Born Albert Austin Burgess, 28 May 1931, Newport, Arkansas
Singer / guitarist / songwriter / bandleader
Sonny Burgess is one of rockabilly's greats, despite the fact that he never had a national hit. He grew up on a farm, but knew at an early age that farming was not for him. His birthplace, Newport in Arkansas, has always remained his home. "I just do not want to move anyplace besides Newport", he said. As a youngster he was exposed to both country and R&B music and his love for rhythm and blues shows in his vocal and guitar style. After two years of army duty in Germany (1951-53), Burgess had to choose between his two passions : music and baseball. He opted for a career in music. In 1954 he formed the Moonlighters with local musicians, playing country and western swing and adding rockabilly as it became popular. In October 1955 they were booked as the opening act when Elvis Presley appeared in Newport, which led to further engagements with him. The group auditioned at Sun Records, but Sam Phillips wanted a fuller sound. Merging his band with another led by Jack Nance, Burgess assembled a new group, renamed the Pacers, that would back him on most of his sessions at Sun. The Pacers were a great band with a wild stage show : Kern Kennedy on piano, Joe Lewis on guitar, Jack Nance on trumpet (!), John Ray Hubbard on bass and Russell Smith on drums.
On May 2, 1956 they cut their first record for Sun : "We Wanna Boogie"/ "Red Headed Woman" (Sun 247). Both songs were written by Burgess and were almost devoid of melody, while the lyrics bordered on the unintelligible. But the sheer power, rawness and exuberance of the songs created a true rock n roll feeling that was immediately recognized by Sam Phillips. The single reportedly sold over 90,000 copies and charted in some unlikely places, such as Boston. Burgess undertook many exhaustive tours during his Sun contract, often with other Sun artists like Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison.
Compared to the chaos of "We Wanna Boogie", the second Sun single, "Ain't Got A Thing", was surprisingly melodic. The lyrics were humorous and the guitar break featured adventurous key changes. Yet the record, released in January 1957, died on the vine. And Sonny's third single, "My Bucket's Got A Hole In It", was covered by Ricky Nelson, whose version (not even the A-side of the record!) went to # 12, leaving Burgess out in the cold. No wonder the Pacers became disillusioned. Jack Nance and Joe Lewis joined Conway Twitty's band and Russ Smith became part of Jerry Lee Lewis's touring combo. Bobby Crafford replaced him on drums. Most of Sonny's 1958 recordings featured members of the Sun house band, like Billy Riley, Charlie Rich and Jimmy Van Eaton. Only two tracks from that year were issued at the time, the instrumentals "Itchy" and "Thunderbird" (Sun 304, with Billy Riley on harmonica). R&B tunes like "So Glad You're Mine", "Daddy Blues" and "Tomorrow Night" were held in the can and didn't see a release until the Shelby Singleton era at Sun.
Burgess tried to secure a record deal with Challenge Records on the West Coast, but to no avail. He gave it one last shot with Sam Phillips in 1959, resulting in the wild and gimmicky "Sadie's Back In Town", which came out on Phillips International and was also released in the UK (and other European countries) on London. When this didn't sell either, Sun did not renew his contract. For a short while Sonny played in Conway Twitty's road band, then teamed up with Larry Donn, another Arkansas rocker. Between 1964 and 1967, Burgess recorded six singles (mostly covers) for Bobby Crafford's Razorback label with a band called Kings IV that included former Pacer Kern Kennedy. After single releases on Ara and Rolando in 1968, Burgess came to the conclusion that he would never be able to make a living from the music business and he started a career as a salesman. He did not record again until 1976, when the European rockabilly revival lured him out of musical retirement. The LP "The Old Gang" was recorded in one day, for the Lake County label from Switzerland, and reunited him with most of the old Pacers. This was followed by occasional appearances at Memphis music festivals. In 1984 Burgess made his first visit to England, performing at the Weymouth Spring Festival, backed by Dave Travis and his band. He returned the next year, with concerts in several European countries, including Holland (Eindhoven) and recorded a new album in London. Burgess helped create the Sun Rhythm Section, which toured worldwide for several years, before returning to his solo career and a newly recorded CD for Hightone ("Tennessee Border", 1992, easily the best of his later albums). Since then Sonny has continued to perform with his group (now called The Legendary Pacers) and recorded several more CD's, but all the recordings of the last 50 years have never captured the magic that he sparked at Sun.
Fortunately, his complete Sun output has become available over the decades and has been assembled on the Bear Family 2-CD "Classic Recordings 1956- 1959" (BCD 15525, 54 tracks, including many alternates). Released in 1991, it features a 32-page booklet written by Colin Escott.
Recommended listening: If you feel that the Bear Family 2-CD is for completists only, there are at least three single-CD's with Sun material available. Strangely, two of them (Snapper, Collectables) fail to include the absolutely essential "My Bucket's Got A Hole In It", so on that basis I would recommend "Sonny Burgess" in Charly's Rock n Roll Legends series (2008, 30 tracks). "Tennessee Border" on Hightone is great, but has only ten tracks. Two Stompertime collections are worth considering : "Good Rockin' Music From Arkansas" (2000, 32 tracks from 1959-65) and "Everybody's Rocking Again" (release date October 31, 2011). The latter has 27 tracks, including 14 tracks from the 1986 Rockhouse LP "Raw Deal".
- Discography by Pete Hoppula : http://koti.mbnet.fi/wdd/sonnyburgess.htm - Sessionography/discography by Frank Frantik (Praguefrank) : http://countrydiscography.blogspot.com/search/label/Burgess%20Sonny
Acknowledgements : Colin Escott, Martin Hawkins, Dave Travis, Craig Morrison.
Dik October 2011
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