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Discovering the music of Johnny Burnette is like finishing an Agatha Christie novel only to find the last page was torn out. His seminal music, dating from the mid-Fifties to shortly before his tragic death in 1964, was always that of an artist in transition. Tracing his 8-year career, one can hear Burnette move from rough-edged rockabilly to slickly produced pop. He forged a singularly charming hybrid of those styles, one which is all his own. Sadly, the promise of his potential was so abruptly cut short. An unfinished tale.

From an early age, Johnny Burnette (born March 25, 1934, in Memphis, Tennessee) was fascinated by music. By the time he reached his teens, he would often occupy himself by playing his guitar for hours on end. However, as the Fifties rolled around he got sidetracked into boxing, a career in which his older brother Dorseyhad already experienced some success. Fortunately for music fans, sixty dollars and one broken nose later, Johnny quit the ring and set his sights on the stage.

Contrary to legend, Johnny Burnette did not go to high school with Elvis Presley, nor did he work for Presley's employer, Crown Electric. He mainly worked as a deck hand on barges traversing the Mississippi River. Dorsey, having given up boxing as well, worked on other Mississippi barges, as an oiler. Although they worked separately, each of them would bring his guitar on board and write songs during his spare time. Once back home in Memphis they would perform those and other songs together at local bars, with a varying array of sidemen. Dorsey eventually left the Mississippi behind to work for Crown Electric. Besides meeting Elvis there, he also met Paul Burlison, guitarist for the Memphis Four.

Although it has been reported that Elvis Presley's trio inspired Johnny Burnette to form one, it seems more likely that the opposite was the case, since Burnette formed his trio in 1953. Johnny persuaded Dorsey and Paul Burlison that they should pool their musical forces. The new group, calling itself The Rock And Roll Trio, featured Johnny on lead vocals and guitar, Dorsey on stand-up bass, and Paul Burlison on lead guitar. (Later, record labels would bill them as Johnny Burnette And The Rock And Roll Trio," and after that as "The Johnny Burnette Trio.")

In early 1956, a couple of years after an unsuccessful single on a tiny local label, the trio decided to seek its fortune in New York City. Although legend has it that they went there solely to audition for the "Ted Mack Amateur Hour" TV show, their original reason for heading north was to get new day jobs. Dorsey and Paul had been laid off due to a slowdown of the Memphis economy, and the electricians' union had offered to find them work in New York. One night, while Dorsey was viewing sci-fi fare in a Times Square movie house, Johnny and Paul decided to attend a taping of the "Ted Mack Amateur Hour." Once they took their seats in the audience, they found themselves wishing they were onstage instead. Afterwards, they questioned an usher and were led to a staffer, who told them to attend and audition being held that week. Years later, Paul Burlison recounted the story to Goldmine magazine: "We got to the audition and there was a line going all across the lobby, all the way up a flight of stairs, and all the way down a hall to a door. People coming out said they were booked solid for the next few months and no one would get on 'til after that. 'Okay, boys, you've got six minutes to do your stuff - and out. That's all you've got.' I plugged the guitar and the amp in real fast.' Burlison needn't have worried, for the trio made such an impression on the judges that they were invited to appear on the show the very next week. For the next few months the trio appeared to be living a classic success story. They won on the "Ted Mack Amateur Hour" three weeks in a row, earning them a string of tour dates.

The national publicity from the show made the trio a hot commodity among record labels. The group chose Coral, and they quickly began to record a string of rockabilly classics. These included "Tear It Up," "Oh Baby Babe," and "Honey Hush." One of their most influential recordings was the B-side of "Honey Hush," "The Train Kept A Rollin'," famous for its revolutionary usage of electronic feedback. Although none of the records became national hits, they became favorites among budding rockers, particularly those who would front the British Invasion. A few years later, The Beatles would cover the trio's songs ("Lonesome Tears In My Eyes" and "Honey Hush," in particular) at live gigs and on BBCradio. The early Yardbirdspractically made a career out of covering the trio's songs, with "The Train Kept A Rollin'" and their own rewrite of that song, "Stroll On." Despite the trio's lack of national record sales, they were among the most visible exponents of rock n' roll. They appeared on nearly all the major television shows, including "The Steve Allen Show," "American Bandstand," and "Perry Como's Kraft Music Hall." They also did did a now-legendary performance in disc jockey Alan Freed's film Rock, Rock, Rock, doing "Lonesome Train On A Lonesome Track."

