Rockabilly Pioneer Sonny Burgess Dies

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• August 21, 2017

Sun Records artist Sonny Burgess, one of the last of the original rockabilly stylists, has died at age 88. Burgess passed away on Friday, Aug. 18, in Little Rock, Arkansas. He became a member of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame in 2002.

He was born Albert Burgess Jr. in 1929 and was playing country music in his Newport, Arkansas hometown by the time he reached his early 20s. Elvis Presley came there to perform and promote his debut Sun single in 1955. Burgess was inspired and dramatically changed his style in imitation of Presley.

He also went to Memphis to audition for Presley’s label. Sonny Burgess’ Sun debut was the wildly energetic “We Wanna Boogie” / “Red Headed Woman” of 1956. Both sides of the disc are considered to be rockabilly classics.

He followed his debut with another strong rocker, 1957’s “Ain’t Got a Thing.” But this failed to duplicate the success of his first single. The third Burgess Sun single was a rockabilly version of “My Bucket’s Got a Hole In It.” Teen idol Ricky Nelson copied it, sold a million with it and drowned the Burgess original in 1958. Next, Burgess tried the rockabilly instrumentals “Itchy” and “Thunderbird.” These failed, too.

He and his band The Pacers toured with many of the top Sun acts, including Johnny Cash, Warren Smith and Jerry Lee Lewis. On the road with Roy Orbison, they did double duty by serving as his backing band.

Sonny Burgess & The Pacers were crazed, flamboyant stage personalities. Their antics included charging into audiences in a rocking frenzy, forming a human pyramid, rolling around on their backs while playing and dragging one another across stages.

They also did The Bug. This involved one band member picking up an imaginary bug and throwing it on another. The one “bugged” would flail around wildly, scratching and itching while continuing to play. He’d then toss the “bug” onto another, and the gesticulating would escalate. Then they’d involve the audience in the same game.

Other gymnastics included doing make-believe Indian dances. When Burgess would leap high into the air and let out a blood-curdling scream, it was a signal for the band to rock even harder.

At one point, Burgess dyed his hair red and costumed himself in red suede shoes, red socks, red slacks, a red shirt and a red tuxedo jacket. These matched his red Fender guitar.

But the lack of a big hit record demoralized The Pacers by the end of the 1950s. After serving a stint in Conway Twitty’s band, Sonny Burgess & The Pacers broke up. Burgess reverted to singing country and r&b music in the 1960s, but in 1972 he quit the music business.

He was a salesman for a fabric company for more than a decade. Then, in 1986, Burgess and a group of Sun session musicians performed at the Smithsonian Institution’s Festival of American Folklife in Washington, D.C. Billed as the Sun Rhythm Section, they also did a popular, two-week stint in one of the city’s nightclubs.

This led to further festival appearances, European tours and a Sun Rhythm Section CD. Then Burgess embarked on a series of solo comeback albums with Raw Deal (1986), Spellbound (1989), I’m Still Here (1990) and The Razorback Rock & Roll Tapes (1992). In 1992, Dave Alvin of The Blasters produced an especially acclaimed Sonny Burgess CD titled Tennessee Border.

In 1996, Gary Tallent of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band brought Burgess to Nashville to record the album Sonny Burgess Has Still Got It for Rounder Records. The CD’s cast included Billy Livsey, Roy Husky Jr., Scotty Moore and The Jordanaires. As he did “back in the day,” Burgess supplied his own lead-guitar licks.

His career revival continued with the CDs God’s Holy Light (1997), Tupelo Connection (2001), Back to Sun Records (2003) and Tear It Up (2006). He formed a new version of The Pacers and recorded a 2007 CD titled Gijon Stomp! Then Live at Sun Studios appeared in 2012.

In 2015, Sonny Burgess returned to Nashville as the headliner at the opening of a Sun Records exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame. On stage to celebrate “Flying Saucers Rock & Roll: The Cosmic Genius of Sam Phillips,” Burgess proved that his powerful growling voice and fiery guitar playing were undimmed by time.

Last month, Sonny Burgess fell at his home and was hospitalized. He died at Little Rock’s Baptist Health Medical Center, He is survived by a son, John Burgess. Funeral arrangements have not been announced.

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About the Author

Robert K. Oermann is a longtime contributor to MusicRow. He is a respected music critic, author and historian.

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