Sonny Burgess Biography

Albert Burgess, 28 May 1931, Newport, Arkansas, USA. As a child Burgess earned the name ‘Sonny’ as a result of his father also being called Albert. Inspired by the Grand Ole Opry show transmitted over WSM’s airwaves, he set about learning to play a catalogue-purchased guitar. He joined his first country band while at high school, eventually moving from the role of supporting guitarist to lead the band. After graduation, Burgess joined the backing band of local singer Fred Waner (later a successful solo singer as Freddie Hart), along with Johnny Ray Hubbard (bass) and Gerald Jackson (drums) who had been with his high school group. Military service in Germany then intervened, but Burgess still found an opportunity to perform, eventually forming a band that successfully auditioned for the overseas forces’ version of the Grand Ole Opry. Returning to Arkansas after his discharge in 1953, he found work at a box factory but also formed a new group, the Moonlighters, with Hubbard, Kern Kennedy and Russ Smith. After their first handful of performances at local venues the young mandolin player Joe Lewis also joined. Although their original sound was up-tempo country, the rise of Elvis Presley in the mid-50s soon led them to incorporate many of his best-known songs into their set. In 1955 the Moonlighters supported Presley at Newport’s Silver Moon club. Jack Nance then joined the group in time for its name change to the Pacers.

Finally, in May 1956, Burgess decided it was time to record the band, journeying to Sun Records Studios in Memphis to audition for Sam Phillips. ‘Red Headed Woman’/‘We Wanna Boogie’ duly became their first single release for Sun, selling a respectable 90, 000 copies, its popularity spreading outside of the local community. Their first major tour of the Midwest followed, before the Pacers took an engagement as Roy Orbison’s backing band. Their second single, ‘Restless’/‘Ain’t Got A Thing’, followed in January 1957. Shortly afterwards, they slimmed to a trio when Lewis left to join Conway Twitty and Smith departed for Jerry Lee Lewis’ band. Further singles, including ‘One Broken Heart’ and ‘Ain’t Gonna Do It’, followed, as did touring engagements with Orbison. The Pacers continued to release singles, including ‘My Bucket’s Got A Hole In It’, but were unable to secure that elusive hit. The line-up also shifted again. The 1958 model of the band saw Burgess supported by J.C. Caughron (guitar), Bobby Crafford (drums) and Kern Kennedy on piano. Further recording sessions took place, resulting in the release of several singles including ‘Oh Mama!’, ‘What’cha Gonna Do’ and ‘One Night’. Burgess later cited the recording of the latter song as the main inspiration behind Presley’s version - certainly the similarities between their respective interpretations are remarkable. However, by the end of 1957 the Pacers were out of contract with Sun, and the group had to content itself with touring commitments. A final single, ‘Sadie’s Back In Town’, was released on Sam Phillips’ Phillips International, after which the Pacers broke up.

Burgess remained in the music business with a new, but largely unrecorded group, Kings IV, until 1970, at which time he returned home to Newport. Between 1974 and 1986 he stayed away from the music business, preferring to work as a travelling salesman. Renewed interest in the 90s led to Rounder Records signing him and in 1996 a remarkably fresh-sounding Burgess was heard on Sonny Burgess (subtitled has still got it). An excellent choice of tracks included ‘Bigger Than Elvis’ and Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Tiger Rose’. His vital contributions to both the development of rockabilly and the Sun Records’ story offers a testimony to his status denied him in simple chart placings. It would appear that recognition has come 40 years too late.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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