Jim Burns, a member of the musical mastermind duo that co-created MTV’s long-running acoustic concert series, MTV Unplugged, has died at age 65. Burns, who created MTV Unplugged with Robert Small in 1989, passed away after being hit by a taxi cab in New York City. Burns had been walking his dog on Fifth Avenue on Manhattan’s Upper East Side when he was struck by the cab two days before Christmas, according to Billboard. Burns died in the hospital shortly after the accident.
With Unplugged, Burns and Small created one of the most iconic music series’ in MTV’s history. In a departure from the network’s music video format, musicians performed stripped down sets with no electric instruments in front of a small audience. The first MTV Unplugged performance came in November 1989 with Squeeze, Syd Straw, and The Cars’ Elliot Easton. By the early 1990s, some of the biggest names in music had performed intimate sets in the MTV studio, including Eric Clapton, and, perhaps most famously, Nirvana, complete with accompanying album releases.
Clapton’s Unplugged album won six Grammy Awards, three of them for his MTV performance of “Tears In Heaven,” a tribute to his late son, Connor. Nirvana also won a Grammy for Best Alternative Music Performance with their 1994 Unplugged release, MTV Unplugged In New York, which was recorded just five months before Kurt Cobain’ death. The Seattle grunge band broke Unplugged tradition by performing a setlist composed of lesser-known material and covers of songs by David Bowie, The Vaselines, and The Meat Puppets.
MTV Unplugged originally ran for ten years on MTV, from 1989 to 1999, with performers that included Alice in Chains, Lauryn Hill, Shakira, and even a reunion of Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant and Jimmy Page. Unplugged was revived in various incarnations in the 2000s, most recently with a performance by singer Shawn Mendes last September.
There have been many rumors about how MTV Unplugged got its start. According to Mentalfloss, Jim Burns and Robert Small by were inspired by an acoustic encore at Bruce Springsteen show. Another long-running story is that Richie Sambora and Jon Bon Jovi’s surprising acoustic set at the 1989 MTV Video Music Awards planted the seed for the series.
In a 1992 interview with the New York Times, co-creator Robert Small said the goal of MTV Unplugged was to “strip music down to how a songwriter usually starts the song.”
“In a rock-and-roll mix, nothing stands out,” Small said. “In acoustics, a voice, a guitar, a bass, stands out.”
Jim Burns compared MTV Unplugged to a dance performance.
“You can hear the grunts, like seeing the sweat of dancers on toe,” Burns said.
Jim Burns’ IMDB page lists him as an executive producer on MTV Unplugged, including episodes featuring Tony Bennett and The Smithereens.