several years ago, in a hotel on Big Island, Hawaii, singer, songwriter, and film star Arlo Guthrie chanced to meet Willie Leacox, longtime drummer with the rock group America.
The folk singer and the drummer were scheduled to appear on the same concert bill the following night. On his day off before the gig, Leacox told Guthrie, “I plan to find the guy in this state who’ll sell me a fine, quality cigar.”
The two musicians engaged in conversations of performances present and future, until Guthrie began reminiscing about the first gig he ever did outside New York City. It was back in 1965, he told Leacox, at a place called Cafe Harris in Columbia, Missouri.
So smitten was he with the club and the large-and-in-charge character who owned it, said Arlo, that he extended his engagement by a month and even wrote a song about the club called “Cafe Harris Rag.” The number was featured in the 1969 Arthur Penn classic film Alice’s Restaurant, based on Guthrie’s song of the same name. Guthrie and Leacox exchanged pleasantries awhile longer, and then went their separate ways.
Unknown to either the folk singer or the drummer was the fact that they had both been talking about the same guy - Bill Burton, aka “Sir Wilfred,” who was at that very moment blowing smoke not far away on the Island of Maui.
There, the rotund Burton operates Sir Wilfred’s - ”the biggest little coffee and tobacco shop around” - all the while regaling customers with his own brand of tall tales and horsepucky spun on the spot, preferably with a steamy cup of 100 percent Kona peaberry coffee and the appropriate background music to accentuate the moment (in private the coffee is replaced by a snifter of Remy cognac).
If there’s an imported, premium, hand-rolled cigar to be found in the most remote, populated location on Earth, mid-Pacific cigar buffs learn that Sir Wilfred either has it in one of his three over-sized humidors, or he can magically produce it in short order. His reputation as the shuck-an’-jive tobacconist who pleases his patrons has been seasoned by time, fate, and natural individualism.
Sir Wilfred’s operates both a cigar shop and food court kiosk in |
Maui’s Whaler’s Village.
Four decades ago, as a musical pioneer of the plains, Burton opened Cafe Harris and introduced seldom seen folk and blues acts to mid-America west of the Mississippi - not only bringing in Arlo, but such legends as the Reverend Gary Davis, Spider John Koenern, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. On weekends, Burton imported jazz ensembles from St. Louis, further enticing and enlightening collegiate crowds from the University of Missouri and nearby Stephens College. Burton, 20 at the time, was already road-wise.
Prior to Cafe Harris, Burton had involved himself in the sorts of dime-novel exploits and wild-hare road adventures necessary for his figurative and literal rounding-out (getting kicked out of college - twice; wandering aimlessly through Mexico; dealing dice in Las Vegas; working at a sheet metal factory in New York City; and convincing a cute Ohio telephone operator to chuck it all and travel cross-country in his Austin Healy convertible - only to have her dump him for a traveling Technicolor salesman in Long Beach).
More latter-day Huck Finn than throw-back to Kerouac, Burton had been brought up unsupervised in northwest Missouri by a religious, good-hearted mother who instilled in him a sense of music appreciation, while being loosely mentored by a cadre of rough-and-tumble iconoclasts, card-sharps, boozers, and business-minded wheeler-dealers who operated by their own values. Burton never knew his father, Wilfred Burton II, a B-17 navigator who was shot down over Europe during the Second World War and died legless in a Romanian hospital.
Among Burton’s paternal fill-ins was Uncle Jack on his mom’s side, a farm hand turned rug dealer who introduced the lad to Dutch Masters cigars and rotgut whiskey as the two fished the same Missouri River tributaries familiar to Jesse James a century earlier. Uncle Jack Howell was a faithful employee of Wilfred Burton I, a respected Independence, Missouri floor-covering salesman, who more than once laid carpet in the stately Victorian home of President Harry S. Truman, located within easy walking distance from the sanitarium where Wilfred Burton III was born on Feb. 21, 1945. From his grandfather, Burton received an understanding of ethics and honesty that, blended with the earthy lessons of Uncle Jack and others, evolved into Burton’s singular perspective and modus vivendi.
