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Johnny Burnette es sin duda una de las figuras míticas del Rockabilly clásico junto a gente como Carl Perkins o Gene Vincent. El Johnny Burnette Trio estuvo siempre entre mis grupos de referencia durante mi tuperiana adolescencia. La inconfundible voz de Johnny, sus alaridos salvajes, el martilleante contrabajo de su hermano Dorsey o esa guitarra distorsionada de Paul Burlison tan característica del sonido del Rock´n´Roll Trio constituían una especie de llamada de la selva que me arrastraba hacia lo más profundos y catárticos abismos rockabillescos. Era la pinga del mandinga; el copón del keep on rockin´, beibe. Pero como de costumbre, empecemos por el principio.

Segundo hijo de Dorsey Sr. Y Willie Mae Burnette, Johnny nace en Memphis (Tennessee) el 25 de marzo de 1934, un año después que su hermano Dorsey. Parece ser que al crío le tiraba tanto la música que su madre le compró una guitarra a los cinco años. Los dos hermanos asisten a la Blessed Sacrament Catholic School. Aunque no son buenos estudiantes, sí son excelentes deportistas, lo que les salva de la expulsión más de una vez. Practican el fútbol americano y el baloncesto, pero más tarde les da por el boxeo, ubicándose en la categoría de los ligeros. También en Memphis, otro chaval, Paul Burlison, estaba estudiando en la Humes High School (la misma a la que asistía Elvis, que estaba un curso por detrás de Paul) y tocaba el contrabajo en un grupo Country llamado The Memphis Ramblers. Paul había nacido en Brownsville (Tennessee) el 4 de febrero de 1929, pero su familia se había trasladado a Memphis buscando ganarse la vida. En 1946, Burlison se alista en la Marina, donde aprende a boxear. En 1949, cuando regresa a la vida civil, se une a una nueva banda Country: Shelby Follin & The Memphis Four. La afición por el boxeo hace que Paul, en 1950, durante una competición amateur y antes de comenzar el combate, conozca a su rival, que no es ni más ni menos que Dorsey Burnette.

Ambos hablan de su auténtica pasión: la música. Días después, Paul, Dorsey y Johnny quedan para ensayar y salen contentos. Pronto encuentran algunos garitos donde tocar, pero eso no es suficiente para vivir y entran a trabajar en la Crown Electric Company (en la que también curraba Elvis), aunque Johnny deja pronto este empleo para hacérselo de vendedor ambulante. Su compañero es Johnny Cash. Posteriormente, los hermanos también trabajan en las barcazas del Mississippi e intentan buscarse la vida en California, de donde regresan sin nada en 1955.

Cuando Elvis aparece por primera vez en la tele (28 de enero de 1956), los Burnette no lo dudan: en el Norte están las grandes discográficas y las principales cadenas de TV. En marzo, meten sus bártulos en un viejo Ford y se dirigen a Nueva York bajo una terrible tormenta de nieve.

Una vez allí, van directamente a la oficina que elige los artistas para aparecer en la Hora Amateur de Ted Mack, el concurso de artistas noveles más famoso de la televisión, donde les dicen que si son elegidos, pasarán más de seis meses antes de aparecer en la caja tonta. Tocan Tutti fruti, Honey hush y Blue suede shoes, causando tan buena impresión que deciden meterles en el programa de la semana siguiente. Nuestros tres amiguetes tienen éxito y pasan a la siguiente fase, y luego a la siguiente, y a la siguiente... hasta llegar a la semifinal, que se celebra en el Madison Square Garden. Henry Jerome, el director de la orquesta del programa, se convierte en manager del Johnny Burnette Trio, que realiza una gira junto a los ganadores del concurso. A la vuelta, tres discográficas quieren contratarles: Capitol, ABC y Coral. Escogen a esta última.

El 7 de mayo, con Bob Thiele como productor, se trasladan al Pythian Temple, un antiguo salón de baile que la discográfica había convertido en estudio de grabación. Cuando llegan, alucinan: una orquesta de treinta músicos les espera con órdenes de hacer todo lo que el trío quiera. Johnny les ordena que se vayan todos menos el batería, al que mantiene para hacer un sonido más compacto. De todos modos, pronto le manda también a casita, ya que el pobre hombre, músico profesional, toca muy bien, pero demasiado flojo, y no consigue encajar en el sonido salvaje del grupo. Así pues, se quedan con el esquema típico del Rockabilly primitivo: guitarra acústica, guitarra eléctrica y contrabajo (además de la voz, claro). Graban Midnight train, Oh, baby babe y los dos temas que se incluirán en el primer single del trío: Tear it up y You´re undecided. A pesar de que todo sale bien, el Johnny Burnette Trio pide a la compañía que la próxima vez les dejen grabar en Nashville, donde hay músicos de sesión que comprenden mejor su música.

