Johnny Burnette Trio

The Johnny Burnette Trio was the name of a rockabilly group which was formed in Memphis, Tennessee during the 1950s. They were also known as "Johnny Burnette and the Rock and Roll Trio" and the "Rock and Roll Trio". The members of the Trio were Dorsey Burnette, his younger brother Johnny, and a friend named Paul Burlison. Dorsey and Johnny Burnette were both natives of Memphis, having been born there in 1932 and 1934 respectively. Paul Burlison had been born in Brownsville, Tennessee in 1929, but had moved to Memphis with his family in 1937. ...show more

The Johnny Burnette Trio was the name of a rockabilly group which was formed in Memphis, Tennessee during the 1950s. They were also known as "Johnny Burnette and the Rock and Roll Trio" and the "Rock and Roll Trio". The members of the Trio were Dorsey Burnette, his younger brother Johnny, and a friend named Paul Burlison. Dorsey and Johnny Burnette were both natives of Memphis, having been born there in 1932 and 1934 respectively. Paul Burlison had been born in Brownsville, Tennessee in 1929, but had moved to Memphis with his family in 1937.

The Brunette brothers were keen amateur boxers and would become Golden Gloves champions. In 1949, Dorsey met Paul Burlison, also a Golden Gloves champion, at an amateur boxing tournament in Memphis. The two became firm friends, and through this friendship Burlison would also meet Johnny Burnette. All three had an interest in music, and in 1951 they began playing together at the hillbilly nightspots on the outskirts of Memphis, both as a trio and as a part of other groups. In these early days, they played a mixture of country and bluegrass, not untainted with cottonpatch blues.

Johnny and Dorsey Burnette were reported to be early performers on the Saturday Night Jamboree, which was a local stage show held every Saturday night at the Goodwyn Institute Auditorium in downtown Memphis in 1953-54. The show was founded by Joe Manuel, who had been a popular Hillbilly radio star of the 1930s and 40s. In 1952 or 1953, they formed a group with Burlison playing lead guitar, Dorsey playing stand-up bass and Johnny playing rhythm guitar and taking the vocal lead. Occasionally they were joined by steel guitarist Albert Vescovo and by fiddler Tommy Seeley. With this line-up and at this time, the group may have been known as the Rhythm Rangers.

A contemporary poster from the Von Theater in Boonville, Tennessee, which advertised The Dixieland Jamboree, puts as the top of the bill, Johnny Burnett & his “Rhythm Rangers” and describes him as A VON Recording Artist from Memphis, Tenn.. Second on this bill is Hayden Thomson and his “Southern Melody Boys”, who are described as Just Back from WSM Nashville Tenn. and Ernest Tubb Jamboree.

The trio together with Tommy Seeley and Albert Vescovo had their first recording session with the Von Theater in Boonville, which booked the Burnettes and other talent from out of town. Hayden Thompson, who also recorded for Von, has asserted that the label was unconnected with the theatre. Music writer Adam Komorowski, however, states that the label owner Sam Thomas had named the label after the theatre. The session was arranged and paid for by Eddie Bond's father, Bill Bond, who wanted to manage the band. The Record Exchanger #26, however, noted that the session was set up and A & R’d by Buddy Bain, a disc-jockey and performer in Corinth, Mississippi. Their first single was “You’re Undecided” backed with Go Mule Go (Von 1006), released under the name Johnny Burnette. It sold fewer that 200 copies. There is some disagreement over the year in which this single was released. The Guinness Book Of Rock Stars suggests that the year was 1953, but other sources suggest 1954, and others suggest November 1955.

The trio were said to have auditioned for Sun Records but were turned down by Sam Phillips, apparently because they sounded too much like Elvis Presley. Whether or not this audition took place, however, remains a matter of dispute. Dorsey Burnette has stated that they recorded a demo session for Sun. He said, “We took Sam Phillips some songs and he turned ‘em down, but they weren’t very good anyway.” In an article for ‘TV Radio Mirror’, Johnny Burnette recalled that he and Dorsey had auditioned for Sun Records and had been chased back onto the street when the fiddler’s bridge broke. No tapes of any such audition have ever been found, although this could be explained by the fact that Sam Phillips was prone to record over tapes. More importantly, however, Burlison later insisted that the group did not audition at Sun at all, and he recalled the incident of the fiddler’s bridge taking place during the recording of Go Mule Go. If they did not, they were one of the few KWEM regulars not to do so. As the trio was only a loose aggregation until 1956, then it is possible that the Burnettes may have auditioned at Sun without Burlison. Sources also vary as to the time of the alleged audition. Some suggest 1954, but others have put it in early 1956, with only Dorsey and Johnny Burnette present.

