how proud I was to be part of this supportive music culture; now I know that culture came from Sam.
As I grew into my own residency at the Lounge, I was always surprised at how real his smile and words of encouragement were to me. In a culture of competition that the DJ world can often foster, here was a man who genuinely wanted to see others succeed.
Sam ”The Man” Burns held his power and gained our trust through his quiet confidence he held behind the decks, a model of DJ modesty. With all the tools in his pocket to please us all, he still listened closely and gave us everything we needed.
Image courtesy Victoria Ford