Tom Byers


Photos: Sonny Burgess on Stage

Three Different Looks a This Great Legend


Born sixty miles west of Memphis in rural Arkansas in 1931, Sonny Burgess grew up on local country and blues. Radio brought in the Grand Ole Opry and the Memphis country stations. Good R&B was available on WDIA, a black Memphis station. Like thousands of other teenagers across the South, he heard Gene Nobles, John "R" and the other jive-talking deejays on Nashville's WLAC. White deejays for black audiences, they made the night smoke with R&B.

In the early '50s, Sonny started working semi-professionally with Russell Smith and Kern Kennedy, playing country music with a western swing edge in bars and dance halls around Newport, the only town in northeastern Arkansas with legal liquor. Later called honky-tonk, it was the Southern beer joint music of the time. The "Moonlighters," as the group came to be called, auditioned for Sam Phillips at Sun Records in Memphis in early 1956. Phillips liked what he heard but told them that they needed a fuller, more aggressive rockabilly sound.

Burgess, Smith and Kennedy joined forces with Jack Nance, Joe Lewis and Johnny Ray Hubbard, and juiced up the act with a second guitar and a trumpet. Lewis renamed the band the "Pacers." The transition from honky-tonk to rockabilly was easy for Sonny. His passion was for rhythm and blues and he had a true R&B voice - like a tenor sax in full cry. It was a magnificent rock and roll instrument.

In 1956 Sonny and the Pacers returned to Sun Records and cut their debut single, "We Wanna Boogie." That song and "Red Headed Woman" were among the most raucous, energy-filled recordings released during the first flowering of rock and roll. Burgess' performances combined the country sounds of the white South with the R&B, blues and shout gospel sounds of the black community. This band combined the frenetic energies of black and white forms of jive-talking, duck-walking and climb-the-wall Southern music.

Sometimes forming a pyramid on top of the bass player and occasionally jumping into the audience, the Pacers' stage act equaled the antics of Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Little Richard. Burgess went so far as to dye his hair a flaming shade of red to match his guitar and sport jacket. Jack Nance remembers ".....we were young, crazy and wild." In the 1960s rockabilly fell on hard times. Sam Phillips recalled that Burgess "could have been one of the greats but he never got the right break."

Sonny took a day job in 1971, but after a fifteen year hiatus returned to music with D.J. Fontana, "Smoochie" Smith, Paul Burlison, and Stan Kesler as the "Sun Rhythm Section" when pal Jay Orr got them a week-long booking at the Smithsonian's Festival of American Folklife. They still work festivals together. Recently a New York Times reviewer noted that Sonny's "jubilantly feral howls and punchy guitar solos" reverberate with the same raw energy and excitement as they did when he wowed the crowds in Memphis during the rockabilly heyday.


By Jack W. Hill, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

There must be something magical in the water at Newport. Perhaps the Fountain of Youth flows into the nearby White River, and it keeps the city's rock'n'rollers taking it to the limit. For proof, just see Sonny Burgess or Billy Lee Riley, contemporaries of Elvis Presley in the mid-1950s. The two men, both of whom were part of the Sun Records era, have long made Newport their home, and it must have agreed with them. They just keep rockin'.

"I was born and raised in Newport," a singer-electric guitarist Burgess says. "I guess I just like the smaller towns better. I probably should have left years ago, but back then we had nobody to advise us. In the 1970s, I did give up music for a while, and went to work as a sales rep for St. Louis Trimming, which makes women's lace for bridal gowns and craft items and all that. I traveled six states doing that, but retired last year. Traveling is something it seems like I've done all my life."

Burgess, who once led a band called the Pacers, famed for their wild on-stage energy, and back on the road promoting his latest CDs, including: "Sonny Burgess," released in 1996 by Rounder Records. Gary Tallent, who was the bassist in Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, produced the 14-song album, which contains songs written or co-written by Steve Forbert, Radney Foster, Henry Gross and Dave Alvin.