Eventually, Burton, his mom, and a younger half-brother migrated to Dayton, Ohio where the family owned and operated a vending machine concern as well as the Dixie Candy Company, a wholesale distributorship inherited from Burton’s step-father, who drowned in a storm in 1952. In Dayton, young Wilfred was tutored by his Uncle Alex Kallos, a Hungarian businessman from whom he learned the finer strategies of gambling, and Ralph Skelken, a savvy Jewish lawyer who gave him an advanced education in commercial aplomb.
“Ralph was the biggest man in Dayton, Ohio,” says Burton. “Pushed people right into the governorship. Most brilliant man I ever knew in my life. He taught me university-level business.”
Otherwise, Burton was essentially left to his own devices, dividing his time by indulging in worldly pleasures in Dayton, and doing likewise on extended return trips to Independence twice a year.
Through it all he developed a philosophy based on three pillars of epicurean wisdom: all human experience can be enhanced by the drink in hand, the musical background, and the appropriate smoke. Together, these three virtues touch all five senses. Essential to the ethos is the recognition of a point of comparison based on experience that advances romance over time and distance. One cannot fully appreciate, say, Chateaubriand and a 1972 Lafite Rothschild in a subdued, candle-lit atmosphere unless and until one has been obligated to dine on Campbell’s Pork & Beans out of a tin can next to some cold and desolate stretch of two-lane black top.
But what elevates either moment is the compatibility of a decent beverage, the soothing curl of smoke, and at least a hint of organized sound - be it West Indian calypso filtered through the static of a car radio, or the naked whistling wind accompanied by the flapping cadence of a loose barn door.
A decade after Cafe Harris, and 4,000 miles to the west, the 310-pound pioneer was ready to continue his pursuit of happiness in finer digs in subtropical splendor. Like his taste in cigars, Burton’s appetite for music and spirits had broadened. “It’s called pairing,” he says. Any one of the elements by itself can provide a remarkable moment. But in the proper mix they blend to become indelible - a lasting, magnificent imprint.
But Burton believes the experience should never be lessened by adhering to priggish standards. If a factory-rolled Panatela, a frosty Heineken, and “Floyd Cramer Plays The Monkees” is what’s available, then give it every ounce of fulfillment you can muster.
“Garcia Vagas - that’s what I started out with after I moved up from Dutch Masters when I was 13,” he says in his low-key Missouri twang, perpetually accompanied by a slight grin and know-it-all chuckle. “They weren’t bad back then. And so you live and learn, and you move forward. The thing about liking all forms of music, for example, is that it opens the door to meeting people you wouldn’t ordinarily encounter. If you say, ‘I don’t like rap music,’ then there’s a segment of society you’ll never know. If you don’t like classical music, there’s another segment you’ll miss.”
There aren’t many segments he’s avoided, and if you don’t believe it, he’s apt to tell you about it before you even ask.
Burton’s pioneering legend, like his philosophy, has continued to expand (unlike the man of girth himself, who has lately trimmed to a lean and mean 250-pounds). Sir Wilfred’s was one of the first shops in the country, for example, to carry Kinky Friedman Cigars - hand rolled Habana wrappers with Honduran and Nicaraguan fillers in five sizes.
Or course, Friedman and Burton are pals. “He’s a Renaissance man,” says Friedman between puffs, “a colorful, authentic American raconteur. In other words, he’s more full of shit than I am.” High praise indeed from an ever-full-of-it comedian, country music outlaw, and erstwhile Texas gubernatorial candidate.
