Gary: “I was watching a John Fogerty Concert, from Los Angeles in 2005 and I noticed one of his guitar players, was Billy Burnette.
Well, it does not take much for me to lose concentration and I did and went way back to the mid fifties. I guess one of the first Rock and Roll songs I ever heard was “Tear it Up” by the Rock and Roll Trio, which consisted of Johnny & Dorsey Burnette along with the great guitarist Paul Burlison.
Then I immediately started to think about one of my favourite 50’s artists, Rick Nelson, and the great James Burton. The Burnettes wrote “Believe What you Say”, “Waitin in School”, “It’s Late” and others, all my favourites.
There was great tragedy in the family, but what a musical family. Now there was Johnny and later son Rocky, Dorsey and his son Billy, so I will look at them as a family and also include one of my favourite guitar players Paul Burlison.
To look at this family I must span around 30 to 40 years, and you will see why…
Rock and Roll Trio
Johnny & Dorsey’s songs made popular by Rick Nelson
The Rock and Roll Trio
Johnny Burnette’s Rock and Roll Trio, which formed in the early fifties in Memphis, consisted of the brothers Johnny and Dorsey Burnette and the part-time electrician and part-time rocker Paul Burlison. After playing small gigs around Memphis and West Memphis for years, the trio went to New York and won three weeks straight on the Ted Mack Original Amateur Hour, which led to their signing with Coral Records. For the next year before their breakup in 1957, the Rock and Roll Trio recorded some of the wildest, most blazing rock and roll no one ever heard. The band couldn’t buy a hit, and their only milestone, through cult fame, is their third single for Coral, “Train Kept A-Rollin’,” released in October 1956. The trio also appeared briefly in Alan Freed’s 1956 movie Rock, Rock, Rock.
The reasons why the trio couldn’t find success are numerable, but it wasn’t due to lack of effort or playing. Their live shows were relentless, usually played once a night in a different town.
They had grown up in Lauderdale Courts alongside a young Elvis Presley. In his great book on Memphis music, author Larry Nager states that Elvis would watch the Burnette brothers rehearse in the Lauderdale Courts laundry room.
The trio’s ties to Elvis go deeper than that. Dorsey and Paul worked with Elvis at Crown Electric and asked Elvis to perform with the trio several times, which Elvis always turned down.
Once Elvis found success, the Rock and Roll Trio auditioned for Sam Phillips’ Sun Records. Sam turned them down, citing that they sounded too much like Presley. Johnny, Dorsey, and Paul were also champion Golden Glove boxers, and the Burnette brothers worked as bouncers in a West Memphis club during their early days.
The Burnette brothers each found their way to Hollywood after the trio dissolved in 1957. Johnny found Ozzie and Harriet Nelson’s home from a “Map to the Stars” and sat on their front porch until he could meet with their son, superstar Ricky Nelson. Johnny got the meeting and eventually wrote several hits for Nelson, such as “I Believe What You Say” and “It’s Late.”
In a famous incident involving Ricky Nelson and Eddie Cochran, a strange man with a knife entered the house of Cochran’s girlfriend where they were all visiting. The Burnette brothers quickly pounced on the man, beating him badly and sending him down several flights of stairs.
Johnny found solo success in the United States and Britain with his 1960 single “You’re Sixteen,” which was released on the Liberty label. Sadly, Johnny died a few years later in a boating accident in 1964, and his brother Dorsey later died in 1979. After having a successful electrical company in the Memphis area for years, Paul Burlison died of cancer in 2003.
However, the band and its legacy will forever be apart of Memphis music in more ways than one. Burlison influenced some of the world’s greatest guitar players, including Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Joe Perry, and Eric Clapton, by haphazardly creating distortion.
Once on tour, Burlison dropped his amp, and a tube loosened which created a fuzzy sound on his guitar. He later re-loosened the tube before recording “Train Kept A-Rollin’,” and it was captured forever.
Despite the fact that the trio was more influential than they were innovative, their year’s worth of music contains several of the greatest rockabilly tracks ever recorded. But like many others, the shadow of Elvis Presley loomed large, and they were refused the success they deserved.