From 1954 to February 1956, the trio played at the Hideaway Club in Middleton, Tennessee with the Doc MacQueen Swing Band. As well as their work with the band they were to have an intermission spot of their own, and by 1956 the trio had built a strong reputation in and around Memphis. But the earnings from these session did not provide them with enough on which to live, and so all three had daytime jobs. Both Paul Burlison and Dorsey Burnette were working for the Crown Electric Company as journeyman and apprentice electrician respectively, and Johnny held down a number of jobs, including one selling dishes and appliances door to door, another as a repro man and also as a deck hand on barges traversing the Mississippi River. In February/March 1956, Paul Burlison and Dorsey Burnette were laid off from Crown Electric. As they both needed to secure regular pay-cheques, they decided to drive to New York in the hope of gaining jobs there through the electrician’s union.

Paul Burlison was to later recall that “they could not make it alone on what they were being paid on Friday and Saturday nights at the Hideaway. So we thought, until things picked up in Memphis, they would go to New York and work awhile.” After discussing the move with their wives and other family members, the trio drove to New York through one of the worst snowstorms to hit the Northeast in many years. They stopped off briefly in Brownsville in order to inform Doc McQueen of their move. McQueen is reported to have said, “Let me know if you make it big.”

When they arrived in New York, they took rooms in the YMCA. Paul and Dorsey started work as electricians, and Johnny worked in the garment district. They then found out about the Wednesday night auditions for the Ted Mack Original Amateur Hour, and they joined the endless queue of show business hopefuls. Elvis Presley had only hit the big time in late January 1956, and someone in the Mack audition crew thought that the Burnettes and Burlison might reach the same market. So they were given the fast track and appeared on the show, which was networked nationally by ABC. They won three straight appearances in April and May 1956, which gained them a slot on the finalists’ tour in September 1956. A newspaper clip on the day after their third win on the Ted Mack Show referred to them as "the Rock and Roll Boys from Memphis”. No one had seen anything like it. Burlison's stinging lead guitar, with a loose fuse to make for a unique sound, combined with Johnny Burnette's frenetic rockabilly voice and Dorsey's high energy bass sound. The result was a driving musical style that caused television listeners to stop and listen.

Between their second and third appearances, they were spotted by Bill Randle, who was a top rated disc-jockey on WERE, Cleveland. Randle telephoned his friend Henry Jerome, who was a band leader at the Hotel Edison at the time, and he told Jerome to watch the trio’s next appearance on television. Jerome was sufficiently impressed by what he saw that he contacted the Burnettes and Burlison and signed them to a management contract. He got Johnny a daytime job as an elevator operator at the Hotel Edison and moved the trio there from the YMCA. He secured a contract for the trio with GAC (General Artist Corporation) and with the Coral division of Decca Records. Paul Burlison was to say later that he believed that they made a mistake by signing with Coral Records. "Capitol Records was after us, ABC Paramount, Chess and Decca," Burlison remembered. "I wanted to go to Capitol but they said it didn't matter, a hit record would make us rich."

It was at this time that the Burnettes and Burlison formally adopted the name of The Rock and Roll Trio. This was something of a compromise, which was reached after Johnny’s suggestion of the “Burnette Brothers” had been countered by Burlison’s suggestion of the ”Burlison Brothers”. They had already rejected the name, "the Rock and Roll Boys from Memphis”. Jerome also set up a corporation called Pajad (PA-ul, J-ohnny A-nd D-orsey) Enterprises in which the proceeds of their earnings were to be split equally for five years. Jerome placed the boys on salary and he would later cut himself in for composer’s royalties on some of the tunes, working under the pseudonym of “Al Mortimer”.