By the fall of 1957 the trio's initial rush of fame had evaporated. Disappointed with Coral's efforts, and tired of playing gig after gig to promote records that weren't selling, the group decided to split. While Burlison chose to settle into domestic life, the Burnettes tried their hands as professional songwriters.

Johnny and his friend Joe Campbell decided to hitch a ride on a railroad boxcar out to Los Angeles. Once there, Joe bought a "Map To The Stars" which gave the location of Ricky Nelson's home. In an effort to get the Burnettes' songs to Ricky, Joe and Johnny decided to sit on the star's steps until they could get an audience with him. Their persistence worked, and Ricky wound up recording several of the Burnettes' songs, including hits like "Believe What You Say" and "It's Late."

Although Johnny was a successful songwriter, he still wanted to be an artist as well. His success with Nelson helped him to get a solo recording deal with Liberty Records' Freedom offshoot label. Between the fall of 1958 and the summer of 1959, he released three singles on Freedom, all unsuccessful. In mid-1959, Freedom shut down and Johnny was moved to the main Liberty label under the direction of producer Snuff Garrett. Since Liberty had more promotional machinery than Freedom, Johnny's Liberty singles stood a greater chance of succeeding.

Unfortunately, all the promotion in the world couldn't help Johnny Burnette's first Liberty single, "Settin' The Woods On Fire." There was no doubting its quality, and it did well in some regional markets, but that initial promise ended when adults heard it and misinterpreted its theme. The song was banned in at least one state out of fears that it would provoke teenagers to commit arson (!).

Johnny Burnette's second Liberty single, "Patrick Henry," did little better than the first. Perhaps the record company would have been wiser to turn the record over and promote the more commercial B-side "Don't Do It." His third Liberty single, "Dreamin'," was the one that made him famous to millions who had never even heard of The Rock And Roll Trio. It reached #11 on Billboard's Hot 100 and in England, did even better, hitting #5 and inspiring future star Freddie Garrity to name his backup band the Dreamers. Although Johnny put a lot of himself into his delivery of the song, its string-laden arrangement seemed a far cry from his rockabilly roots. One might assume that producer Snuff Garrett forced the violins on Johnny, but that wasn't so. As Johnny later explained in a 1961 Armed Forces radio interview, the arrangement was his idea. Rather than marking a new, softer direction, it was meant to simply express a different facet of Johnny's musical personality. Anyone who believed that Johnny's rockin' roots were buried needed only listen to the flip, "Cincinnati Fireball."

The follow-up did even better. "You're Sixteen" broke Johnny Burnette into the Top Ten and earned him a gold record, hitting #8 at the tail end of 1960. In England, it hit #3 and was heard by another future star - Ringo Starr - who made it an international smash once again when he recorded it 13 years later. "You're Sixteen" was penned by Richard and Robert Sherman, a pair of brothers who knew a thing or two about writing for adolescents, as they scored most of Walt Disney's movies throughout the Sixties.

While "You're Sixteen" sat near the top of the charts, Snuff Garrett brought Johnny Burnette into the studio to record the follow-up, "Little Boy Sad." An excellent recording, it combined rock and roll instrumentation with haunting, Bernard Hermann-esque strings. "Little Boy Sad" charted at #17 - not bad, but disappointing, coming on the heels of two smashes. Garrett decided that a change of direction was in order. He recorded "Big, Big World," with Johnny and quickly brought it onto the market. While Garrett can't be faulted for trying, the public was apparently not ready for such a downbeat song from Johnny, and it only reached #58. Confusion exists over the history of Johnny Burnette's next single, "I've Got A Lot Of Things To Do" b/w "Girls." It appears that "Girls" was originally intended as the A-side. "Girls" certainly seems the more commercial of the two, especially for the man who only months before hit with "You're Sixteen." However, it was "I've Got A Lot Of Things To Do" that got the most airplay - perhaps the disc jockeys themselves decided which song to plug. Since "I've Got A Lot Of Things To Do" had only marginal success, one will never know whether "Girls" would have done better if given the chance. England did give it a chance, and it reached #37 there in September 1961.

