THE CLASSIC ROCKABILLY SOUNDS of Johnny and Dorsey Burnette and Paul Burlison set a standard that few could match. The Rock N Roll Trio, as the band was known, comprised a strange mixture of musical influences and headstrong personalities. They lit up the stage three times in New York winning the Ted Mack Original Amateur Hour and touring with Mack's traveling stage show. They also played a prestigious concert at new York's Madison Square Garden as part of their reward. The Rock N Roll Trio never went on to stardom and lasted less than two years as a recording unit. Yet, they had a strong influence upon the burgeoning rock 'n' roll world.
By fusing country music, the blues and rhythm and blues music into a hybrid known as rockabilly, the Rock N roll Trio helped to give birth to a new musical style. The atmosphere in and around Memphis was conducive to small rockabilly groups and they sprung up overnight. "Mostly rockabilly music was the feeling that came from the blues," Burlison remembered. He considered his early playing country music with a beat. "I combined some jazz and blues influences and never thought much about it," Burlison concluded.
The birth of the Rock N Roll Trio lies in the career of Paul Burlison. He was born in Brownsville, Tennessee on February 4, 1929. Burlison remembered: "Everybody in the family worked, everybody. We went to the fields as soon as we got big enough to work, to chop cotton . . ." The miserable economic conditions prompted the Burlison family to move to Memphis during the flood of 1937.
The following year, Burlison learned to play guitar from his brother-in-law, Earl Brooks. He would walk over to Brooks' house at 283 Cynthia where he was slowly learning to play a country influenced guitar, and then he would go to 587 Pontotoc to watch Jesse Lee and Juanita Denson play their guitars. The blues, rhythm and blues and offbeat music was part of the Denson family guitar tradition and Burlison took advantage of this eclectic atmosphere. All of these influences coalesced in Burlison's guitar direction. He loved the guitar and after Paul learned to play, he eventually looked for places to practice his new found craft.
Paul with the Fabulous Thunderbirds and Fleetwood Mac founders.
Burlison was into music at a young age. He would wander down to Beale Street and in wide eyed anticipation watch the street corner musicians and listen from outside of the clubs to the music in the raucous blues joints. Then he got a license and would drive his car to the outskirts of West Memphis, Arkansas. Paul would find out where Howlin' Wolf was playing. Burlison would walk in the back door of a juke joint with his guitar in hand and stand in the corner. Chester Burnett, the Howlin' Wolf, would call him on stage and they would jam into the night.
Because he was a big, raw boned kid, no one knew that Paul was still a high school student. He had shaved since the eighth grade and was a handsome, mature looking young man. Paul fooled a lot of people because he had built an electric guitar in his garage by taping a telephone pickup to his acoustic guitar.
Burlison dropped out of high school, joined the Navy and was discharged in 1949. He returned to Memphis and began playing in nondescript hillbilly bands. One of these early groups secured a fifteen minute show on radio station KWEM in West Memphis, Arkansas. The time slot was adjacent to Howlin' Wolf's and the music quickly became a curious blend of blues, country and rockabilly music.
At a small club on 17th Street, Paul would sit in with Willie Johnson and play different kinds of music. He had other interests and soon found the Dave Wells Community Center where he learned to box. His teacher, Jim Denson, introduced Paul to another boxer who was also a fledgling singer, Dorsey Burnette.
Eventually, Paul met Dorsey's brother, Johnny, and they discovered that they all had common musical interests. Jesse Lee Denson played guitar with the boys and young Jesse taught them some guitar licks. Not only were the Burnette's and Burlison musically adept, but they began attracting like minded young musicians.
Soon a new young kid from Hurt Village showed up to join the band. When Red West began riding the bus to the Burnette's house, he hoped to join the band as a horn player. This began Red West's musical career, and, at this early stage, he already displayed a penchant for songwriting. Paul Burlison was impressed with Red West's musical ability but the Burnette brothers were interested in his songwriting skills.
The Burnette's continually asked Paul about his musical background. When Johnny and Dorsey pressed Paul for information about his music, he told the brothers that he had played in a number of country bands. Dorsey remembered that he had heard Paul on the radio. Soon they were discussing how to form a band. They had no idea how to enter the music business, so they talked at length about music every day at work.
