Back to Articles

June 6, 1996

Sonny Burgess:
Roots-rock Rocket

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

Russian Language

Rockabilly Central | Tours | Chicago | Swing | Photos | Articles | Reviews | Movies | Links

Get Smart! lisa wertman marc koch frank loose kansas chicago One For All remotes