Johnny Burnette - Johnny RocksJohnny Burnette - 'Johnny Rocks' from the Bear Family CD Series - Rocks -
Includes 11 super-rare Johnny Burnette demos recordings from the 1950s
Sensational pictures of Johnny Burnette and a detailed 43 page book.
Johnny Burnette - Johnny RocksIf, in the days or weeks before his untimely death, someone had asked Johnny Burnette how he would be remembered, he would probably have mentioned his early Sixties hits or the songs he'd written for Ricky Nelson. And he would have been wrong. His legend rests in two groups of sessions from 1956 that yielded no hits. Those incendiary recordings, even the youthful infighting and jealousy that surrounded them, are a little catechism in how and why this music was different from anything that had come before. When musicologists deconstruct rockabilly and when revivalists reconstruct it, they're trying to unravel the magic of Johnny Burnette and the Rock 'n' Roll Trio.
Johnny and his brother Dorsey were well placed to be in the vanguard of rock 'n' roll. They were, after all, two of the very few Memphis rockabillies actually from Memphis. Dorsey was born on December 28, 1932 and Johnny on March 28, 1934. Their father gave them Gene Autry guitars in 1939, and in an unerring foretaste of things to come, they broke them over each others' heads. "Dad went out and bought us two more guitars," said Dorsey. "He said, 'Learn to play. You can be like those folks on the Grand Ole Opry.' We started playing parties, little dances, and weddings." The Burnettes' teenage years revolved around boxing tournaments, edge-of-town juke joints, and (for Dorsey) a spell in the state reform school.
In the early Fifties, Johnny and Dorsey led the Burnette Rhythm Rangers. Scotty Moore, who would later join Elvis, played guitar with them once or twice. The Burnettes inspired more fear than respect at this point in their lives. In his autobiography, Scotty recalled a honky tonk gig in Laconia, Tennessee. "All hell broke loose," he wrote. "Johnny and Dorsey were notorious fighters. They'd been banned from all the Cotton Carnivals. I don't know how many the two of them were fighting—a bunch of them. Dorsey got stuck in his thigh with a knife. I decided then, 'Well boys, I don't think we can book you again around here.'"
Dorsey had already met Paul Burlison, another aspiring boxer who fooled with music. Burlison was born near Brownsville, Tennessee on February 4, 1929. "I loved the blues," he said later. "Cottonpatch blues. I played with Howlin' Wolf on the radio. He was working in the cotton fields near West Memphis and he came into KWEM every afternoon. I worked a show with [a hillbilly band]. One afternoon I put some blues licks in a song and I saw Wolf looking through the glass and he smiled at me. When I got through he walked up and said he liked the way I played. I played with him that night and this went on for about three months." Burlison was one of the very few musicians not physically intimidated by the Burnettes, and they began working together in 1951. "A lot of people," he said, "think that the Rock 'n' Roll Trio was only together from 1956 and until the Fall of 1957 but we were playing regularly together from 1951." Their first record, Go On Mule, for Von Records of Booneville, Mississippi, was made around November 1955, but sold so poorly that it barely counted as a debut at all (Go On Mule was based on an old pop song, Go 'long Mule, that had become a '20s country song. Mule Boy on this compilation is unrelated, and was probably a demo intended for Johnny Cash).
Johnny already had a family to raise. He'd married Thurley D'Angelillo, and their first son, Rocky, was born on June 12, 1953. Trying to pay the bills, he became an appliance salesman (working alongside Johnny Cash), and a repo man. Dorsey and Paul were electricians. They had a weekend gig with a western swing bandleader, Doc McQueen, at the Hideaway Club. "If you listen to 'Rock-Billy Boogie,'" said Burlison, "you can hear us singing about the Hideaway." They were already thinking about going to New York when Paul and Dorsey were laid off from their day jobs. Suddenly, there was no reason not to go.
"Elvis was gonna be on the Tommy Dorsey Show," Burlison said later."One day, Johnny said, 'Let's go up there and get on one of them television shows, see if we can't make it.' Dorsey had an old '49 Ford with recapped tires, so we loaded everything into it and took off. We got so excited, and when we got to Brownsville, I said, 'Hey, we didn't even tell Doc.' So we stopped and I went to a phone booth and called him. I said, 'Doc, we ain't gonna be there this weekend. We wanted to let you know so you can get someone else.' This was, like, Wednesday. He said, 'Oh well, if y'all make it big, lemme know.'"
The Trio auditioned for 'The Ted Mack Amateur Hour' just as Elvis' last appearances on the Dorsey brothers' 'Stage Show' were creating a sensation. Someone on Mack's team thought the Burnettes might do for Mack's ratings what Elvis had done for the Dorseys' ratings, and the trio leapfrogged the line-up. There was a strict no alcohol policy, but the Burnettes mixed some whiskey with Coke, poured it into a little hair oil bottle and hid it in Burlison's guitar case. They took a few slugs and went out to greet the world. It was April 1, 1956. They won three straight appearances in April and May, gaining a mandatory place on the finalists' tour in September. Between the second and third appearance they found a manager. Bill Randle, a top rated dee-jay on WERE, Cleveland, phoned his friend Henry Jerome, a Juilliard-schooled trumpeter who led a band at the Hotel Edison. Jerome went backstage at the Mack show, signed the trio, and placed them with the Coral division of Decca Records. In many ways, the Rock 'n' Roll Trio's recordings were a case study in the New York music business trying to come to terms with what was happening down south. The South controlled the music, and the North controlled the business. The Burnettes had no idea what was going on. "We didn't even know what a lawyer was," Dorsey told journalist Jim Newcombe. "We didn't know whether to scratch our watch or wind our ass."