En julio van para allá y buscan un pianista, eligiendo a Owen Bradley, a un batería, Buddy Marman, y, esporádicamente, utilizan los coros de las Anita Kerr Singers y la guitarra rítmica de Grady Martin. En dieciséis días graban temas como Chains of love, I just found out, Sweet love on my mind o Blues stay away from me, estos dos últimos cantados por Dorsey. Poco después aparece el segundo single, con Oh, baby babe y Midnight train y, seguidamente, el tercero, con The train kept a’rollin’ y Honey hush, aunque ninguno de los dos logra una buena posición en las listas. El Johnny Burnette Trio era una de las bandas más populares del país, una de las pocas que tocaba Rockabilly del auténtico en el Norte... pero no vendían discos.

En octubre se les contrata para una gira con Carl Perkins y Gene Vincent (un paquete puramente Rockabilly) y reciben una oferta para aparecer en la peli Rock, Rock, Rock (una de esas de Alan Freed con mínimo argumento y máximo de Rock & Roll). Pero las cosas no van tan bien: la frustración por no entrar en las listas y el hecho de que el público se fije más en Johnny que en el resto provocan la salida del grupo de Dorsey. Poco antes, Tony Austin, primo de Carl Perkins, se había unido al trío con su batería, y ahora, Johnny Black, hermano de Bill Black (el contrabajista de Elvis), sustituye a Dorsey justo a tiempo para el rodaje de la peli, en la que interpretan Lonesome train y I just found out, que constituyen su siguiente single. Con peli y todo, el éxito se resiste.

En marzo de 1957, vuelven a Nashville para grabar más. A pesar de que Dorsey ya no toca en el grupo, su contrato le obliga a estar presente en el estudio. Graban cuatro temas, dos de ellos con coros, en una concesión a los nuevos derroteros que va tomando el Rock & Roll. Son Eager beaver baby y Touch me, editadas en mayo, y Drinkin’ wine spo-dee-o-dee drinkin’ wine y Butterfingers, en agosto, canciones que tampoco conseguirán ningún hit. El continuo fracaso comercial hace que la discográfica pierda interés en ellos. En otoño se deshace la banda y Paul Burlison vuelve a casa, donde monta un negocio. Los Burnette se instalan en California, pero tirando cada uno por caminos distintos. Dorsey graba Country y Rockabilly y con el tiempo se convierte en uno de los compositores Country más afamados de Nashville y se hace rico componiendo temas para gente como Ricky Nelson. Muere el 19 de agosto de 1979. Johnny, por su parte, consigue el éxito con el apoyo de una orquesta (lo que son las cosas). Su estilo se dulcifica, interpretando baladas y convirtiéndose en un teen idol (ídolo de adolescentes: siguiente evolución en el Rock’n’Roll. Se trata de cantantes, generalmente guaperas, que hacen Rock & Roll suavizado, destinado principalmente a los adolescentes), aunque, eso sí, Johnny Burnette fue uno de los intérpretes que mayor calidad demostró en este género, grabando mogollón de temas para el sello Liberty y después para Capitol, Chancellor, Sahara y para su propia compañía, Magic Lamp.

En 1960 aparecen sus dos mayores éxitos, ambos editados por Liberty: Dreamin’ (nº 11 en las listas) y You´re sixteen (nº8). Entre 1960 y 1964, Johnny es una superestrella. Gira por Inglaterra, vende millones de vinilos... Y cuando todo iba tan dabuti, su barca de pesca vuelca el 1 de agosto de 1964 y muere ahogado, pasando a engrosar la lista de ídolos del Rock & Roll muertos antes de tiempo. Vaya putada. Pero eso sí: tanto el Burnette Trio como Johnny o Dorsey en solitario siguen vivos en mi equipo de música y en el de muchos otros cool cats como yo. Y por muchos años.

Inglish


 Life has blessed me with the opportunity to have met and gotten to know so many of the people who have meant so much to me. And one such blessing I'll never forget happened to me when I was a young school boy who sold newspaper subscriptions in California's San Fernando Valley. With a little spending cash in my pocket, one day I hopped on my English racer bicycle with the elevated "motorcycle" handlebars and headed off to a local record store to buy some rockin' sounds. Not knowing what for sure, I remember deciding that my three favorite singers were Elvis Presley, Johnny Burnette and Bobby Darin. It was late 1960 and Johnny was high on the charts with "You're Sixteen."