After signing with Coral, The Rock and Roll Trio were placed with A & R director Bob Thiele, who took them to New York's Pythian Temple for their first recording session. The Pythian Temple was a big, barn-like building with great echo, which was the perfect vehicle for a rockabilly sound. It was here that Bill Haley and the Comets had cut "Rock Around The Clock." It was said at the time that the ghosts of Perry Como, Vic Damone, Al Hibbler and others were etched in the building.

The first session was held on 7 May 1956, and before the session began, Johnny, Dorsey and Paul were surprised to find the 32-piece Dick Jacobs Orchestra sitting in the studio. They were to be paid the union scale of $41.25 each to sit and watch The Rock and Roll Trio perform their original rockabilly tunes. Only the drummer, Eddie Grady, who had his own little group called Eddie Grady and the Commanders, was used on the sessions. The session began with "Shattered Dreams", which was a George Motola tune. The Rock and Roll Trio didn't feel comfortable with it, and the results were considered unsuitable for commercial release. Bob Thiele had, however, listened to the early Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley recordings, and he talked to the boys about creating their own sound. He had decided that a sound awash in “treble” would be the key to success. He told Burlison to turn up the treble on the amp, which created a pinched, stinging tone to Paul's lead guitar. The rest of the session produced four songs, “Midnight Train”, "Tear It Up”, “Oh Baby Babe” and a reprise of the old Von cut “You’re Undecided”.

On May 26, 1956, Coral released the Trio’s first single "Tear It Up" backed with "You're Undecided" (Coral 61651), and they jumped into Dorsey's 1955 Ford for appearances on Dick Clark's American Bandstand, Steve Allen's Tonight Show and Perry Como's Kraft Music Hall. They were on their way as a touring act and ready to bring rockabilly into American homes. The record sold strongly in many markets, becoming a hit in Boston and Baltimore, but it failed to make the national charts. With only one single left in the can, Coral rushed the Trio back into the studio, but this time it was to be in Owen Bradley’s Studio at 804 16th Avenue South, Nashville, Tennessee.

The session began on July 2, 1956, and The Rock and Roll Trio gathered along with session musician Buddy Harman, Jr., on drums. Paul Burlison had found a 78 record of Tiny Bradshaw's "Train Kept A-Rollin'" in a Nashville record store, and they cut this song to inaugurate the session. Paul Burlison later remarked, "When I heard the record I didn't feel it the way that Bradshaw did." The results were stunning as Burlison used a hard driving introduction to the tune which gave it a rough, raw edge. Next, they cut their version of the Delmore Brothers' "Blues Stay Away From Me," followed by a cover of Fats Domino's "All By Myself". Finally they cut a version of Sticks McGhee's "Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee" to complete their first Nashville recording date.

The following day, July 3, 1956, they returned to the studio and cut "Chains of Love," followed by a cover of Joe Turner's "Honey Hush". They finished the day by cutting two originals, "Lonesome Tears In My Eyes" and "I Just Found Out." As well as using Buddy Harman on drums, Owen Bradley added piano to these cuts, playing the instrument himself. With wild parties said to be raging outside, on July 4, 1956, The Rock and Roll Trio showed up to Bradley's Studio to finish their Nashville sessions. With only Buddy Harman on drums as the extra musician, the Trio began by recording two versions of Fats Domino's "Please Don't Leave Me," followed by "Rock Therapy," and an original "Rock Billy Boogie." At the end of the day, Owen Bradley sent the boys home and suggested they come back the next day for the final cuts. With monumental hangovers and an agitated presence, The Rock and Roll Trio showed up on July 5, 1956. They cut two versions of "Lonesome Train (On A Lonesome Track)," followed by "Sweet Love On My Mind," "My Love, You're A Stranger," two versions of "I Love You So", and they concluded with a Rock and Roll Trio original "Your Baby Blue Eyes." For this last day, as well as Buddy Harman on drums, Owen Bradley again played piano and Thomas Grady Martin played rhythm guitar, and the Anita Kerr singers supplied backing vocals on "Chains of Love." Johnny Burnette is said to have joked that Elvis had cut his first sessions for Sam Phillips at Sun Records on July 4, exactly two years earlier, and this intensified the recording atmosphere.

