Sonny Burgess

TrackSingle / Album
Red Headed WomanSun 247
We Wanna BoogieSun 247
RestlessSun 263
Ain't Got A ThingSun 263
One Broken HeartClassic Recordings 1956-1959
My Bucket's Got A Hole In ItClassic Recordings 1956-1959
What'cha Gonna DoClassic Recordings 1956-1959
Find My Baby For MeClassic Recordings 1956-1959
Tomorrow NightClassic Recordings 1956-1959
A Kiss GoodnitePhillips International 3551

All the above are on Sonny Burgess: The Classic Recordings 1956-1959 incl. The Complete Sun Recordings (see Footnote 13).

 

Sonny Burgess photo 2

 

 

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Sonny Burgess playlist

 

Contributor: Dave Stephens

If rockabilly didn’t exist then Sonny Burgess would have had to invent it or the world wouldn’t have heard about Sonny

One of those rather nonsensical statements undermined by the fact that 99.5 percent plus of the world’s population haven’t heard of Sonny (but he’s still a godlike figure to a tiny handful of rockabilly nutters).

It was punk before punk, thrash before thrash

That came from Colin Escott and can be found in his book, “Roadkill On The Three-Chord Highway: Art And Trash In American Popular Music” and it captures the impact of those early records from Sonny Burgess and the Pacers.

That was We Wanna Boogie: the flipside of Sonny’s first Sun single and my introduction to the man and his band, the Pacers:

Needless to say, the track wasn’t issued in the UK until it appeared as the closer on side one of Sun Rockabillys: Put Your Cat Clothes On, the first serious compilation of rockabilly to appear anywhere (and it came out in the UK in 1973). Even with heavy duty competition from Jerry Lee Lewis (the previously unreleased title track) and Carl Perkins (likewise with Milkshake Mademoiselle), plus other choice cuts, this one stood out. Energy, rawness and spontaneity, or certainly what sounded like it, were present in great big shovelfuls. In the sleeve notes, either Colin Escott or co-writer Martin Hawkins states that the cut was “the product of one of Sam Phillips’ ‘party sessions’” but the more recent writer on 706UnionAvenue after interviewing Burgess himself, opines:

“It was a record that sported an air of total abandon, sounding as if it had been created under the heavy burden of alcohol, although Sonny Burgess remembers that everyone was stone cold sober, and nervous to the point of apprehension.”

Of more import than the state of sobriety of the participants was the nature of the music. Neither We Wanna Boogie or its A-side Red Headed Woman (which apart from being in a different key, sounds remarkably similar though its still totally essential) sounded very much like rockabilly which for me at the time was something broadly along the lines of those Presley Sun records. True, there was a slapback bass in there somewhere buried behind more prominent piano and trumpet; true too that the music had aspects of blues, more commercial R&B and even country music present in the mix, and simplistically, rockabilly is often loosely defined as a blend or merger of country and blues. Perhaps this was Sonny Burgess rockabilly. And it wasn’t as if he was unaware of Presley. He and the band he was then in, the Moonlighters, had worked as a support act to Elvis in 1955, and the release of El’s That’s All Right in summer ’54 had been a major factor in him switching his stage act more towards rock and roll.

At the session which produced the two tracks, Sam Phillips was certainly impressed. In his words (from 706UnionAvenue):

“They were a working band who knew what they were doing, and they had a sound like I’ve never heard. Maybe Sonny’s sound was too raw, I don’t know, but I tell you this. They were pure rock and roll.”

The record sold 90,000 copies which, to Sonny and the Pacers, was a thing to marvel at but unfortunately was a high point.

Before leaving Red Headed Woman/We Wanna Boogie, a few observations are appropriate:

* Both sides were written by Sonny himself. He would go on to write the bulk of his Sun tracks with the exceptions mainly being versions, and I say that rather than covers since the sources weren’t necessarily current timewise. Such sources were usually from R&B or jump blues as it was called back then, from names like Roy Brown and Smiley Lewis; Sonny was as much a fan of R&B as Elvis was.

