For me, August represents something else. It’s another year—48 of them, now—without rockabilly icon, Johnny Burnette.
When he was around 4 years old, Johnny Burnette and his brother, 6-year-old Dorsey, each received a Gene Autry guitar from their father, which they promptly smashed to pieces…and that says everything that one needs to know about the rough-and-tumble Burnette and his weighty contributions to rock ‘n’ roll music.
I had been listening to Burnette for years. The “oldies” radio station that my mother kept her stereo tuned to when I was a teenager seemed fond of the soaring, orchestral “Dreamin’” and the saccharine “You’re Sixteen”; the latter would, years later, be covered by Beatles alumnus, Ringo Starr. Such lovey-dovey songs usually merited an exasperated roll of my eyes. I was a rock ‘n’ roller. I much preferred the sizzle that Gene Vincent or Eddie Cochran lent to my musical steak.
Although I held a deep affection for early rock ‘n’ roll, I enjoyed the guitar-laden, boisterous sounds of what had been dubbed classic rock, too. The amalgamation of Van Halen, ZZ Top and The Who wasn’t as dissimilar from Buddy Holly or Carl Perkins as one might think; The Who had, after all, recorded their take on Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues.” Every poet, every actor and musician has its muse, and it became apparent to me that it wasn’t always found in a broken romance or at the bottom of a liquor bottle. Johnny Burnette’s candy-coated ballads seemed a far cry from ZZ Top’s “Cheap Sunglasses” or Aerosmith’s rendition of “The Train Kept A-Rollin’.” As I would discover a decade later, the song styled from Steven Tyler’s distinctive screech couldn’t compare to the rocked up version recorded in 1956 by a group called the Johnny Burnette Trio.
There are few songs that I can point to and say, “Yeah, I remember the first time that I heard that.” “Runaway Boys”, a European hit for 1980s rockabilly revivalist group, the Stray Cats, is one of them; the Trio’s “The Train Kept A-Rollin’” is another. The tune barreled along frantically, ushered forward by a pushy guitar and pounding bass line. Johnny Burnette raced through the number, his desperate, hiccupping vocal—punctuated by the occasional shriek—sounded as if the fate of mankind rested on his ability to finish the song. It was passionate and wild, as physical as a sackful of quarters to the face, and completely unlike anything that I had ever heard, even from Elvis. I was utterly breathless; downright flabbergasted. Certainly this Burnette wasn’t the sweater wearing, Fabian-like teen idol who sang songs sappier than a maple tree.
But he was. As I added whichever Johnny Burnette Trio CDs that I could find to my collection, the picture of who Burnette truly was began to emerge.
Although the Burnette brothers had long since acquiesced to their father, their hands were frequently used for a purpose other than strumming a guitar. It was through the pair’s tenure as Golden Gloves boxers that they met the man who would flesh out their band, guitarist Paul Burlison.
By 1955, Johnny, Dorsey and Burlison had been performing together for about four years. They pulled double duty on weekends at the Hideaway Club in Middleton, Tenn., belting out their own unusual brand of music when they weren’t on stage as members of Doc McQueen’s western swing group. While Dorsey and Burlison—both of whom had families to support—worked day jobs as electricians for Memphis’ Crown Electric Company, a budding crooner and neighbor of the Burnettes, Elvis Presley, was employed by the business as a truck driver. Although rumors persist that the Trio auditioned for Sun Records, no demo tapes or records from such a session have surfaced. The Burnettes and Burlison cut a single, “Go Mule Go,” backed with “You’re Undecided,” for a tiny Mississippi label, Von Records; the disc reportedly sold less than 200 copies.
Undeterred, the Johnny Burnette Trio—also known as the Rock ‘n’ Roll Trio and, with the inception of drummer Tony Austin, as Johnny Burnette and the Rock ‘n’ Roll Trio—packed their belongings and headed to New York City in hopes of securing a spot on a television show. After all, if their former neighbor had hit the big time and landed small screen appearances, why couldn’t they? The Burnettes and Burlison, despite their lack of amateur—or rookie—status, somehow scored a spot on Ted Mack’s “Original Amateur Hour,” a precursor to “American Idol.” Their numerous victories on the show resulted in bandleader Henry Jerome signing them to the Decca-affiliated Coral Records. A May, 1956 session at New York City’s Pythian Temple—where Bill Haley and His Comets had recorded the seminal rock ‘n’ roll tune, “Rock Around the Clock”—resulted in the rockabilly staple, “Tear It Up,” and “Oh Baby Babe,” a raunchy reworking of Presley’s “Baby Let’s Play House.”
