Surely the greatest rock and roll story, rarely, told? Johnny Burnette Trio The Legendary Johnny Burnette Rock n Roll Trio. To pinch from the sleeve notes,
Johnny graduated from high school in 1951 and apart from a short career on the Mississippi barges (for which he lost his enthusiasm when a colleague lost a leg in an accident) got by on a mixture of singing and boxing.
Yup, this here’s man stuff. A tale of three wide-eyed shitkicking Memphis natives, friends of Elvis*, all three of whom were Golden Gloves champions (Dorsey Burnette met Paul Burlison waiting for their respective bouts to start at a boxing match), two of whom were electricians**, who tore it up, ripped the world a new one and split. In the process of which in 6 recording sessions in an eight month span between May 1956 and March 1957, laid down 25 tracks amongst which are 5 all-time rockabilly classics, but never hit the big time and ended up song writers for Ricky Nelson before Johnny’s untimely death by drowning in 1964.
These guys were gospel hounds and blues lovers when that really wasn’t an accepted, or safe, thing for white men to be. Paul Burlison used to play bass with Howlin’ Wolf in 1951, uncredited of course, it wasn’t racially acceptable to be otherwise. In these recordings I really think you can hear the melding of accelerated Hank Williams with all those exciting black jump-jive and blues rhythms, you really can hear white rock and roll being born. The Sun Studios sound looms large too, Johnny Cash was a dish salesman with Johnny Burnette for a spell and Carl Perkins’ echoing sound is present too – his cousin Tony Austin drummed with the Trio later on. Ironically Sam Phillips of Sun Records turned them down for a contract for sounding too much like Elvis – the closest they got was ‘You’re Undecided’ and even then I think there’s a country twang there that sets them apart.
My compilation is a 1984 effort on Charly Records, with great, detailed sleeve notes marred by an appalling 1980’s cover design which reminds me of Elvis Costello Get Happy! Yup, the cover is that pants. But you know what? who cares when the content is this good. I’ve compressed the classics right here for your delectation:
The first three tracks in particular are just amazing, they just crackle with electricity^ and febrile, thuggish power, contrast them with anything else around at the time and they win out hands down^^. This despite two of them being covers, Big Joe Turner’s ‘Honey Hush’ and Tiny Bradshaw’s ‘Train Kept A-Rollin’, the Trio ace them, transform them and rock them on up. I love ‘Honey Hush’ and here they transform Turner’s avuncular, rollicking, free-wheeling original into a pretty darn menacing dismissal, skipping the threats of violence, you just gotta love the line,
Come in this house, stop all that yakkety yak (x2)
Come fix my supper, don’t want no talkin’ back
(Checks to see if Mrs 1537 is reading over his shoulder) obviously I run my house on similar lines.
Even better to my mind is ‘Train Kept A-Rollin’ which they turn from a jump jive to a straight-up amphetamine rocker, bear in mind that the Yardbirds version was a cover of the Johnny Burnette version, the Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith versions were covers of the Yardbirds one too. Greatness begats greatness. It honestly only dawned on me about a year ago that this song probably isn’t really about trains and that it’s actually about, well, you know, doing it, with a lady. True story. It’s arguable that this recording by the Trio is the first ever instance of distorted guitar being recorded, yup right there on 2 July 1956 is the roots of everything that I love. Legend has it that a tube was dislodged and/or cracked in Paul Burlison’s amp on the way over to the studio. If this doesn’t make you want to get a bit frisky next time you’re on a train then I’m afraid there’s simply no hope for you; N.B 1537 does not accept any liability for personal injury and/or damages caused by any of you deranged maniacs out there actually getting frisky with a train.
I’d argue however that their original ‘Rockabilly Boogie’ is even better. I copped this track years ago on a cover disc and got obsessed with it, to the point where it rapidly became the most played song on my iTunes (Goddamn right I keep a close eye on that sort of thing!) and is the reason I sought out The Legendary Johnny Burnette Rock n Roll Trio in 2006. It’s either a primal slice of rockabillygreatnessous (copyright 1537) or it just sets of something primal in my loins and makes me twitch in a very non-becoming way,
Well there’s little ol’ Suzie, turnin’ seventeen
Well everybody knows her as a rockabilly queen
And there’s ol’ Slim, as quiet as a mouse
He grabs ol’ Suzie, they’ll tear up the house
Have I convinced you yet? well try out their very own Elvis-equalling ‘Tear it Up’, their version of ‘Drinkin’ Wine Spo-dee-o-dee’*^ and the joyous ‘All By Myself’ (Well, I got a girl who’s six feet tall / Sleeps in the kitchen with her feet in the hall). Best of the non-rockers though is the brilliant, atmospheric murder ballad, ‘Midnight Train’, listen to it – there’s a whole Tarantino film right there. Need more? check out the seriously weird ‘Touch Me’, I can either hear the Cramps going at that one full throttle, or a husky female singer slowing it all right down all velvety and, umm, sorry back in the room.
Despite issuing one of the all-time rock and roll singles ever ‘Train Kept a-Rollin’ / ‘Honey Hush’ they never made more than a few ripples – 1950’s America WHAT WAS WRONG WITH YOU?!! they split, got back together, split and the Burnette brothers ended up writing pop songs for Ricky Nelson and living in LA, their real legacy wasn’t to surface until much later, arguably with the English invasion’s adoption of their energised, electric thuggery. There’s a damn good film in here somewhere.
Anyone fancy making ‘The Johnny Burnette Trio’ story with me? I’m sure I can knock up a script, given a few weeks, but I may need some help with the everything-else-bit.
Bonus genius for you;
*possibly schoolmates, there are some conflicting views, Mr P was two years older anyway. Dorsey certainly showed him a thing or two on the guitar.
**not quite sure of the relevance, but thought I’d chuck it in to show off the depth of my research.
^^Little Richard excepted, because he was sent to us from God/space/an alternate dimension to lead us straight into the future. I don’t have the words, I just don’t.
*^actually a sanitized version in the Stick McGhee original as performed live, the chorus was ‘Drinkin wine motherfucker’, not ‘Drinkin wine spo-de-o-dee’. True.