Obituaries

Sonny Burgess, rockabilly wild man, is dead at 88

In 2009, rockabilly musician Sonny Burgess (right) jammed with Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe. His first and most popular songs were released in 1956.

Mike Wintroath/Associated Press/File

In 2009, rockabilly musician Sonny Burgess (right) jammed with Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe. His first and most popular songs were released in 1956.

NEW YORK — Sonny Burgess, a rockabilly singer whose hollering vocal style and frantic, jangling guitar made him one of the most electrifying stars in the Sun Records galaxy in the 1950s, died Aug. 18 in Little Rock, Ark. He was 88.

The cause was complications of a fall, his son, John, said.

Advertisement

Mr. Burgess, the lead singer and guitarist for the Pacers, recorded only a half-dozen singles for Sun, the storied label founded by Sam Phillips in Memphis, and none of them made the charts. But they were enough to cement his reputation as the Arkansas Wild Man, a full-tilt rocker capable of whipping audiences into a frenzy.

His first and most popular songs, “Red Headed Woman” and its flip side, “We Wanna Boogie,” released in 1956, delivered a straight shot of full-tilt rockabilly, with manic instrumental solos behind Mr. Burgess’s growling vocals, punctuated by whoops and shrieks and growls.

Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
The day's top stories delivered every morning.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

“Out to the dance hall, cut a little rug/We’re runnin’ like wildfire, and hittin’ that jug,” he shouted on “We Wanna Boogie,” en route to an all-out assault on his guitar.

“Here was total abandon: coarse, untutored singing; unintelligible lyrics; ragged drumming; distorted guitar, backed by a wildly bleating trumpet,” Colin Escott wrote in “Roadkill on the Three-Chord Highway: Art and Trash in American Popular Music” (2002). “It was punk before punk, thrash before thrash.”

The record was said to have sold nearly 100,000 copies, but Mr. Burgess, who wrote both songs, was unable to capitalize on its success. His later releases for Sun went nowhere, and after leaving the label in 1959 he scratched out a living playing bass with country singer Conway Twitty and performing with a variety of groups, including the Legendary Pacers, a reconfigured version of the original group.

Advertisement

Rediscovered by European fans, Mr. Burgess enjoyed a resurgence in the 1990s, recording albums with Dave Alvin of the Blasters and Gary Tallent of the E Street Band. In 1999 he was admitted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, which called his Sun records “among the most raucous, energy-filled recordings released during the first flowering of rock ’n’ roll.”

Albert Austin Burgess was born on May 28, 1929, near Newport, Ark., about 60 miles west of Memphis. His parents, Albert Austin and the former Esta Parsley, ran a cotton and soybean farm.

After graduating from high school, he spent two years in baseball’s minor leagues but could not hit a curveball. Giving up on a baseball career, he formed a country band, the Rocky Road Ramblers, with three friends.

He served in the Army during the Korean War, stationed in West Germany with the military police. On his return to Arkansas, he reorganized the Ramblers into the Moonlighters, taking the name from the Silver Moon Club in Newport, where the group often played.

Mr. Burgess, a fan of blues singers Jimmy Reed and Big Joe Turner, performed a mix of rhythm and blues and old standards, but in 1955 the group changed its sound after opening for Elvis Presley on four dates.

“We heard Elvis and said, ‘Man, I want to go to Memphis and record and be like that,’ ” Mr. Burgess told Kicks magazine in 1988.

Presley, in turn, liked the group’s version of Smiley Lewis’s “One Night of Sin,” which he recorded in 1958 as “One Night.”

Adding a second guitar and trumpet and taking a new name, the Pacers, the group began recording at Sun with Phillips, who encouraged Mr. Burgess to coarsen his vocal style and let loose, which he did, on the Sun singles “Thunderbird,” “Ain’t Got a Thing,” “My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It,” and “Sadie’s Back in Town.”

“Maybe Sonny’s sound was too raw, I don’t know — but I tell you this,” Mr. Phillips said in an interview for a boxed set of Sun recordings. “They were pure rock ’n’ roll.”

In performance, the Pacers lived up to their sound. Inspired by Freddie Bell and the Bellboys, whose stage antics had enlivened Bill Haley and the Comets’ movie “Rock Around the Clock,” they did splits and back flips onstage, formed a human pyramid, and threw themselves into the audience at the end of every performance.

“The bug dance was real big with us,” Mr. Burgess told Kicks. “I’d throw a ‘bug’ at one of the guys, he’d start itchin’ and goin’ crazy, then he’d throw it on somebody else and we’d throw it all around the audience and get them all tied up in it.”

After touring with Twitty, Mr. Burgess formed a new group, the King’s IV, but in 1972 he left the music business to become a traveling salesman for St. Louis Trimming, a sewing-supply company.

In the mid-1980s he joined with former musicians from the Sun label to form the Sun Rhythm Section. He later recorded the solo albums “Tennessee Border” with Alvin and “Sonny Burgess” with Tallent.

With June Taylor, he was the host of “We Wanna Boogie,” a Sunday night show on KASU, the radio station of Arkansas State University, in Jonesboro.

In addition to his son, he leaves a sister, Ann Heath.

Mr. Burgess welcomed the accolades and late-life acclaim but took a modest view of his role as a rockabilly pioneer. Speaking to Escott, he said, “It wasn’t super-good music, but it felt good to us.”

Loading comments...
Real journalists. Real journalism. Subscribe to The Boston Globe today.