I knew nothing about The Rock 'n Roll Trio yet, but Johnny's expressive singing inflections had made me a fan from the moment I had first heard "Dreamin'," and "Cincinnati Fireball." You just couldn't help but sing along. There was so much personality in his singing, you just couldn't help but be won over. To me, he was clearly one of the greatest. And although I preferred rockers like "Cincinnati Fireball," NO ONE made violins swing like Johnny Burnette. It was an exciting new sound.

Anyway, somehow I ended up leaving the record store having only purchased Elvis' "G.I. Blues" album and "Are You Lonesome Tonight" single. Perhaps they were sold-out of Johnny Burnette, I don't recall. But from the record store, I went directly to the home of a friend, Kenny Kusal, who lived just blocks away. When he saw the record store bag hanging from my handlebars, he asked if I had purchased any Johnny Burnette. I told him no, but I had thought of it. Then, surprisingly, he accused me of not having "supported the neighborhood." When he further explained Johnny Burnette was his neighbor, I said "Yeah, sure." So he took me across the street and a couple houses around the bend to a modest home's front door and knocked. Next thing I knew I met Thruley Burnette and her very handsome husband, Johnny Burnette.

Obviously I was too young to become one of Johnny's everyday buddies, but from then on I've been friends with him and his family. Here, I'd like to share with you memories and facts I've learned that will take you "Inside" The Johnny Burnette Story.

Born March 25th, 1934, in Memphis, Tennessee, Johnny was a husky baby who demonstrated his vocal powers with his first screams and wails. The second son of Dorsey Sr. and Willie Mae Burnette, he was so musical that his mother skimped and saved to buy him a guitar when he was 5 years old. The family lived in a bulging little four-room frame house, which according to Johnny, "Dad built it hisself and it looked like a matchbox. You could throw a cat through it."

As Johnny was quoted in his Liberty Records bio, "The git-tar became my life. All I could play were the D, G and C chords but I never stopped playing them. A much older girl who played the git-tar well lived right near me and I used to practice with her. I didn't care too much for school but I loved strumming that git-tar. All day long I was just pickin' and grinnin'."

Talking about school, after graduating eight grade from Blessed Sacrament parochial school, Johnny attended Catholic High School and did not attend Humes High School with Elvis Presley, as per the legend written in news reports as early as 1956. However, as "Aunt Alberta" recently recalled for me, Johnny and Dorsey used to take their guitars and hang out on the front lawn of Humes, singing and playing with a casual group that often included Bill Black, sometimes Scotty Moore, and, for a song or two, even a young Elvis Presley. Alberta, who did go to school with Elvis, married Dorsey Burnette.

While in high school, Johnny Burnette racked up a series of extraordinary athletic achievements, becoming Catholic High's angry linebacker on the football team, its flashy guard on the basketball five, and its uncompromising welterweight boxer. The football team was "the lowest class football team in Memphis, but a determined one," recalled Johnny, who earned a reputation for fighting every play as if he were in the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day. This led to what became a celebrated tackle by Red West, a friend of Elvis' who decided to deal with the ferocious Burnette early during a game. "Well," Johnny recalled, "Red knocked me out on one of the first plays of the game." It was evident in the matter-of-fact manner Johnny recalled it, that had Johnny had the first opportunity, it would have been Red carried off the field.

But that was nothing compared to what happened to Johnny when, enroute to a drive-in movie, he pulled over to help a trapped driver stuck in a 1933 hot rod that had skidded off a slippery road and crashed. As Johnny fiercely twisted open the hot rod's door, another car piled up and sent Johnny tumbling on his back, shaken but unhurt. Then, as he picked himself up, a drunken driver plowed another car into the already chaotic scene and sent Johnny hurling 80 feet through the air. A policeman, a little child and two women were also injured in the chain-reaction accident, but only Johnny was given slim odds of pulling through. For three days he laid in a coma, with ruptured liver and shattered ribs. For three months he was a tortured convalescent.

Upon his recovery, Johnny Burnette sang and played music with renewed energy. He organized his first band in high school and after his public debut at the Millington Naval Base, he was soon playing countless benefits and "date money" gigs. And, dating with the abandon of any high school hero, he needed that date money often.

His only professional rebuff came when he waited by the door of the famed Grand Ol' Opry, and told Hank Snow, "I'd like to get on Grand Ol' Opry." Snow regarded the young teenager benevolently and said, "Well, son, it takes thirty or forty years to get on here."