These sessions were judged to have been enormously successful, and on August 4, 1956, Coral released a second single: "Midnight Train" backed with "Oh, Baby Babe" (Coral 61675). This again failed to make the national charts, and without a hit record, the trio needed to play live dates in order to promote themselves and more particularly to earn money. During the summer of 1956, they toured with Ted Mack’s Touring show and with Carl Perkins and Gene Vincent. On September 9, 1956, they appeared on the final of the Ted Mack Original Amateur Hour at Madison Square Garden, where amongst other songs, they played “Tear It Up” and “Hound Dog". As a result of this appearance, on October 13, 1956, Coral issued their third single, "The Train Kept A-Rollin’ " backed with "Honey Hush" (Coral 616719), but again, it failed make the national charts.

Having used a drummer on their Nashville recording sessions, it was decided to add a drummer to their lineup. When the Trio told Carl Perkins that they were looking for a drummer, Perkins recommended his cousin Tony Austin, who had played a few dates with him around their hometown of Jackson, Tennessee before he had recruited W. S. Holland. Following Perkins’ recommendation, the Burnettes swung through to pick him up, and Austin became part of the group.

After Austin was hired, Henry Jerome started billing the group as Johnny Burnette and the Rock and Roll Trio on live dates. This name was used on their first two singles, and on their third single they were known as The Johnny Burnette Trio. Dorsey was incensed by this as he had taken the lead on a few songs, including "Sweet Love On My Mind". He wanted to retain the more democratic name “Rock and Roll Trio” despite the fact that the group was now a quartet. The band was constantly on the road, completing what seemed to be an endless stream of one night stands in order to cover their living expenses. This exhausting regime led to squabbles, which were exacerbated by lack of chart success. These squabbles finally came to a head at a gig in Niagara Falls in the Fall of 1956, where, after a fight, Dorsey quit the group and handed back his band uniform. This happened a week before the Trio were due to appear in Alan Freed’s movie Rock, Rock, Rock.

Burlison and Johnny Burnette hastily recruited Johnny Black, the brother of Elvis’s bassist Bill Black as a replacement for Dorsey, and his uniform was cut down to Johnny Black’s size. The remains of Pajad Corp. bought Black an acoustic bass and placed him on salary. He joined the group in time to be filmed in their spot in the movie, where they played Lonesome Train (On A Lonesome Track). To coincide with the release of the film, a fourth Coral single "Lonesome Train (On A Lonesome Track)" backed with "I Just Found Out" (Coral 61758) was released on January 5, 1957 under the name of the Johnny Burnette Trio, but, like the group’s earlier releases, it failed to chart.

In the meantime, Dorsey returned to Memphis and found himself a lead guitarist and a bassist whilst he switched to rhythm guitar and vocals. Calling themselves Dorsey Burnette and the Rock and Roll Trio, they briefly toured the South before calling it quits.

Despite their earlier failures, Coral still seemed to have faith in the commercial future of The Rock and Roll Trio, even with their revamped line-up. On March 22, 1957 they organized what was to be the Trio’s last recording session at the Bradley Studio in Nashville, Tennessee. On this occasion, however, the identity of the personnel involved is open to question. Adam Komorowski has stated that despite the split, Dorsey was forced to attend this session because of contractual obligations. According to the discography used by Colin Escott of Showtime Magazine, Dorsey, Johnny and Paul took part in this session.

French researchers Gilles Vignal and Marc Alesina, however, have produced a discography which has only Johnny Burnette present at the session. According to them, Burnette played acoustic guitar and sang vocals, whilst Thomas Grady Martin played electric guitar, Bob L. Moore played string bass and Buddy Harman was on drums. On this session, four tracks, "Touch Me", "If You Want Enough", "Butterfingers" and "Eager Beaver Baby" were cut. Taking a cue from Elvis and the Jordanaires, Owen Bradley lined up a vocal group for two tracks: "Butterfingers" and "If You Want It Enough". Following the session Johnny and the Trio toured with Gene Vincent, and in published snapshots, only Johnny Burnette, Paul Burlison and Johnny Black appear with Gene Vincent.

