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June 6, 1996
It's too bad oldies radio sucks so horribly, because there's a rich tapestry of
untamed early rock and roll going unheard by all but a few. Rockabilly seems to
make a big splash in popular music about once a decade with increasingly
cartoonish affectations (Stray Cats, Chris Isaak, Rev. Horton Heat). But with
the exception of regional pockets of enthusiasts (epitomized locally by outfits
like the Cranktones), the real deal gets relegated to "roots" festivals and
folk-purist academe -- maybe because at its best, it's still just too
hog-spankin' wild for mass consumption. Yeah, the Sun Records catalogue has
been repackaged more times than rat meat in a Chicago bologna factory. But
that's a testament to how the fusion of hot-blooded R&B and booze-headed
hillbilly skronk still resonates every time rock and roll gets crazy and
dangerous on three twangy chords and a jug of whatever's handy. Albert "Sonny"
Burgess, one of the boogie-fueled white kids who sought out Sun in rockabilly's
post-Elvis heyday, is living proof. At the ripe old age of 65, Burgess is about
to release a new solo disc, Sonny Burgess (Rounder), and it's a scorcher
-- a rocket from the roots-rock crypt with much of the same caustic kick of the
wax he cut 40 years ago.
On the new album's "Big Black Cadillac," the pulpy, bloody-murder howl that
infused his '56-'57 rockabilly classics "Red-Headed Woman," "We Wanna Boogie,"
and "Ain't Got a Thing" (recently collected on AVI's Hittin' That Jug: The
Best of Sonny Burgess) rears up anew, huffing and leering like an
atomic-powered, fin-tailed street demon that's just blown the doors off every
hot rod on the strip. It's the same approach Burgess honed in his hometown of
Newport, Arkansas, where his band the Moonlighters did some gigs with Elvis
Presley in 1955. The next year, the Moonlighters added a blast of raunchy
trumpet and a second guitarist, changed their name to the Pacers, and persuaded
Sun honcho Sam Phillips to put out "Red Headed Woman" b/w "We Wanna Boogie" as
their first single. Although less visible than the King and the Killer and Carl
Perkins, Burgess was rockabilly's real wild child -- hootin' and hollerin' and
flat-out screaming, pouncing off the stage in mid performance with the Pacers
to lead the audience in Indian war dances and human pyramid-building, then
jumping back on the bandstand and tearing up the fretboard. Which makes him a
hero if you're into any kind of wild-ass rock and roll.
Producer Garry Tallent (former bassist for the E Street Band; he also
contributes rhythm guitar) has assembled a crack squad of session musicians and
songwriters, making this new album a worthy companion to the one Burgess
released with the Sun Rhythm Section (on Flying Fish), the festival-touring
band of Memphis rawk veterans. The new ensemble -- steeped in a close
approximation of Sun-style slapback echo -- is anchored by Tallent's ragged
strumming and John Gardner's sparse but crisp skin-beating, with Roy Huskey's
muscular upright-bass slaps and Burgess's stinging, laser-precise leads
providing crucial propulsion. Burgess's cousin Larry Cheshire, a former
Nashville songwriter, provides a handful of ballads including the Orbison-esque
"Hang Up the Moon" and a remorseless anthem, "Hell Yes I Cheated."
Thanks to Tallent, Bruce Springsteen contributes his unrecorded "Tiger Rose."
And on the album's cameo coup, original Elvis Presley guitarist Scotty Moore
and the Jordanaires chip in for "Bigger Than Elvis," Burgess's tribute to the
cat who first blew his mind on rockabilly. But the album's brightest moments
are the visceral fire-and-brimstone rockers like "Catbird Seat" and roadhouse
R&B shouters like "Look Out for Number One," where Burgess breaks
rockabilly out of the yellowing pages of history, re-animates it with a jolt of
lightning, and carries it screaming out the door.
-- Carly Carioli