However, Johnny knew he didn't need 30/40 years to prove himself as a boxer, and soon became an outstanding lightweight and welterweight boxer who fought his way to a Memphis City Golden Gloves championship.

Brother Dorsey, who also earned a Golden Gloves divisional championship, was successfully helping fill the family coffers becoming a Southern pro champ. So Johnny also went pro and earned his top paycheck of $150 for an encounter with Norris Ray. Contrary to legend, Johnny's nose was not broken only in the ring, but during a nightclub fight as well. And, when Johnny formed The Rock 'N Roll Trio with fellow boxers Dorsey and guitarist Paul Burlison, there were so many nightclub fights that Elvis Presley called the rowdy bunch "The Dalton Gang." Johnny had "retired" boxing for his love of music, proud but poor.

Beginning in 1951, Johnny, Dorsey and Paul began playing together around Memphis in various combinations with other musicians. They soon acquired quite the reputation for wild music and attracted the attention of other young musicians and music fans alike. After a stint at The Hideaway with Doc McQueen's Swing Band, they tired of playing with "chart musicians," and broke away to soon find an appreciative audience for their then-novel fusion of raw country with electric blues boogie and a rockin' new sound. Unable to write music, they sat in a circle and composed some of the greatest early rock songs ever. One such song, brought undeveloped to the Burnettes by George Hawkens became "Rock Billy Boogie" and is credited for having named a vital new genre of music. It's name was inspired by how Johnny's and Dorsey's toddler sons, Rocky and Billy, shook about and wiggled when the trio rehearsed at home. A legend today, the Johnny Burnette Rock 'N Roll Trio had been born into reality.

Not only has the Johnny Burnette Rock 'N Roll Trio been credited with having been a direct influence upon Elvis Presley, The Beatles, The Yardbirds, Jeff Beck, Aerosmith, The Stray Cats, The Cramps and countless others, but during their days of tearin' it up, Johnny Burnette was also instrumental in getting future Rock And Roll Hall Of Famer, Gene Vincent, on Capitol Records. But despite wild shows packed with enthusiastic crowds, national TV shows, and the Alan Freed movie ROCK ROCK ROCK, The Trio only managed regional hits and broke up uncertain they had what it took for a national breakout.

But, of course, the Burnette Brothers weren't about to quit all together. Before Paul Burlison "retired" to his own electrical business, the Burnettes took him into Sun Studio for some "demo" sessions of songs they wanted to take out west. The whole trip west itself was quite the story. Having previously hitched a train back to Memphis from his first unsuccessful trip to Los Angeles, Johnny Burnette and a friend grabbed a boxcar to L.A. Then shortly after their arrival, a "Map To The Stars" put Johnny Burnette at the door of Ozzie and Harriett Nelson's home. The following is from the 1961 bio:

David Nelson walked out of the home Ozzie and Harriet had built, only to be greeted by a stranger who somehow exuded an air of familiarity. The unknown visitor asked Dave, "Where can I find Rick?" Dave studied the fellow, decided that he wasn't just another bothersome fan and answered, "He'll be back soon."

"Soon" was a euphemism for two hours, which the kid spent tensely pacing in front of the Nelson's Cape Cod Colonial house on a dead-end street in Hollywood. Finally, in the company of stunning starlet Lori Collins, Ricky pulled up.

"Hi," the stranger greeted Rick. "My name's Johnny Burnette and I've written some songs I'd like you to hear."

And the kid gave an impromptu rock 'n' roll recital on the lawn of the home of one of the world's most popular singers, with the singer and beautiful young actress as his sole audience.

He dazzled them both, and now knew that he would in time dazzle less demanding listeners.

After he and Dorsey supplied Ricky Nelson with such hits as "Waitin' In School," "Just A Little Too Much," "It's Late," "Long Vacation," and Rick's signature "Believe What You Say," Johnny Burnette had not only written some very credible million-sellers, but he was itching to record some. And to do this, he boldly decided to create a rockin' new sound that employed an entire orchestral string section. Incidently, selling over a million and a half copies upon its release to a rock'n'roll audience, "Believe What You Say" was such a cross-over sensation that it also won the 1958 Country And Western Song Of The Year!



burnette-rock.com

Videos

Lonesome Train


Tear It Up


Hound Dog


You're Sixteen

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3.21 Copyright (C) 2007 Alain Georgette / Copyright (C) 2006 Frantisek Hliva. All rights reserved."

 
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