On May 20, 1957, Coral released a fifth single, "Eager Beaver Baby" backed with "Touch Me" (Coral 61829), and on September 2, 1957 they released a sixth single "Drinking Wine, Spo-Dee-O-Dee" backed with "Butterfingers" (Coral 61869). In both cases, these singles were released under the name of Johnny Burnette, but neither of these releases had any chart success. Also in 1957, Coral released a 10” LP, which was entitled “Johnny Burnette and the Rock and Roll Trio" (Coral CRL 57080). Curiously it did not include their first single “Tear It Up”.

By the Fall of 1957, the Trio had become dispirited by this lack of success, and they were tiring of the endless one-nighters, so they decided to split up. A seventh single, "If You Want It Enough" backed with "Rock Billy Boogie" (Coral 61918) was released on December 16, 1957, under the name of Johnny Burnette, but by that time, The Rock and Roll Trio was no more. The Burnette Brothers decided to move to California and try their luck there. Paul Burlison joined them there briefly but decided to return to Memphis and retire from the music business. Had the Burnettes decided to follow Burlison’s example, then The Rock and Roll Trio may well have become just another forgotten 1950s group.

The Burnette Brothers success as songwriters in 1958 and 1959 and their individual, but varying, degrees of success in 1960 and 1961 as solo artists helped to keep the group’s memory alive. This success was to lead to one more single record release by Coral. In April 1960, following Johnny Burnette’s success on Liberty Records as a solo artist, Coral released “Blues Stay Away From Me” backed with “Midnight Train” (Coral 62190), under the name Johnny and Dorsey Burnette. This record, like its predecessors, however, failed to chart.

With the rise to fame in the 1960s of groups like the The Beatles and The Yardbirds, with their professed admiration for The Rock and Roll Trio, interest in the group was rekindled. The Beatles would cover the trio’s songs (Lonesome Tears In My Eyes and Honey Hush in particular) at live gigs and on BBC radio. The Yardbirds, when Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page were part of the lineup, were said to have practically made a career out of covering the Trio’s songs, particularly with “The Train Kept A Rollin” and their own rewrite of that song, “Stroll On”. “Stroll On” was featured in the 1966 Michelangelo Antonioni film “Blow Up”, which starred David Hemmings.

British pirate radio DJ Mike Raven heavily plugged the Trio’s original 1957 LP, and this prompted Decca to reissue it as a 12” LP in Britain on their budget Ace of Hearts label in 1966. Around 1970, a second LP entitled “Tear It Up”, which contained much of their unreleased material from 1956/7, was also released.

Johnny Burnette died in a boating accident in August 1964, while Dorsey continued to write songs and remained successful in this field. He also continued performing and reached the US country chart with 15 minor hits during the 1970s, before he too died of a heart attack in August 1979.

Dorsey’s death may well have prompted Paul Burlison to return to the music scene in the 1980s, first with Johnny Black and Tony Austin in a recreation of The Rock and Roll Trio. In 1997, he cut his first ever solo LP “Train Kept A-Rollin” on Sweetfish Records as a tribute to The Rock and Roll Trio. The LP contained eleven tracks, three of which, "Train Kept A-Rollin'", "Lonesome Tears in My Eyes", and "Lonesome Train (on a Lonesome Track)", had been featured on The Rock and Roll Trio’s original 1957 album. Among the backing musicians were Rocky Burnette (Johnny’s son) and Billy Burnette (Dorsey’s son).

When asked about his post-Trio relationship with the Burnette Brothers, Paul Burlison made the following comments, “A year after I did that short tour with Johnny, I was working on my car one day and my wife called me to the phone. It was Dorsey and he told me that Johnny was missing out on a lake near San Francisco. He asked me to come out there and I left on the midnight flight. …….. We hadn’t been too close since all the trouble, although Johnny and I had been real close. After that there wasn’t two weeks went by that Dorsey and I didn’t talk to each other until his death in 1979.”

Paul Burlison died on September 27, 2003 in Horn Lake, Mississippi after a long battle with cancer. The pioneering contribution to the genre by all three of the original members of The Rock and Roll Trio has been recognized by the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.

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