Singer, guitarist, bandleader
On his Sun Records-era recordings, rockabilly singer Sonny Burgess sounded like a man trying to jump straight out of his skin. His yelping bluesy delivery and penchant for mixing trumpet and saxophone solos with fuzz-tone guitar riffs made his records as much maniacal swing as rock. In an era of flamboyant performers, he was one of the wildest. Sporting red hair dyed to match his suit, socks, shoes, and guitar, Burgess would scale a pyramid of musicians, leap into the audience, and caterwaul on the floor while playing fast, loud, and frenzied. Although he never scored a national hit record, Burgess and his band were at the forefront of the mid-1950s rock ‘n’ roll revolution and one of the most respected club acts in the mid-South. For nearly 50 years, whether taking a serious shot at stardom or just playing on days off from a regular job, the Arkansas rocker has remained true to the cult music he helped pioneer.
Born in a farming community that raised cotton, soybeans, and corn, Burgess first heard country music via broadcasts on WSM radio. “That’s all we could hear,” Burgess said, as quoted in Blue Suede News. “Back at that time all we had were battery radios. We’d pick up the Grand Ole Opry on Saturday night, and you know them batteries didn’t last too long.” A grade school classmate, Bud Hunt, who played guitar in the clean style used on Ernest Tubb’s records, taught the young Burgess what he knew. Eventually, he played guitar with his uncles at barn dances and informal gatherings.
Burgess’s early ambition was to play big-league baseball. Although he played on the same Class D team as future major leaguers Bobby Winkles and Skeeter Kell—George’s brother—young Burgess’s two-year minor-league stint proved a washout. “I started out at shortstop and wound up as a third baseman,” he recalled, as quoted in Blue Suede News, “just couldn’t handle that good curveball.”
It was his two-year stint in the army that heightened Burgess’s musical ambitions. While serving as an MP in Germany, he hooked up with two cooks from the second armored division who formed a country band for the U.S. European Service version of the Grand Ole Opry in Frankfurt. “It was a country club set-up,” explained Burgess, as quoted in Blue Suede News. “They had a stage and the whole big deal. They picked eight bands out of everybody in Europe to be on this every Saturday night. Well, we were one of the bands. We had a guy who looked like Hawkshaw Hawkins singing for us and I just played guitar for ‘em.”
Back home in Arkansas, Burgess helped form a country band called the Rocky Road Ramblers and began playing around Newport. Initially the group just played part-time for the fun of it, but as the gigs piled up, the loose aggregation jelled into a professional unit. With
For the Record…
Born Albert Burgess on May 28, 1931, in Newport, AR; son of Albert and Estha Mae Burgess; married and divorced; two children.
Formed the country-and-western Rocky Road Ramblers, 1954; formed rock ‘n’ roll band the Moonlighters, 1955; band became the Pacers and recorded for Sun Records in Memphis, 1956; recorded for Sun subsidiary Phillips International, 1958; played bass in Conway Twitty’s band, 1959-60; formed King’s IV, 1962; recorded for Hightone with Dave Alvin, 1992; recorded for Rounder with E-Street Band’s Garry Tallent producing, 1996; appeared with the original Pacers in the Southern Fusion episode of PBS’ Songs of the Mississippi documentary series, 1998; appeared in documentary Good Rockin’ Tonight: The Legacy of Sun Records, 2002.
Awards: Induction, Now Dig This Magazine Hall of Fame, 1991; induction, Rockabilly Hall of Fame, 1999; received “Rockabilly’s Finest” award from Sun Records, 2002; named an official Arkansas Traveler, 2002; induction, International Rock-a-Billy Hall of Fame, 2002.
Addresses: Record company—Bear Family Records, P.O. Box 1154, 227 Hambergen, Germany, website: http://www.bear-family.de; Collectables Records, 2320 Haverford Rd., Ardmore, PA 19003, phone: (800) 446-8426, fax: (610) 649-0315, website: http://www.oldies.com; Hightone Records, 220 4th St., Oakland, CA 94607, phone: (510) 763-8500, fax: (510) 763-8558, website: http://www.hightone.com; Rounder Records, One Camp St., Cambridge, MA 02140, phone: (617) 354-0700, fax: (617) 491-1970, website: http://www.rounderrecords.com. Website—Sonny Burgess & the Legendary Pacers Official Website: http://www.leg-endarypacers.com.
bassist Johnny Ray Hubbard, drummer Russ Smith, boogie piano man Kern Kennedy, and a Hank Thompson soundalike named Paul Whaley, Burgess mixed gospel dates with work as the house band behind future country superstar Freddie Hart (then billed as Freddie Waynard) at KMBY radio. When Whaley left, the self-conscious Burgess became the lead singer out of sheer necessity. “I was so bashful,” the singer said, as quoted in Blue Suede News. “When I first started singing at Bob King’s, I turned my back to the audience until I finally got up the nerve and faced ‘em.”
