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Sonny Burgess
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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.

Gene VincentSometimes 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. They still work festivals together. 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.

It’s a Texas thing—that firm, confident handshake with the warm twinkle in his eye. It’s a growin’ up poor thing—standing in his own two boots, reliable as the sun coming up. It’s definitely a musical thing—like a tree that’s fed from its roots and grows strong and tall in a most delightful way. It’s a lot of things that come down to one thing—one man—SONNY BURGESS.

The natural ease he exudes on stage is a hint that this “ain’t his first rodeo.” Growing up in the sun burnt town of Cleburne, Texas, Sonny was constantly surrounded by the sounds & realities that are traditional country music. Just down the road from Fort Worth, Sonny was immersed in the music his family loved. Hank Williams, Glen Campbell, Roy Clark and Chet Atkins were the regular musical fare during the evenings as Sonny and family gathered on the front porch.

Inspired by the stories woven in the touching and haunting melodies, Sonny taught himself to play the guitar. Learning at the School of Hit Records and through an inherited musical ear (both his aunts and uncles made up a country group that toured throughout Texas), Sonny quickly grew into his own as a player and singer. And when he played for a live audience, he really liked how that felt. From his first public performance in the second grade, he was hooked.

“I remember it was the only time I got the attention of my first real crush,” jokes Sonny. “But it was really the reaction of my peers and teachers that made me feel like this was something I really wanted to do for the rest of my life.”

In Texas, where sports are a religion of their own, Sonny’s other natural gifts—exceptional athleticism—found their moment in the sun as well. The first adolescent jewel he sought was a baseball diamond.

In addition to holding the position of quarterback for his high school football team, his driving ambition was to become a professional baseball player. But playing music was always part of the game plan. “I remember right after games, my band and I would go straight to the civic center and play a show,” Sonny says. “They were always so much fun because everyone would come out to hear us perform and it would be a whole-town affair.”

Gene VincentAnything that is soul-splitting competitive requires the complete investment of the heart to succeed. He loved baseball but after a stint on a professional ball team, Sonny soon realized that the song he heard on the breeze was calling him out of the dugout to sing it, not just listen to it.

By his early 20’s, when Sonny hit the end of his baseball path, he met life’s relentless responsibilities in a hodge-podge of jobs. These included substitute teaching, being an electrician, a railroad worker, even a swimming pool installer. They all fed the family and the new dream of being an artist. Through all the changes the one thing that took center stage was playing music wherever, whenever and however he could.

“We’d always do what we had to do to make it work,” Sonny recalls. “One time my band and I played three gigs in one day. It was one of those ‘seemed like a good idea at the time’ things. We kicked off the first one about 10 AM just rearin’ up like bulls. We darn near dropped dead about 2 AM the next morning finishing the last one.”

As the circle of gigs got bigger, it stretched out of the hometown, even out of Texas, landing choice gigs in Ft. Worth and beyond to Nashville. The attention the gigs brought, garnered the ears of label decision makers in Nashville. This brought the inevitable good lessons hard earned. Standing here today Sonny demonstrates that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

Gene VincentIn 2001, Music City Records released When In Texas which seemed to crystallize all the hope and potential Cleburne had seen in its favorite son for years. It notched four top 10 singles in the key Texas music charts and brought him the first opportunities to play venues such as the venerable Grand Old Opry, Nashville’s Fan Fair/CMA Music Festival, The Wildhorse Saloon in Nashville & Orlando and Sonny made his national television debut on “Crook & Chase”. If it wasn’t “the yellow brick road,” it was an important stepping stone. Changing management in 2003 opened further doors to stages such as Cheyenne Frontier Days, Ft. Worth country stalwart, Billy Bob’s, even major rodeo events in Las Vegas.

Persevering along the path, brought an introduction to Karen Herbst who knew a good thing when she saw it. She jumped into the boat with Sonny as his manager. Karen, in turn, introduced Sonny to veteran Nashville hit music-maker Jeff Teague.

“When Karen showed up it took me back to the days on the ball field. I could see the right team taking shape. You can’t even get to the plate to hit it over the fence if you haven’t got the right coach and don’t know which pitch is yours to hit. Man, Karen is that coach and Jeff showed me which pitches were the hits.”

Gene Vincent

The sophomore album, produced by Jeff, is the fruit of a lot of labor and the determination Sonny showed at each turn. Rarely is an album more appropriately titled than this one, stoutly holding up the banner, STRONGER. It’s clear-eyed statement of status by Sonny.

Together Jeff & Sonny picked prime peaches from the Nashville song tree. When the record boasts songs from Leslie Satcher & Larry Cordle (”Jesus & Bartenders), George Teren & Chris Waters (”What Else Could Go Right”) and Paul Overstreet & Mickey Cates (”Anytime I’m Smiling”) you know the right trees got shook. Add the unique touch of a man who knows how to say what he wants to say and you have a complete artist.

Today the grip is more strong & sure than ever; the twinkle in the eye sincere to the soul and the determination has grown deep roots. Yes, it’s a Texas thing; it’s a good thing and it’s a timing thing…Sonny Burgess.


Sonny Burgess - Ain't Got a Thing

Sonny Burgess / We Wanna Boogie

br> Sonny Burgess Pacers Rock Roll D-Day Amsterdam June 2007
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3.21 Copyright (C) 2007 Alain Georgette / Copyright (C) 2006 Frantisek Hliva. All rights reserved."

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Pioneros del Rock
Bill Halley
Buddy Holly
Carl Perkins
Chuck Berry
Eddie Cochran
Elvis Presley
Gene Vincent
The Everly Brothers
Roy Orbison
Fats Domino
Jerry Lee Lewis
Little Richard
Sonny Burgess
Bo Diddley
Ricky Nelson
Sleepy LaBeef
Johnny Burnette
Conway Twitty
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