Sonny Burgess

 

Born sixty miles west of Memphis in rural Arkansas in 1931, Sonny Burgess grew up on local country and blues. Radio brought in the Grand Ole Opry and the Memphis country stations. Good R&B was available on WDIA, a black Memphis station. Like thousands of other teenagers across the South, he heard Gene Nobles, John "R" and the other jive-talking deejays on Nashville's WLAC. White deejays for black audiences, they made the night smoke with R&B. 

In the early '50s, Sonny started working semi-professionally with Russell Smith and Kern Kennedy, playing country music with a western swing edge in bars and dance halls around Newport, the only town in northeastern Arkansas with legal liquor. Later called honky-tonk, it was the Southern beer joint music of the time. The "Moonlighters," as the group came to be called, auditioned for Sam Phillips at Sun Records in Memphis in early 1956. Phillips liked what he heard but told them that they needed a fuller, more aggressive rockabilly sound.  

Burgess, Smith and Kennedy joined forces with Jack Nance, Joe Lewis and Johnny Ray Hubbard, and juiced up the act with a second guitar and a trumpet. Lewis renamed the band the "Pacers." The transition from honky-tonk to rockabilly was easy for Sonny. His passion was for rhythm and blues and he had a true R&B voice - like a tenor sax in full cry. It was a magnificent rock and roll instrument.

 In 1956 Sonny and the Pacers returned to Sun Records and cut their debut single, "We Wanna Boogie." That song and "Red Headed Woman" were among the most raucous, energy-filled recordings released during the first flowering of rock and roll. Burgess' performances combined the country sounds of the white South with the R&B, blues and shout gospel sounds of the black community. This band combined the frenetic energies of black and white forms of jive-talking, duck-walking and climb-the-wall Southern music. 

Sometimes forming a pyramid on top of the bass player and occasionally jumping into the audience, the Pacers' stage act equaled the antics of Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Little Richard. Burgess went so far as to dye his hair a flaming shade of red to match his guitar and sport jacket. Jack Nance remembers ".....we were young, crazy and wild." In the 1960s rockabilly fell on hard times. Sam Phillips recalled that Burgess "could have been one of the greats but he never got the right break." 

Sonny took a day job in 1971, but after a fifteen year hiatus returned to music with D.J. Fontana, "Smoochie" Smith, Paul Burlison, and Stan Kesler as the "Sun Rhythm Section" when pal Jay Orr got them a week-long booking at the Smithsonian's Festival of American Folklife.

Now, full speed ahead within the 21st Century, Sonny continues to tour non-stop.  Recently a New York Times reviewer noted that Sonny's "jubilantly feral howls and punchy guitar solos" reverberate with the same raw energy and excitement as they did when he wowed the crowds in Memphis during the rockabilly heyday.


Sonny Burgess
March 25, 2006 Salle Des Fetes, St. Denis Les Bourg, France
featuring
Daniel Nunes on bass, Roland Riedberger on Trumpet, Sean Mencher on guitar, Bobby Crawford on Drums & Kern Kennedy on Piano

 

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