Jackson County’s club scene, which ranged from redneck dives like Porky’s Rooftop, the comparatively middle-class Bob King’s, and the Silver Moon, proved quite lucrative. Burgess explained their regional importance in Blue Suede News: “[B]ack then, Jackson County was wide-open, there were a lot of clubs here because it was a wet county—it was surrounded by dry counties. But the Silver Moon was big; it’d hold a thousand people. They had all the Big Bands. They had Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys when they were hot. They had Woody Herman, Glenn Miller Orchestra, all these big orchestras would come through here and go from St. Louis to Dallas…. [T]hey wanted crowds in there to cover up the gambling. And [the Silver Moon] could pay these Big Bands whatever they wanted to stop. But, everybody in the business, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, Fats Domino, about anybody you can imagine back then came through the Silver Moon, Bob King’s, or Porky’s … [A]ll these guys played right here because they couldn’t make any money in Little Rock and they couldn’t make any money in Memphis.”
Blues and R&B were part of Arkansas’s sonic environment and Burgess himself was especially fond of recordings by Big Joe Turner and Jimmy Reed. However, the Pacers didn’t really incorporate blues into their act until they shared a bill with the up-and-coming Elvis Presley. Rechristened the Moonlighters, they witnessed firsthand Presley’s impact on an audience and it immediately changed their style. The Hillbilly Cat was impressed with the Moonlighters as well, and wanted to hire away Kennedy and saxophonist Punky Caldwell. Both turned Elvis down. “Who knew that Elvis would be that big,” Burgess pointed out in Blue Suede News. “He was big then, but who knew he would be the star of all stars?”
As recounted in Blue Suede News, Burgess remembers one show with Presley particularly well. “Elvis and Johnny Cash played up at Swifton High School. Then we started playing at nine o’clock at Bob’s, and as soon as they got through they would come on down. Well, Cash came on down and he did a show and then Elvis would do his show. We’d already started. That place was jam-packed. It held 300 people and it was wall-to-wall people standing up and they had the best time of their lives. At one point Cash turned to Bob Neal, who was managing both him and Elvis and said, ‘Bob, we’re going back to Memphis. These folks don’t want to hear us.’ So him, Luther [Perkins], and Marshall [Grant] went on back to Memphis. Anyway Elvis, he was hot that night. Man, he had them people turning flips. You couldn’t believe it. But, we had a good outfit boy; especially when Kern and Punky got to playin’—man! Finally Elvis came back on stage and we had an hour-long jam session at the end of the night—with Elvis, DJ, Scotty, and Bill, two bands up there together…. But that’s why Elvis wanted to hire Punky and Kern because he got up onstage with ‘em, see?”
With the arrival of guitarist Joe Lewis and saxophonist/trumpeter Jack Nance, Burgess’s band was renamed the Pacers, after a fast-moving, light airplane. Eventually the band gathered up the nerve to audition at Sun Records, where label owner Sam Phillips told them to come back when their sound was more polished. After intensive practice sessions, they joined Sun’s roster in late 1956.
As quoted in Blue Suede News, Burgess explained the label chief’s psychological importance, “Well, we played for Sam. He was our audience and we tried to impress him the same way we did an audience.” A great believer in a performer’s innate qualities, Phillips seldom sought technical perfection. “All he wanted was to get that good feel, get in that groove; that’s what he wanted. I think that’s where his success came from, because he usually listened to everything, even after [producer/songwriter] Jack Clement came to work for him, and say, ‘Well, I like this but I don’t like this.’” As with all his artists, Phillips had Burgess emphasize his fondness for black-inspired music.
Burgess’s first record, “Red Headed Woman” b/w “We Wanna Boogie,” featured call-and-response lyrics reminiscent of New Orleans jazz clubs. Sporting a pounding rock beat and a rampant southern feel, it inexplicably sold quite well in Boston. An arguably finer single “Ain’t Got a Thing” b/w “Restless,” sank without a trace. Ricky Nelson picked up on Burgess’s acousticled rockabilly version of “My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It”—but hardly anyone else did. Burgess and the Pacers fashioned their greatest record for Sun’s sister label, Phillips International. Unfortunately, “Sadie’s Back in Town,” replete with manic giggles, galloping electric guitar, and a wacky Donald Duck impression, was just too weird for the times.
Despite his lack of success, the artist continued recording dozens of spirited boogie and rockabilly songs at Sun. His versions of “One Night,” “So Glad You’re Mine,” and “My Babe” top Elvis Presley’s for authentic blues attitude, while “Find My Baby for Me” and “I Love You So” were distinctive, superior performances. However, these amazing sides wouldn’t be heard until the Charly label began releasing them to rockabilly-crazed Europeans during the late 1970s.
Frustrated by their inability to break nationally, the Pacers began to fall apart in 1958. Nance and Lewis left to play with another Arkansas native, Conway Twitty, and Smith joined Jerry Lee Lewis’s touring band. Disgruntled, Burgess left the group to play bass in Conway Twitty’s band. “[Twitty and his band] had a tough time of it until they finally hit it with ‘It’s Only Make Believe,’” recalled Burgess, as quoted in Blue Suede News. “Then I joined ‘em in ‘60, when he was King of the rock ‘n’ roll because Elvis was in the Army. Twitty was the number one rock ‘n’ roll artist. Man, he was packing ‘em in back then. Had [the girls] hanging on the edge of that stage crying and he’d say, ‘You think I’m on to something?’ I said, ‘Looks like it.’”