The Carl Perkins number "Fools Like Me" was supposed to be Johnny Burnette's next single, but it was canceled in favor of "God, Country And My Baby." "Fools Like Me" remained in the can for nearly thirty years, finally emerging in 1989 on the English collection The Best Of Johnny Burnette (Liberty/EMI).

The patriotism of "God, Country And My Baby" clicked with Americans in November 1961. It was the month that President John F. Kennedy moved to increase the number of American advisers in Vietnam from 1,000 to 16,000. "God, Country And My Baby" reached #18 and would be Johnny Burnette's last major American hit.

"Dreamin'" co-author Barry DeVorzon was undoubtedly ecstatic when Johnny Burnette recorded another of his compositions, "Second Chance." However, when the song remained unreleased, Barry gave it a second chance with a group he was producing at the time, The Cascades. It became their first single. (Their second was the classic "Rhythm Of The Rain.") Like "Fools Like Me," Johnny's original version of "Second Chance" remained unreleased until The Best Of Johnny Burnette.

"Clown Shoes" was penned by Texan talent James Marcus Smith, who would later become a superstar in Britain under the name P.J. Proby. Like Proby himself, "Clown Shoes" was to find most of its success only in England, where it hit #35.

"The Fool Of The Year" was written by another future star, David Gates, who would become a founding member of Bread. While the song was musically strong, it did nothing to reverse Johnny Burnette's downward chart trend. In a business where where you are only as good as your last hit, Johnny was having an increasingly difficult time getting heard.

"Damn The Defiant," a Johnny Horton-style naval tale was Johnny Burnette's first self-penned Liberty A-side and his last single for the label. He then switched to Chancellor, the label that had been successful with teen idols like Fabian and Frankie Avalon. In 1963, after three unsuccessful singles, he switched labels once more, this time to Capitol and producer Jim Economides.

On Capitol, Johnny Burnette recaptured the magic that was missing from much of his later Liberty work. His first Capitol single, "It Isn't There," was a dramatically soulful ballad, like the best of Gene Pitney. (In England, where it was the B-side of "All Week Long," it was noticed - and recorded - by the Swinging Blue Jeans.) Other singles were similarly accessible, like "The Opposite," with its witty lyrics and searing guitar solo. Johnny's last Capitol single, his own composition "Sweet Suzie," was ironically a return to his roots: a stunning melange of rockabilly, Chuck Berry riffs and irrepressible teen spirit.

A '90s CD compilation included two Capitol recordings that had never before appeared anywhere: "I Think She Knows" and "It All Depends On Linda." Despite the strong quality of Johnny's Capitol singles, none of them hit.

It would be easy to blame Johnny Burnette's decline in record sales on the British Invasion, which ironically, he helped inspire. The truth is that even before the British Invasion, teen idols had a notoriously short chart lifespan. In 1964 Johnny's only hope for returning to the top was to reinvent himself in a way that would appeal to rock and roll fans in general, not just teens. (He said as much in a recently issued radio interview.) In the summer of that year, when his yearlong Capitol contract ran out, he decided to try to make it once more, but this time on his own terms. He formed a label, Sahara, which would handle not only his own recordings but those of others as well. After years of being directed by others in the music business, Johnny was finally going to call the shots in his career.

Immediately after Sahara released its first Johnny Burnette single, "Fountain Of Love," Johnny was informed that the name Sahara was already taken. He renamed the label Magic Lamp and quickly released a different single, "Bigger Man." Nothing stood in the way of his realizing his dreams as both an artist and a businessman. But before anyone could gauge the chances of "Bigger Man," there came the tragic accident that took Johnny's life.

After dark on August 14, 1964, in Clear Lake, Calif., Johnny Burnette's tiny, unlit fishing boat was rammed by an unaware cabin cruiser. The impact threw him off the boat and he drowned.

During the years following Johnny Burnette's death, a flood of reissues, combined with a host of rockers covering Johnny's songs, saw to it that his name would not be forgotten. The most fitting exponent of his legacy proved to be his own son, Rocky Burnette, who landed a #8 pop hit in 1980 with his rockabilly-inspired "Tired Of Toein' The Line." His cousin, Dorsey's son Billy Burnette also went on to make quite a name for himself, eventually joining Fleetwood Mac in 1987.

Johnny Burnette's music survives because it has beauty, bite, sincerity, and soul - qualities that are even more rare and precious today than they were thirty years ago.

- DAWN EDEN, June 1992



Memphis TN


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