Bill Burton with fellow “Renaissance man” and cigar marketer |
Ironically, Burton says the way he prefers to enjoy Kinky Friedman’s music is with an Arturo Fuente Hemingway classic and a glass of Jameson on the rocks. But while that might be the case on Wednesday, it may not be the recipe for Thursday, when “They Ain’t Makin’ Jews Like Jesus Anymore” is best experienced with a Willie, or possibly Sir Wilfred’s own Big Kahuna Churchill, and Patron tequila with a Corona beer back. In the Burton predilection of well-being, you do whatever works best under the circumstances.
Sir Wilfred’s signature cigar, Big Kahuna, is a hand-rolled premium cigar made from Honduran filler and binder, a Connecticut wrapper, and offered in five sizes that was “years in the making” says Wilfred.
Occasionally overlooked in the bigger-than-life mystique of Burton’s character is the force that has allowed it to succeed in the face of what might otherwise be overwhelming odds. That potency has been bequeathed to him in the form of the former Cathy Hunter of Dayton, Ohio - childhood acquaintance, eventual sweetheart, and wife of 40 years - who, to put it poetically, has been the wind beneath Burton’s wings.
While Sir Wilfred has been known to refer to his stabilizing influence as “Lois,” meaning she’s the Lois Lane to Burton’s Superman, some would suggest that the better analogy would be to Wonder Woman. Regardless, the two have remained doggedly inseparable through fat and skinny.
Burton and Hunter were married on January 12, 1968. Two years later they were in Las Vegas - she, working as a sales clerk at Sears; he, cleaning toilets at the Landmark Hotel. Soon enough, he was dealing dice at the Stardust and privately turning the gambling techniques of Uncle Alex into a personal cottage industry. By 1976 the two had amassed enough savings to heed the advice of a trusted Vegas tobacco shop operator who told them, “Hawaii is wide open.”
Together, they opened Sir Wilfred’s in 1977 and catered to high-end tourists and clientele looking for quality products. Prior to Sir Wilfred’s, local residents relied on drugstore smokes and a pair of pipe shops that have long since vanished from the Island’s lush, volcanic landscape, while visitors such as Leacox were left to fend for themselves.
“Eventually, every cigar smoker comes to Hawaii,” says Burton. “When they get here, I’ve got the goods.” Plus, a side order of serendipity. His customer list includes Harrison Ford, Carlos Santana, and Robin Williams.
Meanwhile, Burton, with the help of Cathy, founded the Maui Jazz Society, which has provided forums for jazz luminaries George Benson, Tito Puente, Kenny Burrell, Dizzy Gillespie, and Wynton Marsalis, as well as Hawaii’s own noted jazz musicians, including virtuoso saxophonist Gabe Baltazar.
“The cognoscenti know the islands have nurtured more than one jazz great and many Hawaiian-music specialists have incorporated elements of jazz in their performances,” acknowledges Maui writer Ron Youngblood. “The laid-back persona of Sir Wilfred’s proprietor disguises a passion for sharing live jazz music with Maui.”
But for Burton, the passions never end. He is currently producing and financing a documentary about Baltazar, best known for his time with Stan Kenton in the 1960s, but noted for his work with Dizzy Gillespie, Herb Ellis, Terry Gibbs, Gil Fuller, and Oliver Nelson, among others.
“I’m bringing in Arlo, Ramblin’ Jack, and Spider John for a folk reunion celebration,” he says. “And I’m bringing Kinky Friedman in for his first-ever performance on Maui [never mind that ‘The Kinkster’ did Maui more than a decade ago]. And I’m in the process of opening a folk/blues night club in Kansas City.”
Burton has also become a self-appointed “official” spokesman for Barack Obama - on Maui, that is, although if there are those who would confuse him for the other Bill Burton, Barack Obama’s actual national press secretary, who’s Hawaii’s most successful smoke dealer to spoil the illusion? He knows his place.
“I am the goddamned cigar store survivor,” he spouted earlier this year as he escorted Maria Martin, regional sales manager for Camacho Cigars, on a tour of the remote Maui village of Hana. “Nobody’s ever done that before over here. Nobody else can say that.”