It would be a handful of sessions, recorded two months later at the Bradley Film & Recording Studio in Nashville, that would help to spawn rockabilly’s far reaching influence. In just a few days’ time, the Trio’s output included renditions of “The Train Kept A-Rollin’”—a much different version than the one originally recorded by bluesman Tiny Bradshaw—“Fats” Domino’s “All By Myself” and the Big Joe Turner hit, “Honey Hush.” The fuzzy guitar sound produced on several of the Nashville recordings, while said to have resulted from loose power tubes in Paul Burlison’s amplifier, has been the subject of controversy amongst rockabilly connoisseurs. Session guitarist Grady Martin, noted for his work with Buddy Holly and other well-known artists, worked with the Trio on their influential Nashville recordings. It was a common practice for producer Owen Bradley to replace assorted band members with his top-of-the-line studio talent. Martin’s proficient guitar work, coupled with Burlison’s alleged inability to replicate the distortion, have resulted in the intriguing theory that, just maybe, Martin was responsible for that defining Trio sound. Eyewitness accounts lend credence to the possibility, but memories fade and, unfortunately, neither Martin nor Burlison are around to clarify the matter.
Another noteworthy track to emerge from the July, 1956 recordings include the original composition, “Rock Billy Boogie.” The song, according to rockabilly lore, was named for the Burnettes’ sons, Rocky and Billy, and has been credited with giving a name to the smashmouth style of music performed by Johnny, Dorsey, Burlison and other Memphis-area notables. Radio disc jockeys and songwriters have also been listed as identifying this hillybilly-blues hybrid as “rockabilly,” thus the origin of the genre’s identifying label will never, really, be known.
Within months of the legendary Nashville sessions, it was over. Although “Tear It Up” fared well in some of the East Coast’s larger cities and the group toured with popular rockers Gene Vincent and “Blue Suede Shoes” singer Carl Perkins, the Johnny Burnette Trio—and a full length album, as Johnny Burnette and the Rock ‘n’ Roll Trio—failed to crack the music charts. Numerous brawls between the brothers, reportedly over Johnny’s increased visibility within the band, led to its demise. Following Dorsey’s departure, a brief appearance in the Alan Freed flick, “Rock, Rock, Rock!”, and a loss in the finals of the “Original Amateur Hour,” the group disbanded.
In 1957, the reunited Burnette brothers decided to seek their musical fortunes in California. They traveled to Hollywood, purchased a map to the actors’ homes and stationed themselves on Ricky Nelson’s front lawn, waiting for what they hoped would be their next big break.
Nelson, a teen heartthrob by way of TV’s “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet,” had achieved some success as a musician, and was familiar with what the Burnettes were capable of. After an impromptu audition, a contract was produced, and suddenly, Johnny and Dorsey Burnette were in the songwriting business, creating some of Nelson’s biggest chart winners, including “Believe What You Say” and “Waitin’ In School.”
Johnny hadn’t given up on recording music. He and Dorsey cut a few songs—including some featuring the adept handiwork of guitar wiz Joe Maphis—before the brothers each achieved individual success: Dorsey, as a country crooner, and Johnny, with a cluster of Top 20 hits in 1960 and 1961, including the aforementioned “Dreamin’” and “You’re Sixteen.” The raucous yelps that had peppered the Rock ‘n’ Roll Trio’s recordings—which, according to Paul Burlison, were inspired by Johnny’s reaction to brushing against the guitarist’s lit cigarette—were gone from the singer’s Top 40, airbrushed image. Although many of Burnette’s rough edges were glossed over by his silky voice and boyish good looks, that hint of rock ‘n’ roll impetuosity remained behind his slightly wicked grin. It’s no wonder that, shortly before his emergence as a pop crooner, he recorded the Trio-sounding “Me and the Bear,” highlighted by some decent guitar picking from another rockabilly idol, Eddie Cochran.
Within a few years, Burnette’s tenure at Liberty Records was over. He recorded music for multiple labels, including his own, Magic Lamp, yet what many would consider to be success eluded him once more. On August 14, 1964, while on California’s Clear Lake, Burnette’s boat was struck from behind. Unconscious, Burnette fell into the lake and drowned. He was just 30 years old.
Johnny Burnette helped to mold a body of work so raw, so powerful, so…good that it has become the source of inspiration for an eclectic bunch. The Beatles, the Yardbirds and the Stray Cats are amongst those who have recorded the Trio’s songs. Johnny Burnette may have attained recognition through his Billboard Hot 100 hits, but it’s his fiery rockabilly recordings that he is most remembered for.
If rock ‘n’ roll—as the 1950s starched shirt set constantly warned us—was the devil’s music, then Johnny Burnette must surely be Satan’s right hand man.
Published: August 17, 2012