* The up-front piano, initially (and usually) from Kern Kennedy would feature strongly on almost all of Sonny’s records throughout his sojourn at Sun and its subsidiary, Phillips International. Ditto for Jack Nance’s trumpet on the early sessions.

* Piano then trumpet take the first and second solo breaks on We Wanna Boogie paving the way for Sonny himself to take break #3 with 24 bars of guitar work which are more down and dirty than anything yet recorded by a white guitarist at Sun with hints of distortion throughout. The sound wasn’t as extreme as that already achieved by more than one of Howlin’ Wolf’s backing axe men at the Union Avenue studio but you knew who Sonny had been listening to and stored away in his grey cells.

* Another regular feature on Sonny & the Pacers’ records not yet mentioned is the frequent usage of band musicians as a kind of vocal group echoing Sonny’s lead vocal lines. I say “kind of” since the end result was more like shouting than, say, the Jordanaires. It was a practice regularly found in black jump blues which is undoubtedly where it came from here given Sonny’s love of R&B.

* Unlike a sizeable percentage of rockabilly wannabes in the mid to late fifties, Sonny didn’t ape Elvis in his vocal work (though there might have been the odd exception, see later). While he bent his strong tenor voice to plenty of extemporisation in line with his black sources, you can see on his country based slowies, a slight resemblance to another Sun artist, one Jerry Lee Lewis but that was probably not conscious (and would have very likely come to mind anyway due to the omnipresence of the pianist). Maybe this was all a part of a plan for the overall sound to be deliberately as different as possible than that conjured up by Elvis, Scotty Moore and Bill Black.

* Jumping forward to the end of the Burgess Sun/Phillips era – indeed it was actually on a short return with our man having moved elsewhere in ’59 – the flip of his final single, Sadie’s Back In Town/A Kiss Goodnite, although a mid-tempo shuffle affair rather than an out-and-out rocker, did manage to achieve a marked resemblance to the Sun rockabilly sound, and was none the worse for doing so. The fact that Jerry Lee’s rhythm section of Roland Janes on guitar and James Van Eaton on drums contributed was probably not coincidental.

* Rockabilly / rock and roll – they’re only labels – it’s the music that matters.

Sonny was born Albert Austin Burgess on 28th May 1931 near Newport, Arkansas. He learned to play guitar early on and, after his stint in the US Army, formed a band called, first the Rocky Road Ramblers, then the Moonlighters, to play in clubs and bars round Newport. In the early days they played hillbilly but they “branched out to become an all-around dance band, featuring numbers like Stardust, Moonglow and Harlem Nocturne, as well as the Jimmy Reed/Big Joe Turner kind of rhythm and blues that Sonny in particular loved” (source: 706UnionAvenue). After a couple of goes – Sam initially sent them back saying that they needed a fuller sound so they merged with another Newport band led by Jack Nance – they passed their audition with the Sun record label and renamed themselves the Pacers.

We Wanna Boogie and Red Headed Woman were the first tracks recorded on Sonny and the Pacers’ first Sun session held on 2nd May 1956. They went on to cut The Prisoner’s Song (later recorded by Fats Domino – see Footnote), All Night Long and Life’s Too Short To Live. The last named was composed and sung by rhythm guitarist Joe Lewis. It’s much closer to conventional rockabilly than Sonny’s performances but has the man himself starring on a couple of typical slashing breaks.

Not all the sales of Red Headed Woman/We Wanna Boogie were in the local Memphis area; in later years Sonny discovered that it had gone down very well in Boston. So at least in theory things were going to plan and the boys should have been Truckin’ Down The Avenue which was an excuse to squeeze in a track that didn’t see release but almost made my ten – simple but great.

There was another rocker on single #2. Ain’t Got A Thing was less frenetic than either of the opening pair but contained plenty of propulsion from Kennedy on the piano hammering out the sevenths, a simplistic but catchy melody (over a predictable 12 bar framework), vocal responses from the Pacers following more conventional (and even sympathetic) lines plus lyrics that contained the sly humour of someone like Louis Jordan:

Well I got a car, ain’t got no gas
I got a cheque, but it won’t cash
I got a woman, ain’t got no class

With a final verse that goes:

Well I got a piano, ain’t got no keys
Yes I got a cracker, ain’t got no cheese
I got a woman, but she climbs trees

(Students of R&B might spot a similarity in rhythm and phrasing between this record and Ray Charles’ I Got A Woman and, while the melody lines differ, the verses of Ain’t Got A Thing are not unlike truncated verses from I Got A Woman. Ironically, Presley also cut a version of I Got A Woman in his early RCA period which predated the Burgess recording but El’s I Got A Woman is less like Sonny’s number.)