28 March 1934, Memphis, Tennessee, USA, d. 1 August 1964, Clear Lake, California, USA. Having attended the same high school as Elvis Presley, Johnny moved into the rockabilly genre by forming a trio with his brother Dorsey Burnette on string bass and school friend Paul Burlison (b. 4 February 1929, Brownsville, Tennessee, USA, d. 27 September 2003, Horn Lake, Mississippi, USA) on guitar.
Allegedly rejected by Sun Records owner Sam Phillips, the group recorded ‘Go Mule Go’ for Von Records in New York and were subsequently signed to Coral Records, where they enjoyed a minor hit with ‘Tear It Up’.
After touring with Carl Perkins and Gene Vincent, the trio underwent a change of personnel in November 1956 with the recruitment of drummer Tony Austin. That same month, the trio featured in Alan Freed’s movie Rock Rock Rock. During this period, they issued a number of singles, including ‘Honey Hush’, ‘The Train Kept A-Rollin’’, ‘Lonesome Train’, ‘Eager Beaver Baby’, ‘Drinking Wine, Spo-Dee-O-Dee’ and ‘If You Want It Enough’, but despite the quality of the songs their work was unheralded.
By the autumn of 1957, the trio broke up and the Burnette brothers moved on to enjoy considerable success as songwriters. Writing as a team, they provided Ricky Nelson with the hits ‘It’s Late’, ‘Believe What You Say’ and ‘Just A Little Too Much’.
After briefly working as a duo, the brothers parted for solo careers. Johnny proved an adept interpreter of teen ballads, whose lyrics conjured up innocent dreams of wish fulfilment. Both ‘Dreamin’’ and ‘You’re Sixteen’ were transatlantic Top 10 hits, perfectly suited to Burnette’s light but expressive vocal. A series of lesser successes followed with ‘Little Boy Sad’, ‘Big Big World’, ‘Girls’ and ‘God, Country And My Baby’.
With his recording career in decline, Burnette formed his own label Magic Lamp in 1964. In August that year, he accidentally fell from his boat during a fishing trip in Clear Lake, California and drowned. Among the family he left behind was his son Rocky Burnette, who subsequently achieved recording success in the 70s.
Dorsey, Johnny, and Burlison finally hooked up in mid-1952, working as a trio and within other, larger groups. They cut their first record, “Go Mule Go”/”You’re Undecided,” for the tiny Von label in 1954, their lineup augmented by a fourth member, fiddler Tommy Seeley. That record may have sold fewer than 200 copies, but Dorsey Burnette wasn’t to be stopped — he claimed that the group auditioned for Sam Phillips at Sun, but was rejected.
Dorsey worked his day jobs — picking cotton, deckhand on a riverboat, fisherman, carpet-layer, and electrician’s apprentice at Crown Electric. While he was there, a day labourer a little younger than Dorsey who had grown up in the same housing project quit his job to try making it in music after cutting a couple of records. Elvis Presley’s example, going off as part of a trio with Scotty Moore and Bill Black, brought the Burnette brothers and company to the decision to formalize their work together. Burlison and Burnette’s subsequently layoff from Crown Electric made the decision a no-brainer.
As a result, in early 1956, they were off to New York, where Dorsey Burnette and Paul Burlison got jobs as electrician’s assistants while Johnny Burnette went to work in the garment district in Manhattan’s West 30s. They decided to try out for Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour, which was one of the top new talent showcases in the country, just at the time when Elvis Presley — now signed to RCA Victor — was burning up the airwaves with “Heartbreak Hotel,” and were picked to play on the program.
The group, known as the Rock ‘n Roll Trio, won three successive shows broadcast over the ABC network; by the time of the third they had professional management, and soon after that they were signed to the Coral label, part of the Decca Records (now MCA) family of labels.
