Blanche Burton-Lyles, 85, of Philadelphia, a world-class concert pianist whose career was nurtured by the singer Marian Anderson and who later devoted herself to preserving Anderson's memory, died Monday, Nov. 12, of heart failure at a rehabilitation center in the city.
After a career as a performer and music teacher, Ms. Burton-Lyles spent two decades as the driving force behind the recognition for Anderson in Philadelphia. Not only did she buy the house Anderson had lived in from 1924 to 1993 in Southwest Center City; she also established a society in her name to mentor promising classical musicians.
"Our lives will never be the same, and the historic legacy that she has left will be felt for generations to come," said the Marian Anderson Historical Society Inc. in a statement announcing its founder's death.
Born to Anthony John and Anna Blanche Taylor Burton in Philadelphia, Ms. Burton-Lyles began learning to sight-read music and play classical piano at age 3. She was recognized as a musical prodigy by age 7.
She was recommended for early admission to the Curtis Institute of Music by Anderson, the famed contralto whom the Burton family knew through their church, Union Baptist in the Graduate Hospital area.
Ms. Burton-Lyles became the first African American to graduate from Curtis in 1954. "Miss Anderson took an interest in my talents at an early age and was always very encouraging," Ms. Burton-Lyles said in an autobiography prepared with her protégé Jillian Patricia Pirtle.
While at Curtis in 1947, Ms. Burton-Lyles won the National Classical Music competition. That gave her the standing to perform on the piano with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra at Carnegie Hall at age 14. She was the first and youngest African American to perform in the venue, the autobiography said.
Later, Ms. Burton-Lyles was in demand here and abroad as a classical pianist. She gave concerts for Eleanor Roosevelt, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. She also performed in England, Spain, Asia, and the Caribbean.
In 1948, Ms. Burton-Lyles was the first woman to integrate an all-male orchestra when she began touring with Leroy Bostic and the Fellow Aires. After Bostic died, she inherited the musical company and made it into Lady Blanche and Her Merry Men. She toured with the group until 1963, when she began teaching music in the School District of Philadelphia. While teaching in 1971, she received a master's degree in music education from Temple University.
In 1955, she met Thurman Lyles, a Army officer, at her church. They married in 1956. He died in 2010.
In retirement starting in 1993, Ms. Burton-Lyles gave regular recitals at John Wanamaker, One Liberty Place, and the Union League of Philadelphia.
She was honored for her work with the Shirley Chisholm Award; Mary McLeod Bethune Award; Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority's Edyth Ingram Award; and the Philadelphia 76ers Community Service Award.
For the last two decades of her life, Ms. Burton-Lyles felt the need to honor Anderson, on whose Steinway piano she had played as a child. In 1993, Ms. Burton-Lyles bought Anderson's house at 762 S. Martin St., and turned it into a museum and monument to the singer. The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2011.
As CEO of the Marian Anderson Historical Society, Ms. Burton-Lyles created the Scholar Artist Program that sought out and cultivated the best musical talent nationwide.
"This was a journey that [I] walked mostly alone in the beginning, using every ounce of [my] resources with little help and support," she said in the autobiography. Over time, others joined the effort. In 2015, Ms. Burton-Lyles chose Pirtle to carry on her work as CEO of the society.
Ms. Burton-Lyles had no immediate survivors.
Services are Saturday, Dec. 15, from 1 to 3 p.m. at the Curtis Institute of Music, 1726 Locust St. Burial is private.