A good recording which deserved sales but unfortunately it got tucked away on the B-side of single #2. The A-side, Restless, was a minimalist ballad with lyrics that had come from a Memphis resident and part-time song writer called Mitt Addington (see Footnotes) and a melody line which had been made up on the spot by Sonny for which he received no credit (source: 706UnionAvenue). It’s completely unlike any track I’ve featured so far and, while the opening whistling might have suggested a degree of insouciance, in fact the whole thing was decidedly plaintive. I like it but still don’t understand why Sam thought this would be a good follow-up to single #1.

Sam didn’t make the same mistake again. There was a ballad on the third single (Sweet Misery) but it was a more user-friendly country number written by Jack Clement and, more importantly, it was tucked away on the flip. (It’s worth recalling that a goodly number of Jerry Lee’s rockers had country slowies on their flips.) The A-side this time was an absolute cracker. The song was My Bucket’s Got A Hole In It which is usually associated with Hank Williams though it actually predates him by at least a decade and probably more – I would direct the reader to the fine essay from Wiki on the song wherein it is stated that it’s likely that Williams would have picked up the number from Rufus “Tee Tot” Payne, a black singer/guitarist who taught Hank how to play blues guitar. It’s also likely – or so the folk at 706UnionAvenue think and I see no reason to disagree – that Sonny would have hear it via Hank since he (Sonny) would have been twenty-ish when Hank’s record was hitting the radio and the jukeboxes. Whatever, Sonny imparts a level of urgency into a situation which Hank had met in a semi-comatose (but still delightful) position. And that adjective is just as applicable to Sonny’s take which comes in unplugged mode if you discount the overdubbed presence of back-up singers. Overdubbed also is some excellent lead acoustic guitar work from Jack Clement.

Sonny’s last single on the parent label Sun – the subsidiary Phillips International hosted Sadie’s Back In Town/A Kiss Goodnite, his final record for the overall company – was an instrumental pairing of Itchy coupled with Thunderbird. There’s controversy as to which is which. Burgess claims that Thunderbird is the faster of the two tunes but Jack Clement has stated that the titles got reversed at pressing time which would fit with YouTube and Spotify which have Itchy as the fast one and Thunderbird as the slowie. While the prompting by Sam which caused these two titles to come into existence was most likely caused by the chart success of Duane Eddy, unfortunately neither picked up as much as a sniff of Duane’s record sales.

All of which brings me to the Sonny Burgess cuts that didn’t see release at the time for there was a pretty chunky iceberg sitting below the eight vocal tracks which did break the surface.

There were several more slowies in a country vein which are well worth a listen. I’d consider You’re Not The One For Me and the shuffle, You, to be at least as good as if not better than the released Sweet Misery. But I’ve given the nod to a more bluesy slow item, One Broken Heart, which bears at least a passing resemblance to Fats Domino with triplets belted out on the joanna. It’s very much Sonny’s voice though.

His indebtedness to another New Orleans man, Smiley Lewis, comes through loud and clear with three covers recorded (and this time the originals and versions were contemporaneous) including a version of One Night cut a year or two before Presley got round to doing it. It has to be said that Elvis wrings more drama out of the song but Sonny retains a stronger connection to the Lewis original. The flip side of Smiley’s One Night is a splendid little ditty entitled Ain’t Gonna Do It wherein Mr Lewis exclaims “I’m going home never more to roam / Spend the rest of my life, right there with my wife” before breaking into a chorus consisting largely of the repeated title (which was probably called for after the “one night of sin” he’d indulged in on the A-side). It’s a fine candidate for Sonny’s normal up tempo style resulting in a record which very nearly made the ten. The last of the Lewis songs, Please Listen To Me appeared on the A-side of the follow-up to One Night. It’s a curious number with unusual phrasing and a rather unexpected melody line. Sonny extracts greater flow and swing from the song and it was another candidate for a while. Sam Phillips would seem to have thought along similar lines because he (or Jack Clement) went to the extent of overdubbing a vocal chorus before eventually discarding the number.