There's even a song written by Bruce Springsteen -- "Tiger Rose" -- which the Boss never recorded. Tallent's connections got Burgess that song, which sounds as good with Burgess' Arkansas growl as with Springsteen's New Jersey snarl. Guest artists on the album include Elvis' original guitarist, Scotty Moore, and Elvis' old backing vocalists, the Jordanaires, on a song, "Bigger than Elvis."

In 1992, former Blaster Dave Alvin collaborated with Burgess on "Tennessee Border," released by HighTone Records. The album shows both men, dressed in black leather, holding electric guitars, ready for action. Burgess says the two are planning another album, with Alvin producing, for Rounder Records. Two years ago, AVI Records, a reissue division of Sun Records, released "Hittin' That Jug: The Best of Sonny Burgess," collecting 25 of Burgess' 1956-58 songs, including "We Wanna Boogie," "Red-Headed Woman," "Restless," "Thunderbird" and "My Bucket's Got a Hole in It."

Ricky Nelson stole Burgess' thunder by putting out a version of "My Bucket's Got a Hole in It" right after Burgess released his. There was a difference in the two singers' approaches, Burgess notes, sort of like when Pat Boone would "clean up" the songs of Fats Domino and Little Richard. "I liked Ricky, but he changed beer to milk, is the way I saw it," Burgess recalled. "He told a journalist that he had copied our version."

Burgess and the Pacers never got the fame and fortune that came to Elvis and a few of the other Sun acts he ran with, including Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash, but those who saw shows by Burgess and his band swore by them. What set them apart from other early rock bands was a trumpet, added by fate. "We had two guys, Jack Nance and Russ Smith, who were both drummers, so it was decided that Nance would switch," Burgess explained. "He was a music major in college and had an old trumpet. You could play it loud and Jack was a good showman."

The Pacers were known for the exciting conclusions of their shows -- a running, jumping exit from the stages, no matter how high the leap. The band members would also form pyramids on stage, smash instruments and drag each other across the stage by their guitar necks. "We had one of the greatest stage shows there was," Burgess said matter-of-factly. "It was like a three-ring circus, people couldn't watch just one of us. We had horn, piano, drums, guitar and bass, since we had to play all kinds of music back then. People nowadays think we were blasting away at rockabilly, which was a term we never heard in the '50s.

"Newport had a great club scene then, since it was in a wet county surrounded by dry counties and the clubs would let teen-agers in, even though they weren't supposed to. The biggest of the clubs was the Silver Moon, which held 1,000 people. We opened for Elvis there one time before he signed with RCA Victor. Porky's Rooftop was the other hot spot there and then there was the 11/70 Club in Hazen." Burgess' musical odyssey has left him unfazed and unaffected. He has a host of stories, but little time for recalling the bad ol' days or what might have been.

"There wasn't that much money generated back then. If it hadn't been for Shelby Singleton licensing all these old songs of ours, I wouldn't still be playing. And I've got to thank Sam Phillips for recording them and then saving them. "I probably ought to get with Billy Lee Riley and write a book. I run into him a lot at the Kroger's here. I've been trying to get Scotty Moore and D.J. Fontana to write a book about Elvis, since everybody else but them has done that, and they knew him better than almost anyone."


By Wendy Campbell
Newport Daily Independent

Albert "Sonny Burgess was born, May 28, 1931 on a farm in Anderson, about five miles from the Newport City limits. Burgess began playing the guitar at a very early age. He quickly developed a love for music that would continue to last until this day. As the years have passed, Burgess' love for music has taken him on tours all across the United States and the world; however, the only place that Sonny Burgess wants to call home is Newport, Arkansas.

"I have had many opportunities to move away from Jackson County," said Burgess. "I just do not want to move away from Jackson County," said Burgess. "I just do not want to move anyplace besides Newport," he said. "My music is very important to me but the good friends that have stood by me over the years are here. I like to be out on the road playing the music circuit, but after I am finished performing I want to come home to some peace and quiet. I guess I will always love the peacefulness of the farming community where I was born," Burgess said.

