Of the many legendary artists that Sun Records spawned in the 1950s, arguably its wildest was Rockabilly legend Sonny Burgess. With his band The Pacers, their performances went off the Richter scale in sheer energy and wild abandon, making even “The Wild Man” himself (and fellow Sun Records artist) Jerry Lee Lewis look tame by comparison. In total, the band had five hit singles on Sun Records, one of which has been voted one of The Wildest Records Ever Recorded, ‘Red-Headed Woman’ b/w ‘We Wanna Boogie.’
Today, sixty years after the band first formed in Newport Arkansas, Sonny Burgess & The Pacers are recognized worldwide as one of the true pioneers of rock and roll. On June 12th, Sonny Burgess and The Pacers will be taking center stage at the Ink & Iron Festival, ready to show the audience at Long Beach’s Queen Mary that they are every bit as exciting and spontaneous as they were in their heyday of the “Fabulous Fifties.”
This month, the man whom none other than Bruce Springsteen himself declared “One of the most exciting artists I’ve ever shared a stage with” Sonny Burgess took a quick break from his hectic schedule to sit down for a chat with The Los Angeles Beat:
For anyone who has never heard your music, how would you describe your sound and your musical philosophy?
Well, it’s two things. I’ve always wanted a band like Big Joe Turner’s, with the horns. But on the other side, I’ve always wanted to be Ray Price. I could listen to everything he ever recorded!
Sonny, your music began in the 1950s, yet it continues to garner such a devoted audience of listeners. Why do you think that’s so?
Well, part of that reason is that we’re still playing. We don’t play anything much other than what we used to play. In America, we get the older people. However, in Europe we get the young people because they’re just discovering the good times we had back in the 1950s and early 1960s. They’ve never heard it before. I think people like to go back to “the good old days.” You can say what you want to, but those really were the good old days! We didn’t know any better. We were poor folk. Most of the musicians I knew and still know are poor folk.
Back then, you didn’t have a TV to tell you that you were in bad shape. You didn’t have a newspaper every day to tell you just how bad things were. So you just lived for the moment, and they were good moments. You had the music going on Friday and Saturday nights, when all people would come out and get drunk, dance and party and have a big time! There were very few fights. You’d think that most of the time they’d be fighting, but there were very few fights in most of those clubs back then.
There’s an old saying, “The Blues had a baby and they named it rock & roll.” You began your music at a pivotal time when rock & roll was still in its infancy. At that time a variety of musical genres- R&B, “Hillbilly”, etc.- were just merging to create what’s come to be known as rock & roll. What are your strongest memories of that event unfolding?
I think it was more Rhythm & Blues mixed in with Hillbilly music that really created rock & roll. Not so much Blues as Rhythm & Blues, which was a super music!
We were doing Country music in Arkansas, playing the clubs. It was mostly all Country music, but I really enjoyed Big Joe Turner. He’s one of the best artists who ever lived, but he never gets recognition. Jimmy Reed is another one that never gets the recognition that he should. The thing I best remember is the “Dance music.” The music produced then was great to dance to, so naturally I leaned toward that. We started playing some of that in our performances in those small clubs, mixing it up with the Country and Hillbilly music that we played.
You’ve been quoted as saying, “Everything changed when Elvis came along.”
When Elvis came along they’d never seen anything like him! He took Country and Hillbilly music and brought it way up above where it was. He was the ‘guiding light’ that changed the whole world of music! He kinda blew everybody’s mind; everybody wanted to be like Elvis. I wanted to play like Scotty Moore and sing like Elvis. I knew I didn’t look like Elvis, ‘cause he was pretty! That’s what Carl Perkins used to say about him! Carl told me, “Hell, he (Elvis) was so pretty that I wanted to kiss him every time I seen him!” I don’t know what he had, but I wanted to package it! If I could find a young artist today who had it, that would be great!
Then Jerry Lee comes along and goes into the Gospel and Rhythm & Blues; that changes the music. Then The Beatles come along in 1964 with ‘the British Invasion’; that once again changes the music. Then Michael Jackson comes along and he too changes the music. Then the rappers come along. Now it looks like we’re going into the ‘British Invasion’ once again after the recent Grammy Awards. There were a lot of British folks there.
Yes there were, and it looked like Sir Paul McCartney was kinda “holding court” as he smiled like a proud father.
Yeah, while he was counting all of his money, lol!
Sonny, you’re unquestionably one of rock & roll’s earliest architects, and your band have been inducted into The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Europe, as well as The Rockabilly Hall of Fame In Jackson, Tenn. You’ve been eligible for induction into the American Rock & Roll Hall of Fame since 1981, yet you still await induction. Do you have any idea why the American Hall has neglected to bestow this well earned honor upon you and your band?
Well, they’ve failed to bestow that honor on a lot of folks who should be in there! Maybe we didn’t sell enough records. It would be nice if they’d do it before I die, but I’m not gonna lose any sleep over it, lol.
When I interviewed the late Ian McLagan, he said something that I’ve repeatedly heard from other artists; especially British artists. He stated that the music that really caught him “on fire”, really ignited his strongest passions in music, was the music that he heard coming out of the Southern United States. Sonny, why do you think that was happening and would you agree that the “roots” of rock are firmly embedded in America’s Southern culture, and why?
Well, not all of the good bands came out of the South! There’s a lot of good bands from up North and all them good musicians! In Europe , all they heard up until about 1970 were whatever imports that they could get. Then all of a sudden, they started getting all this Sun Records Southern music. So I don’t really know, but thank goodness for Europe and Japan, Australia, South America and all those places! They’re keepin’ us alive!
They love ya, Sonny!
Well, they do in some places! Back in the fifties, we played California a lot because we’d open for Johnny Cash. We’d tour with Johnny Cash: Johnny, Luther and Marshall. We’d also have other popular Southern California artists on the same bill, like Johnny and Joanie Mosby. We used to stay at their house; we’d come out there with Cash. We’d all hit LA, then San Diego. We did ‘Townhall Party’ lots of times with Cash.
Then we’d go on up the coast into Oregon; not the major cities like Portland but into the “lumber towns” off the beaten path. Luther (Perkins) and Marshall (Grant) would tell stories about what happened to them on tour there, lol. Luther told me, “Those lumberjacks got made at Cash, and they was tryin’ to turn our Cadillac over!” Luther said, “I got our mic stand out, rolled the window down, pushed it out the window and was hittin’ their hands with it ’cause they was tryin’ to turn us over!”
Oh my god, that’s too funny!
With all the various changes that it’s experienced in over half a century, rock & roll has defied its earliest naysayers who declared that it was only a “passing fad.” What is it about rock & roll that has elevated and sustained it for over half a century as one of the world’s favorite musical genres?
I think it’s because it makes you feel good; makes you wanna dance! When you’re dancing you usually feel pretty good. I think that’s primarily the reason: it’s just ‘ feel good’ music!
Sonny Burgess and The Pacers were inducted into the Rockabilly Hall Of Fame in Jackson, Tennessee in 2002. The Rock and Soul Museum in Memphis features a section on The Pacers. They have played all over the world, including the Lincoln Center in New York, the Library of Congress and the Kennedy Center in Washington DC. They will be one of the featured performers for this year’s Link & Iron Festival, on the Queen Mary in Long Beach. For an exciting evening of Classic rock, dancing and more, be sure to join Sonny Burgess and The Legendary Pacers in concert there on Friday, June 12th.
Photo of ‘The Tennessee Three’ courtesy of Oregon Music News. All other photos are courtesy of Sonny Burgess/The Official Sonny Burgess and The Legendary Pacers Website. All photos copyright 2015.