The Rock ‘n Roll Trio didn’t last, either as a trio or a name, as they failed to find any hits — despite a killer version of “Train Kept A-Rollin'” to their credit — and by late 1957 they were getting billed as “Johnny Burnette & the Rock ‘n Roll Trio.” This was probably as much a marketing ploy as a reflection of the reality that a fourth member, in the person of a drummer, had joined the group.
” Johnny Burnette” was a good rock & roll name to push in lieu of the group’s moniker, although Dorsey was the one who did most of the songwriting and had also sung lead on some of their numbers.
Dorsey couldn’t stomach the change in billing or his younger brother’s sudden push to the front, and finally quit the group and returned to Memphis just prior to the group’s scheduled appearance in the Alan Freed jukebox movie Rock Rock Rock.
Dorsey tried assembling his own group, Dorsey Burnette & the Rock ‘n Roll Trio, but they never caught on and disbanded before 1958 was over. He tried reconstituting himself as a solo act and got an offer to go out to California to appear on the Town Hall Party (the West Coast’s leading country music showcase), rejecting the chance to work the Louisiana Hayride.
Dorsey moved his whole family — including Johnny, who was no longer recording, under his name or any other — out with him and struggled to make ends meet, working as an electrician and writing songs in his spare time.
It was Dorsey Burnette’s brashness in walking up to the home of Ozzie and Harriet Nelson — famous from television and radio as entertainers, and the parents of Ricky and David Nelson — and asking to speak to Ricky that got him his break as a songwriter. Rick Nelson literally pulled up on his motorcycle, accepted Dorsey’s introduction, and had him and Johnny audition right there.
Rick Neslon ended up recording a dozen of their songs, most of them written by Dorsey Burnette, and his success with “Waitin’ in School” got the Burnettes a new contract with Imperial Records and Dorsey a hook-up with Imperial’s publishing division, Commodore Music.
Roy Brown later covered Dorsey and Johnny’s “Hip Shakin’ Baby,” and Dorsey managed to get a solo hit in 1959 on the Era label with “Tall Oak Tree,” a song that Rick Nelson had rejected. Ironically, given Johnny Burnette’s prominence, Dorsey’s first hit came five months before his brother finally reached the charts with “Dreamin’.” The two successes led Coral Records to dig into their vaults and release a 1957-vintage single of “Blues Stay Away from Me.”
The Burnettes never had another hit, although Dorsey kept writing and recording long after “Tall Oak Tree.” His contract was sold to the Dot label (now owned by MCA), and he cut three singles and an album during the six months he was there. During this period, eight-year-old Billy Burnette made his recording debut on the maudlin “Little Child,” which mercifully wasn’t released until 1992.
Dorsey Burnette’s family life took a tragic turn from which he never fully recovered in 1964, when Johnny Burnette died in a drowning accident. The surviving brother, driven by guilt or depression and his self-destructive nature, became a chronic alcoholic and drug abuser, his musical abilities and reliability suffering in the process as he staggered from failure to failure across a dozen labels over the next 15 years.
Dorsey found some belated comfort in Christianity, becoming “born again” in the 1970s and returning to where he started, in country music. His country recordings for Capitol Records got him pegged as “most promising newcomer” by one music organization that never recognized his earlier activity in rock & roll, and revitalized his career. By then, Burnette was appearing in small venues and playing to anyone who would pay him, getting into fights occasionally, and taking too many drinks and too many pills. In his shows, he would do his newer songs and a few of the old rockabilly numbers like “Tear It Up,” which he counted as country music.
Somehow, he never found the right label once the Capitol contract was over. In 1979, however, he signed a contract with Elektra Records and began recording with fellow former rockabilly star Jimmy Bowen. Things looked promising, and Burnette, whose fame in England had never subsided (American rockabilly stars being treated like Olympian demigods anywhere but America), even supposedly did a recording session with Led Zeppelin (according to rumour).
The first single by Burnette and Bowen had just been released when Burnette died of a heart attack on August 19, 1979. Among those who performed at the benefit concert organized on behalf of Burnette’s widow by Delaney Bramlett were Kris Kristofferson, Tanya Tucker, Roger Miller, and Glen Campbell.