Burgess got his start in the music business from his uncles. "My parents were not musically inclined," said Burgess. "I did jot get any type of musical background from them. I did, however, have some uncles that loved to play their musical instruments and sing. It was the highlight of their life and because of this it became the highlight of my life as well," he said. My uncle, Paul Davis played the fiddle at country dances here in Jackson County and surrounding counties," Burgess said. "He and my other uncles began taking me to these dances and letting me join them in the music by playing my guitar. It was really exciting for a young boy. My specialty was rhythm guitar and later I learned to play electric guitar and bass.

Besides working with his uncles, Sonny developed his musical tastes by listening to the Grand Ole Opry and the Memphis country stations, taking in the Rhythm and Blues (R&B) from WLAC in Nashville and WDIA in Memphis along the way, according to Burgess. Burgess formed his first semi-pro band in the early 1950s. "The name of my first band was the Moonlighters," said Burgess. "I played guitar, Paul Whaley did the lead vocals, Kern Kennedy played piano, Russ Smith was on drums, Johnny Ray Hubbard played bass and Bob Armstrong played the accordion," said Burgess.

Whaley left the group to go to California and sonny became the lead vocalist. "After Paul left the band, I began doing the lead singing," he said. "The band began playing local clubs throughout the area. We played the Silver Moon, Bob King's and Mike's Club. We would play one place on Friday night and another on Saturday," said Burgess. Burgess met some famous people when he was just beginning to get involved in the music industry. When Elvis Presley came to the Silver Moon Club in October, 1955, Sonny organized a supporting act, and put together Newport's version of a super group combining some men from Punky Coldwell's jazz dance band and some of the Moonlighters.

"Doing a show with Elvis was great," Burgess said. "He was really nice. Besides being an outstanding singer, he was actually an ordinary, fun-loving guy who really loved to put on a show for his audience. During this time, "That's Alright' was on the charts, people were cheering and dancing. You could just tell that Elvis Presley had the gift, something special that was going to take him straight to the top. After the show at the Silver Moon, Elvis tried to hire Punky and Kern Kennedy to add to his road show," said Burgess. During Elvis' trip to Arkansas he also played Bob King's and a dance at Swifton High School, according to Burgess.

"This was the last time that Elvis would be playing under the Sun label," said Burgess. "In January of 1956, Elvis joined RCA and the rest is history as they say." Working with Elvis gave Burgess and his fellow band members an idea. They decided to head for Memphis and audition for Sun Records and Sam Phillips. "Sam told us that he needed a fuller sounding group so we joined forces with Jack Nance and Joe Lewis who had their own local band," he said. "Joe Lewis came up with our band's new name. We were now called the Pacers. He got the name from the Pacer airplane. Russ Smith and jack Nance both played drums, so Jack switched to his other instrument, trumpet. I really wanted a saxophone player that had a sound like Punky Coldwell, however, we figured that the trumpet gave the Pacers a little different sound," said Burgess.

On May 2, 1956 the Pacers cut their debut single on Sun Records. "Our first single was called "We Wanna Boogie" and the flip side of the single was called Red Headed Woman," Burgess said. "Red Headed Woman reportedly sold over 90,000 copies," said Burgess. "It did especially well in Boston." During this time, the Pacers were managed by Gerald Grojean, the assistant manager of a local radio station, KNBY, according to Burgess. "Grojean did a good job for us but the Pacers needed a new look, so Bob Neal who had worked for Elvis became our manager," said Burgess. "After Neal became our manager, we began touring the country with some pretty well known acts. We opened for Marty Robbins, Ray Price, Bob Wells, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, the Collins Kids, Carl Perkins and Conway Twitty," said Burgess.

The Pacers had an exciting stage show, according to Burgess. "We had a frantic stage act, he said, we formed a pyramid on top of the bass player and we would jump out into the audience. The original Pacers were one of the hottest working bands in the vicinity. We could play all night long. We would sometimes play one song full blast for an hour near the end of the night," Burgess said.

Rockabilly Hall of Fame