At the end of the year, Twitty broke up his rock ‘n’ roll band without explanation. Burgess briefly returned to the Pacers, but hard feelings remained from his previous departure. With drummer Bobby Crafford taking over leadership, the group resumed playing top mid-South nightspots without their founding member. Burgess, when not working in a sporting goods store, began playing dates and recording with minor rockabilly figure Larry Donn.
In 1964 Burgess formed Kings IV; another good show band that alternated rock and country songs with a bit of soul and pop. The group lucked into a steady gig at a refurbished nightclub named Jarvis’s, where they remained for six years. During that time, Burgess recorded prolifically for such small labels as his own Arbur Records, Crafford’s Razorback, and Rolando. Former Sun guitarist Roland Janes, who also ran Sonic Studios in Memphis, owned the latter. “We used to save up a little money then we’d go over to Roland’s studio and for $300 we’d get studio time and three hundred 45’s,” recalled Burgess, as quoted in Blue Suede News. “Then we’d try and sell ‘em. Of course they didn’t sell too good, now they’re worth a little money. Back then we’d give ‘em away to girlfriends, wives, and kinfolks—and we’d sell a few.”
In 1971 Burgess relegated music to a part-time hobby and went to work for St. Louis Trim, a sewing supply firm where he stayed for the next 25 years. Meanwhile, his old Sun-era recordings were being leased overseas, creating a fresh demand for this previously unheralded rocker. Unwilling to trade equity for fad, Burgess played shows and recorded again only in his spare time. In 1986 he teamed with former Sun label-mates J.M. Van Eaton, Marcus Van Story, Smoochie Smith, Stan Kessler, and former Johnny Bumette Trio guitarist Paul Burlison to form the popular Sun Rhythm Section.
During the 1990s, Burgess recorded well-reviewed mediocre-selling solo discs with ex-Blaster Dave Alvin and a minor classic with producer Garry Tallent of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band. Upon retirement, he threw himself back into music full-time, singing with the gospel group Stranger’s Home, touring overseas, and reuniting in 1997 with the surviving Pacers. Despite a mild stroke in 2000 Burgess performs with as much country-blues drive as ever. Indeed, of the original Sun rockers, only he and fellow Arkansas native Billy Lee Riley continue to create new music in their original style.
The Old Gang, Charly, 1981.
Raw Deal, Rockhouse, 1986.
Spellbound, Off Beat, 1986.
The Flood Tapes 59-62, Sunjay, 1988.
We Wanna Boogie, Rounder, 1990.
The Classic Recordings 56-59, Bear Family, 1991.
Tennessee Border, Hightone, 1992.
Sonny Burgess, Rounder, 1996.
They Came From The South, self-released, 1998.
Still Rockin’& Rollirì, self-released, 1999.
Very Best of Sonny Burgess, Collectables, 1999.
Arkansas Rock ‘n’ roll, Stompertime, 2000.
Sonny Burgess with the Pacers & King’s IV, self-released, 2000.
Live—Tupelo, MS, self-released, 2001.
Tupelo Connection, self-released, 2001.
Hotter than Ever, self-released, 2002.
With Stranger’s Home
Stranger’s Home, self-released, 1997.
God’s Holy Light, self-released, 1999.
With Sun Rhythm Section
Old Time Rock ‘n’ roll, Flying Fish, 1987.
Escott, Colin, and Martin Hawkins, Good Rockin’ Tonight—Sun Records and the Birth of Rock ‘n’ roll, St. Martin’s Press, 1991.
Escott, Colin, and Martin Hawkins, Sun Records—The Brief History of the Legendary Label, Quick Fox, 1980.
Graff, Gary, and Daniel Durchholz, editors, MusicHound Rock—The Essential Album Guide, second edition, Visible Ink Press, 1999.
Knopper, Steve, editor, MusicHound Swing—The Essential Album Guide, Visible Ink Press, 1999.
Mansfield, Brian, and Gary Graff, editors, MusicHound Country—The Essential Album Guide, Visible Ink, 1997.
McNutt, Randy, We Wanna Boogie—An Illustrated History of the American Rockabilly Movement, HHP Books, 1988.
Morrison, Craig, Go Cat Go! Rockabilly Music and Its Makers, University of Illinois Press, 1996.
Poore, Billy, Rockabilly—A Forty Year Journey, Hal Leonard, 1998.
Blue Suede News,#51, #52, 2000.
“Sonny Burgess,” All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (March 16, 2003).
“Sonny Burgess,” Rockabilly Central, http://rockabillycentral.net (March 16, 2003).
Sonny Burgess & the Legendary Pacers Official Website, http://www.legendarypacers.com (March 16, 2003).
Additional information was drawn from the author’s spring of 2000 interview with Burgess, which appears in Blue Suede News, and a phone interview in February of 2003.
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