Dorsey Burnette will probably always be best remembered as a member of the Rock ‘n Roll Trio in association with his brother Johnny, their work spread between the MCA and Capitol/EMI labels (which took over the Liberty catalog), but he spent most of his time in music as a solo act, whether he was recording or writing songs. Apart from “Tall Oak Tree” and “Hey Little One,” he recorded an impressive array of soulful pop and rockabilly numbers, eerily recalling Elvis Presley’s 1950s and early-’60s sound (only Burnette’s songs are better), most of which are worth owning
The son of legendary rock & roll pioneer Johnny Burnette, Rocky Burnette followed in his father’s musical footsteps, playing rowdy, high-energy rockabilly that dovetailed nicely with the early-’80s revival of the style.
Born in Memphis in 1953, Burnette debuted in 1979 with the EMI America album Son of Rock’n’Roll (around the same time his cousin Billy began recording straight country for Columbia).
The following summer, his single “Tired of Toein’ the Line” became a Top Ten smash, predating success stories by the likes of the Stray Cats; the song was also quite popular internationally, establishing an overseas fan base for Burnette that would endure for quite some time.
However, EMI America’s financial difficulties scuttled promotion efforts for the follow-up singles (several of which became hits in other countries), and Burnette‘s second album, Heart Stopper, got lost in the shuffle.
In 1981, Burnette toured Europe with the final version of his late father’s Rock & Roll Trio; Burnette also used the band on his next album, Get Hot or Go Home!, which was issued on Enigma. Unfortunately, it met with little commercial response and Enigma chose to drop Burnette and the Trio rather than release their more country flavored follow-up.
Burnette began to resurface in the mid-’90s, working with Rosie Flores and Dwight Twilley, and also contributing vocals and the original “Trouble Is I’m in Love With You” to ex-Trio guitarist Paul Burlison‘s 1997 solo album Train Kept A-Rollin’.
In 1996, Burnette finally issued another album, Tear It Up; unfortunately, the label, Core, went bankrupt almost immediately after its release.
Undaunted, Burnette kept up his international tours, and supplied soulster Percy Sledge with a Europenan hit “You Got Away With Love” in 1997.
Born May 8, 1953, in Memphis, Billy Burnette began his career as a country performer at the tender age of seven. Due to his father Dorsey‘s fame as a rockabilly star (not to mention his uncle Johnny), Billy cut “Hey Daddy (I’m Gonna Tell Santa on You)” for Dot Records with Ricky Nelson‘s band in 1960.
Billy followed his recoding debut with another session in 1964, and toured with Brenda Lee soon after. He moved to Memphis in 1969 to work as a guitarist and producer, and began his solo career three years later with a self-titled album for Entrance Records.
Billy Burnette led his father’s backing band during the ’70s, while his songwriting talent gradually came to the fore through covers by Dolly Parton and Kin Vassy.
In 1979 Burnette signed with Polydor, and recorded a second self-titled album. “What’s a Little Love Between Friends” was a modest chart entry that year. Between Friends was released in 1980, and after Burnette signed with Columbia, he issued his third eponymous album. Gimme You followed in 1981.
In 1985, Eddy Raven and Ray Charles both charted Burnette songs, and Burnette himself charted with “Ain’t It Just Like Love” and “Try Me.” The action earned him honors as the ACM’s Best New Male Vocalist, but he dropped out of country music for several years whenFleetwood Mac offered him a spot replacing Lindsay Buckingham. He appeared on Fleetwood Mac‘s Greatest Hits (1988) and Behind the Mask (1990), and toured with the band constantly.
Billy Burnette returned to country music in 1992 with a contract from Warner Bros. and the charting single “Nothin’ to Do (And All Night to Do It).” He moved to Capricorn later that year, and released Coming Home.
After a long absence, Burnette resurfaced in the spring of 2000 with Are You with Me Baby, followed by Memphis in Manhattan in 2006 and Bluegrass Elvises, Vol. 1, a collaboration with fellow country crooner Shawn Camp, in 2007.