“Sonny Burgess is a performer who gives me chills whenever I hear him, he was deserving of much more than I was able to give him”. – Sam C. Phillips
Albert Austin “Sonny” Burgess was born May 28, 1931, a Gemini, like me. He was hatched in the countryside outside of Newport, Arkansas, served in the Army (1951-3) and upon his discharge put together a band, called at various times the Rocky Road Ramblers, the Moonlighters, and finally the Pacers. The Pacers played a rhythm and blues and boogie woogie influenced type of country music that would later be dubbed rockabilly. When he got wind of a small label in Memphis, a mere eighty miles east releasing discs by a greasy kid named Elvis Presley who played a similar style of hyped up hillbilly, the Pacers loaded up their station wagon and headed to Memphis where proprietor Sam C. Phillips immediately put them in the studio. In addition to Sonny Burgess on lead vocals and guitar, the original line up of the Pacers was Joe Lewis (guitar), John Ray Hubbard (upright bass), Russell Smith (drums), Ray Kennedy (piano) and Jack Nance (trumpet). They were quite unique, a quality that Phillips was in constant search of. First off was Burgess’ voice, he was the bluesiest and blackest sounding of all the Sun rockabilly singers, and his delivery had a saxophone like quality– sonorous and rich, and he played guitar in a wild, nearly out of control style, his amplifier overdriven to speaker busting distortion. Then there was Jack Nance. One doesn’t think of trumpet as being an instrument suitable for rockabilly, but he sounded right in the Pacers, and his solos added a distinct party like atmosphere to their sound.
Their first session on May 2, 1956 produced one of the greatest 45 rpm records ever unleashed– Red Headed Woman b/w We Wanna Boogie. The Pacers, who were known back in Newport for their wild stage show, sounded positively feral on disc. In fact, an alternate take of We Wanna Boogie was even more savage than the issued take. To most listeners they sounded drunk. Sam C. Phillips himself was known to take a nip now and again, as were many of his artists, and a bottle of Old Grandad was not alien to the studio at 706 Union Ave., but like Elvis, Sonny Burgess did not indulge in drink (probably why he was able to keep performing at such an intense level for over a half century), he just sounded like he did. Red Headed Woman, issued in August of ’56, was a good size regional hit, doing especially well in the Memphis area and Sonny died his hair red, acquired a red Fender guitar, and a red suit, for his stage act. The Pacers were working all the time, Newport was especially active, being the only wet (a place were liquor could be sold legally) city in a dry county. Bob Neal, Elvis’ first manager took over as Sonny’s manger and The Pacers toured throughout the south and south west appearing on the bill with Bob Wills, Ray Price, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Marty Robbins, the Collins Kids, Conway Twitty, Jerry Lee Lewis, and even Elvis Presley. Their stage act grew wilder, and they were noted for forming a human pyramid onstage, and all manner of antics with the string bass.
Sonny Burgess and the Pacers cut two more sessions for Phillips in 1956 (exact dates unknown), the second session was an attempt to re-record Red Headed Woman and We Wanna Boogie, but they couldn’t match the versions laid down in May, while the third session (with Jack Nance and his rockin’ trumpet missing) produced his next Sun 45– Restless b/w Ain’t Got A Thing a somewhat toned down affair compared to their debut, it was released in January of ’57, the same week that Sun put out Bill Lee Riley’s Flying Saucers Rock’n’Roll and Carl Perkins’ Matchbox. Restless is the closest thing to a pop song Burgess released on Sun. A bluesy, romping tune that opens with Burgess whistling the melody, it even had a vocal group singing back up to attempt to soften his edges. The flip side, a call and response rocker that remains a favorite with rockabilly fans to this day is one of his best ever, the lyrics tell the story– “I got crackers/ain’t got no cheese/I got a woman/but she climbs trees”. Pure genius. Again, it did well regionally but Phillips did not attempt to push the song any further.
The next session at Sun was May, 17, 1957, and none of the recorded titles were deemed worthy of release, although he cut a screaming version of the R&B classic Fannie Brown that was as good as anything ever recorded at 706 Union.
The Pacers weren’t summoned back to the studio again until August 14, 1957 when they cut their next single– My Bucket’s Got A Hole In It b/w Sweet Misery. The a-side, a tune that probably pre-dates recording was originally waxed by jazzbo Charles Williams, and had been recorded by everyone from Louis Armstrong to Hank Williams (Hanks’ version is well worth hearing as it’s one of the few discs that Hank plays a guitar solo on), and Burgess’ rendition is one of the best. Unfortunately, it inspired a cover version by Ricky Nelson who waxed the tune for Imperial with James Burton on guitar, and Phillips knew he couldn’t compete with Nelson’s version for exposure since he sang every week on his family TV show (Ozzie & Harriet). What should have been Sonny Burgess and the Pacers’ break through record was soon dead in the water. It didn’t help matters that it was released (December ’57) only days after Jerry Lee Lewis’ Great Balls Of Fire which took up all of Sam Phillips payola money and promo man Judd Phillips’ time. Also cut at the same session, but not issued until the eighties was one of his best blues rockers ever– Daddy’s Blues, a classic in any one’s book and some think the Pacers finest recording.