That’s probably enough on the unreleased ones that didn’t make the cut. These are the three that got included:

What’cha Gonna Do – originated via a record on the Atlantic label from Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters in early 1955. It was one of those tracks which critics have praised over the years and is seen as paving the way for up tempo soul music. Sonny’s version is distinctly Sonny – he doesn’t make any attempt to emulate the McPhatter vocal for very good reasons (and if that doesn’t make sense just listen to that clip of the source) – and it emerges as almost a new song helped considerably by Kern Kennedy’s pianistics. Sonny also delivers another of those almost throwaway slashing breaks.

Find My Baby For Me – a Sonny Burgess composition which neatly fits the definition of commercial rock and roll which doesn’t forget its roots in blues and country. It benefits too from a doo wop backing from none other than Roy Orbison, a masterly middle-eight of unusual construction and lyrics which almost put Mr Burgess on a pedestal with Mr Berry. Quite why Sam didn’t put this one out on release we’ll never know.

Gonna call out the army, gonna call out the navy
Gonna call out the cavalry
Pray on high, call the FBI
Find my baby for me

Tomorrow Night – a track which was cut at the same session as Find My Baby For Me and one which continues the experimentation that was writ all over that track. In terms of mood it’s completely different with personal tragedy looming after “another man’s arms” have intervened in a love affair. Progression through the descending chord structure which dominates the solitary (but repeated) verse and spaces between the words conjure an atmosphere of obsessive gloom. Not everyone will like this track but it’s a view of Sonny that we rarely see/hear.

I’m closing the Sun period with something along more cheerful lines. So Glad You’re Mine, another song associated with Elvis but originally from Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, was cut at the same session as One Night. On the first take, Sonny’s vocal sounded a little like Presley and one can imagine the studio musicians picking that up and egging him on for more. So, on the second take he hams it up a tad and comes across not so much like Presley but almost a pastiche or p***take of a rockabilly hopeful. Indeed it’s more rockabilly than the Presley cut.

In 1959/60 Sonny joined Conway Twitty’s on stage backing band along with Jack Nance and Joe Lewis. When Twitty made the switch from pop/rock to country in 1965, Sonny left the band. He cut a few singles for the Razorback label out of Henderson, Kentucky in this period but none of them matched the quality of the Sun records. For a few years he left music altogether but with renewed interest in rockabilly coming from the UK and Europe in the seventies and eighties he was persuaded to pick up his axe again. Tours and awards followed including induction in the European Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1999. He also got back into recording with a stream of albums seeing release from the mid eighties onwards, some with a reformed Pacers and one, 1992’s Tennessee Border, featuring Dave Alvin in a backing role.

Such albums were well received; in reference to 1996’s eponymous album, Cub Koda stated on AllMusic: “If trying to bring back an old artist from the 50s is an idea that seldom merits results that exceed “you can’t go home again” or worse, here is an album that proves it can be done and done right.”

In 2007, at the ripe old age of 76 and with “The Legendary Pacers” on board, he cut Gijon Stomp which kicked off with a gutsy version of Roy Head’s Treat Her Right:

For anyone who doesn’t know the song it gets a burst of energy injected at approximately one minute in.

“Burgess hosted a radio show, We Wanna Boogie, for KASU in Jonesboro (Craighead County). Burgess was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Music degree from Arkansas State University in Jonesboro on May 7, 2011. In 2014, he received the Delta Cultural Center’s Sonny Payne Award for Blues Excellence. Sonny Burgess and the Legendary Pacers were given the Folklife Award by the Arkansas Arts Council, presented at the Governor’s Arts Awards ceremony on March 10, 2016.” (Source: The online Encyclopedia of Arkansas)

Also in 2016, he moved to Little Rock. He died there in August 2017.

