Born John Joseph Burnette, 28 March 1934, Memphis, Tennessee
Johnny Burnette, now dead for 52 years, would never have guessed that his legendary status would not be rooted in the handful of hits he scored in the early 1960s, not even in the songs he crafted for Ricky Nelson, but in a handful of sessions he cut in 1956 and 1957 that were commercially unsuccessful at the time.
Burnette was born in Memphis, fifteen months after his brother Dorsey. They grew up in a public housing project in the Lauderdale Courts area of Memphis, which was also the home of Elvis Presley (from 1948 until 1954). Their father, Dorsey Sr., gave the brothers a pair of Gene Autry guitars in 1939. Though they were both fascinated by music, they showed an even greater interest in boxing and developed into successful amateur boxers. Another aspiring boxer was Paul Burlison (1929-2003), who shared the brothers’ love for music and played in a hillbilly band. In 1951 they started playing country music as a trio. Burlison and Dorsey both worked as electricians at the Crown Electric Company, which would later hire Elvis Presley as a truck driver.
Johnny held various jobs, mainly working as a deck hand on barges traversing the Missis- sippi River. He married young, at 18 and two sons were born in quick succession (Rocky born June 12, 1953 ; Randy on October 28, 1954). His trio switched from country to rockabilly under the influence of Elvis. They made a single for the tiny Von label in 1955 (“Go Mule Go”/“You’re Undecided”), which was credited to Johnny Burnette. Early in 1956, the three men decided to try their luck in New York City and auditioned for Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour. After winning that contest three weeks in a row, the trio was approached by various record companies. Coral became the label of their choice and on May 7, 1956 they found themselves at the Pythian Temple in NYC for their first session. To their surprise, they found a 32-piece orchestra waiting in the studio, directed by Dick Jacobs. The first song on the slate was a fully orchestrated version of George Motola’s “Shattered Dreams”. The result was ghastly. Johnny felt very uncomfortable (the recording was shelved until 1969) and producer Henry Jerome decided to send the whole aggregation of musicians, vocalists, copyists and arrangers home, with the exception of the drummer, Eddie Grady.
The rest of the session was centered around the rockabilly songs “Tear It Up” and a remake of “You’re Undecided”, which were coupled for the first Coral single, credited to “Johnny Burnette and the Rock ’n’ Roll Trio”. This billing, the brainchild of their producer/manager Henry Jerome, caused internal tensions between Dorsey and Johnny. “Tear It Up” sold well enough for Coral to schedule an LP. At the group’s insistence, the sessions (July 2-5, 1956) were held in Nashville. Over these four days, the trio recorded some of the most savage rockabilly ever committed to wax. “Rock Billy Boogie”, “Lonesome Train”, “The Train Kept-A Rollin’” and “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee” are just four of the blasting rockabilly classics for which the Rock ’n’ Roll Trio is now justly famous. Johnny took the lead vocals on most songs (including his patented shrieks during the instrumental solos), but Dorsey also sang lead on a few tracks. For many years it was unknown that the thunderous guitar playing on these recordings was the work of Grady Martin, not Paul Burlison, who always took the credit. Brilliant as the result was, both the album and the singles that were drawn from it sold in disappointing quantities.
Ill-feeling and aggression between Johnny and Dorsey came to a climax during a gig in Niagara Falls in August 1956. Dorsey quit the trio, just a week before a scheduled appear- ance in the Alan Freed movie “Rock! Rock! Rock!”. Johnny and Paul Burlison hastily recruited Johnny Black (Bill’s younger brother) as their new bassist. The original trio was contractually obliged to do one more session for Coral, which took place in March 1957, again in Nashville. It’s unclear if Dorsey and Paul Burlison were present at the session, but aural evidence suggests that they were not. The four tracks from this session (the best of which were “Eager Beaver Baby” and “If You Want It Enough”) were credited to Johnny Burnette, with no mention of the Rock ’n’ Roll Trio.
Not long thereafter Dorsey returned to the group, but this didn’t prevent the formal demise of the Rock ’n’ Roll Trio in the autumn of 1957. Johnny and Dorsey moved to Los Angeles and started to write songs together. They pitched several of their compositions to Ricky Nelson, singing them on the Nelson’s front lawn. This meeting proved very fruitful ; over the next few years Ricky recorded a dozen Burnettes tunes (some written together, some written by either Johnny or Dorsey), including the big hits “Waitin’ In School”, “Believe What You Say”, “It’s Late” and “Just A Little Too Much”.
The brothers also recorded four duets for Imperial in February 1958, but only two were issued at the time (the single “Warm Love”/“My Honey”). Next, Johnny was signed as a solo artist to Freedom (a subsidiary of Liberty), resulting in three singles and several good tracks that were not issued until much later (“Love Kept-A Rollin’”, “That’s All I Care”). In July 1959 Johnny was moved to the parent label, Liberty, where Snuff Garrett became his producer. Garrett was fond of using large string sections on his productions. The first two Liberty singles by Burnette (“Settin’ the Woods On Fire” and “Patrick Henry”) failed to chart, but then came “Dreamin’”, released on May 4, 1960. This was the record that made Johnny Burnette famous to millions who had never heard of the Rock ’n’ Roll Trio (like me at the time.) It peaked at # 11 in the USA and # 5 in the UK and the follow-up, “You’re Sixteen”, did even better, peaking at # 8 (US) and # 3 (UK). Both records were million sellers.
“Little Boy Sad” was also successful (# 17 US, # 12 UK), but thereafter Johnny scored only two minor hits in Britain and (after a # 58 hit with “Big Big World” in 1961) a final US chart entry with “God, Country And My Baby” (# 18). Burnette did a British tour in April / May 1962, with Gene McDaniels and Gary U.S. Bonds and returned to the UK in November 1963. After Liberty, Johnny recorded for Chancellor (1962-63), Capitol (1963-64) and his own Sahara label (1964, soon retitled Magic Lamp), with no succes. On August 14, 1964, his luck ran out. During a fishing trip in Clear Lake, near San Francisco, his boat was rammed from behind by another boat. Johnny was knocked unconscious, fell overboard and drowned. He was only 30.
In 1966, British Decca reissued the 1956 Coral LP on its Ace of Hearts budget label. As a consequence, the Coral recordings were (re)discovered by a wide audience and have influenced countless rockabilly performers ever since. Today, the Rock ’n’ Roll Trio is still one of the most celebrated rockabilly bands, along with Presley’s Sun unit and Gene Vincent’s Blue Caps. Johnny Burnette’s musical legacy is carried on by his son Rocky, who still performs some of his father’s numbers in his live stage show. Dorsey’s son Billy also became a performer.
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Acknowledgements : Colin Escott, Adam Komorowski, Craig Morrison.
Dik, July 2016
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