Although he was a popular live attraction, it seems that Sam Phillips knew he had dropped the ball on Sonny Burgess, and with his attention directed at pushing the careers of Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash, Sonny was pushed to the back burner. He wouldn’t record again until July of ’58. Although his crowning glory was his voice, producer Jack Clement who had taken over most of the studio duties at Sun, and was riding high on Bill Justis’ instrumental smash Raunchy, decided that an instrumental might be just the thing to get Sonny Burgess on the charts. The Pacers stayed home when Sonny Burgess recorded that day and his next single– Itchy b/w Thunderbird, consisted of two instrumental rockers, the a-side, a menacing Link Wray style stroll on which Sonny’s vibrato drenched guitar was backed by Billy Lee Riley on harmonica, James Van Eaton on drums, Charlie Rich on piano and Clement himself on electric bass. The b-side was a fast paced guitar rocker, named for the wine that Sonny Burgess didn’t drink. Much confusion has ensued over the years when a pressing plant screw up led most copies to be pressed with the labels reversed. Again, this disc never reached the charts.
No one’s sure of the exact date of Sonny Burgess’ final Sun session, but the single, issued on the Phillips subsidiary in early 1960– Sadie’s Back In Town b/w A Kiss Goodnight is another rockabilly classic, duck voice intro and all. As the decade changed so did the public’s tastes,
and if Sonny Burgess was too raw for radio in 1956, by 1960, at the dawning of the Phili teen idol era, he had not a hope in hell to have a hit was a tune as raucous as Sadie’s Back In Town. Anyway, Phillips was busy pushing Charlie Rich’s Lonely Weekends, one of his last big hits.
Sadie’s Back In Town remains Burgess’ rarest Sun disc.
While Sun only issued five singles, they recorded tons of material on Sonny Burgess, with and without the Pacers, eventually the Charley label in England (which many think was a front for a Corsican mob money laundering operation) would release four LP’s worth of goodies, now out of print, they have been superseded by Bear Family‘s double CD set Classic Recordings 1956-59, which includes nearly everything the Sonny Burgess recorded at Sun that you would want to hear. If you’re a 45 purist, check out Norton Records Sun 45 series which includes some classic Burgess sides.
After leaving Sun, Sonny Burgess and the Pacers simply kept going. They recorded for smaller labels like Razorback, and played every dive, frat party and juke joint in the south. Of his post-Sun recordings, my favorite is something called The Flood Tapes, a collection of recordings done in Arkansas from 1960-64 and thought lost in a flood, they turned up when Sonny’s mom cleaned out her basement in the early eighties. The Flood Tapes give a good idea of what the Pacers sounded like onstage at the time. Sonny Burgess made a living at music until 1971 when he finally took a day job which lasted for fifteen years. He came back in 1986, and he came back in style. The Sun Rhythm Section consisted of rockabilly legends Sonny Burgess, Paul Burlison, (guitars) Smoochie Smith (piano), Marcus Van Story (upright bass), Stan Kessler (electric bass) and James Van Eaton (drums, although sometimes D.J. Fontana appeared in his place). I caught them many times, and Sonny stole the show, both as lead singer and lead guitarist, every time I saw them. When the deaths of Van Story, Van Eaton and Kessler broke the group up, Burgess put the Pacers back together and continued to tour and record. I had him on my radio show in October of ’92 and he proved to be a soft spoken, good humored, intelligent, southern gentleman of the old school variety. Self depreciating and good natured, I can’t remember ever meeting a hero of mine that I liked more.
Since his re-emergence, he has recorded many LP’s including one with ex-Blaster Dave Alvin and one produced by E Street Band bassist Gary Tallant. The last time I saw Sonny Burgess was around Christmas time, 2002, when Dr. Ike brought him into the Circle Bar in New Orleans for our Christmas Party, on a bill with Billy Lee Riley, and D.J. Fontana on drums. He still sounded great, singing and playing his ass off, he looks a good thirty years younger than his age.
And he’s still out there. The Pacers played dozens of dates last year, from Arkansas to Spain. The Pacers are now the longest running show in rock’n’roll and if you want to book what might be the greatest rock’n’roll band in the world right now, you can book a gig via their website: The Legendary Pacers. The last of the rockabillies– Sonny Burgess. God bless him.