A few words from We Wanna Boogie might be a fitting epitaph:

Went out to the dance hall and cut a little rug
We’re runnin’ like wildfire and hittin’ that jug
Just a-poundin’ and a-boogyin’ all over town

 

Sonny Burgess photo 1

Sonny Burgess & the Pacers

 

FOOTNOTES

1. I found the online ‘bible’ of the Sun company, the magnificent edifice concocted by those good folk at 706UnionAvenue, absolutely invaluable in putting this essay together and where I make a statement of apparent fact without naming the source then the bulk of the time this is where it would have come from.

2. The stage act of Sonny Burgess and the Pacers was the wildest out of all of the bands who made up the Sun roster in the mid to late fifties. Inspired by Freddie Bell and the Bellboys (who had got themselves a slot in the first rock and roll film, Rock Around The Clock, largely on the basis of their hit, Giddy Up A Ding Dong), it included acrobatics, bass straddling and even, apparently, a human pyramid. Sonny also dyed his hair red to line up with his red jacket and red guitar.

3. Colin Escott is one of the major chroniclers of rock and country music. In 1974, together with Martin Hawkins, he produced the first book devoted to rockabilly entitled “Catalyst”. Among the books that followed were ones on Hank Williams, Elvis Presley and Sun Records.

4. For me a track of particular interest from Sonny and the Pacers’ first Sun session was The Prisoner’s Song, a number “written” and sung by early country artist Vernon Dalhart in 1924. According to Wiki, the Dalhart record went on to become “one of the best-selling records of the early 20th century” with versions from Hank Snow, Bill Monroe and Brenda Lee (not to mention Perry Como, Rosemary Clooney and Burl Ives). I put written in quotation marks to indicate that although Dalhart copyrighted the song, he actually picked it up from his cousin Guy Massey who “in turn heard it from his brother Robert Massey who may have heard it while serving time in prison.” The song moved into black culture via versions from Louis Armstrong (1957) and Fats Domino (1958) though it’s of note that both of these versions came after the Burgess take which sat in the can at Sun until it eventually saw the light of day on an eighties UK collection of Sonny’s work before ending up on the more comprehensive Bear Family CD Set, Sonny Burgess: The Classic Sun Recordings 1956-1959.

5. Sonny’s record Truckin’ Down The Avenue always puts me in mind of Robert Crumb’s Keep On Truckin’ comic characters from a decade or so later which themselves were said to be inspired by the Blind Boy Fuller song.

6. The day job of Milton “Mitt” Addington, writer of Restless, was that of consulting psychologist but he regularly demo’d songs at Sun and occasionally one or two got selected. He wrote the two numbers which appeared on the solitary Sun record by Big Memphis MaRainey, a lady whose inspiration came from the real Ma Rainey; her actual name was Lillie Mae Glover. This is one of the tracks, Baby No! No!, featuring Pat Hare on guitar.

7. The title Thunderbird came from the cheap wine not the car while Itchy might well have been derived from the “bug dance” which often featured in the boys live set: according to 706UnionAvenue, one of the boys would jerk and twitch about as if there was an annoying insect in his clothing, he would then throw the totally imaginary insect to one of the other band members who would then pick up the “act”.

8. On the two instrumentals, Billy Lee Riley played the harmonica, Sonny played lead guitar, James Van Eaton was on drums and J.C. Caughron was on second guitar. There’s disagreement as to the others present: it was either Jimmy Wilson or Charlie Rich on piano and Johnny Hubbard or Jack Clement on bass.

9. While there are mentions of the number Sadie’s Back In Town in the main text I haven’t included a clip up to now. This is it. For me it’s somewhat marred by the chipmunky voice at the start. According to 706UnionAvenue this wasn’t a bit of speeded up tape, it was a band member who could do voices like that. While Burgess claims the source of the song was brother-in-law Harry Adams, in fact the melody bears a very close resemblance to Jimmie Rodgers’ My Little Lady and the words aren’t dissimilar either.

10. In the key of A, the “masterly middle-eight” of Find My Baby For Me consisted of the following:

Sonny Burgess score v2

The A to F drop was unusual in early rock and roll though two known examples occur in Carl Perkins’ Honey Don’t (Jan 1956) and Buddy Holly’s Peggy Sue (Dec 1957) (dates from 45cat). Quite where Sonny’s Find My Baby For Me comes in terms of dates can’t be determined due to the haphazard record-keeping at Union Avenue.

11. The Presley version of So Glad You’re Mine appeared on his second RCA LP which was entitled, simply, Elvis.

12. I discovered an excellent “I was there” story about the making of the album Gijon Stomp. This is it.

13. Sun US didn’t issue an LP of Sonny Burgess material while he was recording for them and, while many of his previously unissued cuts subsequently appeared on various compilations of his material on Charly and Sun England, the most comprehensive collection to date has been Bear Family’s 1991 CD set Sonny Burgess: The Classic Sun Recordings 1956-1959. Consequently it’s the one I’ve used in the list of tracks which starts this post.

14. I opened with We Wanna Boogie and thought it would be fitting to close with Red Headed Woman. This is a live take with the Blasters providing the backing. The uploader doesn’t give the date but my guess is that it would be circa 2004/2005 when Sonny appeared on the live album Going Home from the band.

The break from Sonny gets deserved acclaim.

 

Sonny Burgess (1929–2017)

 

 

Rockabilly Hall of Fame: Sonny Burgess

Sonny Burgess at Sun Records

The Legendary Pacers official website

Sonny Burgess at 45cat

Sonny Burgess biography (Apple Music)

Dave Stephens is the author of two books on popular music. His first, “RocknRoll”, is described by one reviewer as “probably the most useful single source of information on 50s & 60s music I’ve come across”. Dave followed this up with “London Rocks” in 2016, an analysis of the early years of the London (American) record label in the UK. You can follow him on Twitter @DangerousDaveXX

Read the Toppermosts of some of the other artists mentioned in this post:
Dave Alvin, Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles, Fats Domino, Drifters, Duane Eddy, Roy Head, Buddy Holly, Howlin’ Wolf, Brenda Lee, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bill Monroe, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, Charlie Rich, Big Joe Turner, Hank Williams

TopperPost #829

3 Comments

  1. Peter Viney
    Jan 2, 2020

    Thanks, Dave. One I need to investigate further. The PBS TV Special “River of Song” had an accompanying 2 CD set, and that captured Sonny Burgess live in 1997 doing a rockabilly version of “T for Texas (Blue Yodel #1)” in Arkansas. The yodelling is saved to the end and is not his strongpoint. go to 5 minutes 42 seconds on the linked section from “River of Song – Southern Fusion Pt 1” – You get We Wanna Boogie (not on the CD) with blistering guitar. Then you get his Elvis on One Night and an interview. 5 minutes about. BUT you don’t get T for Texas from the CD.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kzYbSaAZvZQ

  2. Andrew Shields
    Jan 3, 2020

    Another classic piece on an artist I knew very little about. Some fabulous music in here. Thanks again…
    As an aside, I included Joe Heaney’s take on ‘The Prisoner’s Song’ – which he recorded as ‘I Wish I Had Someone To Love Me’ in his Toppermost.

    • Dave Stephens
      Jan 3, 2020

      Andrew, thanks for the Joe Heaney take on Prisoner’s Song / I Wish I Had Someone To Love Me. It’s a fine version and demonstrates the properties of many a folk song (whether you call it that or not) in that there are variations in the melody line compared with the Dalhart original – Joe manages to make it sound more Irish (and that’s fine with me) and, although he sticks roughly with the sequence of Dalhart / Massey lyrics there’s plenty of internal variation. The Burgess version jumps straight in with the first verse starting with “Well I’ll meet you tonight in the moonlight” rather than the chorus like Dalhart and Heaney. I suspect there’s more variation across the wide range of other versions. The one I first heard came from Warren Storm (real name Warren Schexnider) who recorded for Excello in Crowley, Louisiana. He had a minor Hot 100 hit with his version of Prisoner’s Song https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WxYsYf9peAM which has a cajun feel about. His take starts with yet another verse from the original so recognising/relating some of these interpretations isn’t always straightforward (though, unlike Joe, most do stick with the Dalhart title).

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