Dorsey and Paul worked at Crown Electric and spent their lunch hour practicing hillbilly tunes. Johnny Burnette was selling plates door to door with a young fledgling singer, Johnny Cash and he continually talked about music. When the Burnette's approached Burlison about forming a group, Johnny and Dorsey confessed that they had played with little success in a number of small bands playing in and around Memphis.
In 1951 and 1952 the Burnette's and Burlison played around Memphis and established a reputation for wild music. They played with Doc McQueen's Swing Band at the Hideaway Club but hated the type of music played by "chart musicians." Soon they broke away and began playing their energetic brand of rockabilly to small, but appreciative, local audiences. They wrote "Rock Billy Boogie," while working at the Hideaway. "If you listen to 'Rock Billy Boogie,' "Burlison remarked, "you can hear us singing about the Hideaway Club."
By 1956 the Rock N Roll Trio had built a strong reputation in and around Memphis and they decided to drive to New York to audition for the Ted Mack Amateur Hour. They were laid off from work at Crown Electric and had some money saved. "Hell, if Elvis can make it," Johnny told Jim Denson, "we sure as hell can get a hit record."
Contrary to the popular myth, they were not a group of amateur musicians who appeared in New York hoping to audition for Ted Mack's Amateur hour. The truth is that the Burnette brothers and Paul Burlison had already recorded and played a number of professional musical dates; they were far from starry eyed beginners hoping to break into show business.
In April and May, 1956, the Rock N Roll Trio brought down the house with three electrifying rockabilly performances. They won the Ted Mack Amateur show all three times and this guaranteed them a finalist position in the September supershow. 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.
Because of their success on the Ted Mack Amateur Hour, the Rock N Roll Trio negotiated a recording contract. Paul burlison believes that they made a mistake 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."
Paul in New Orleans, May 1, 2002
After coral signed the Rock N Roll Trio, they were taken to New York's Pythian Temple where Bill Haley and the Comets had cut "Rock Around The Clock." It was a big, barnlike building with great echo. The perfect vehicle for a rockabilly sound. The ghost of Perry Como, Vic Damone, Al Hibbler and others was etched in the building.
That first session was magic as five tunes were recorded on May 7, 1956. Before the sessions began, Johnny Dorsey and Paul were surprised to find the 3 piece Dick Jacobs Orchestra sitting in the studio. They were paid union scale of $41.25 each to sit and watch the Rock N Roll Trio perform their original rockabilly tunes. Only the drummer, Eddie Grady, was used on the sessions.
The session began with "Shattered dreams" which was considered unsuitable for commercial release. This was a George Motola tune and the Rock N Roll Trio didn't feel comfortable with it. Thiele had listened to Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley and talked to the boys about creating their own sound. He told Burlison to turn up the treble on the amp and this created a pinched, stinging tone to Paul's lead guitar.The first Coral single "Tear It Up" backed with "You're Undecided" (Coral 61651) appeared in June, 1956 to average record sales. But the Rock N Roll Trio had a mainstream record 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.
In July, 1956, a second single "Midnight Train" backed with "Oh, Baby Babe" (Coral 61675) failed to chart and the band was on the road once again completing endless one nighters to cover their living expenses.
During one of these early shows, Paul Burlison had an accident when he dropped his guitar and knocked the amplifier tube loose. The result was a fuzzy and distorted sound which added to the musical mystique and originality of the Rock N Roll Trio. "Whenever we wanted that fuzz sound," Burlison remembered, "I simply pulled a tube loose." Burlison points out that the sound was accidental and he was no guitar genius. Whatever the reason, the fuzz sound revolutionized rockabilly and rock and roll music.
On July 2, 1956 the Rock N Roll Trio gathered along with session musician Buddy Harman, Jr., on drums and they pulled out an old rhythm and blues hit by Tiny Bradshaw, "The Train Kept A Rollin," to inaugurate this session. The Delmore Brothers' "Blues Stay Away From Me," a cover of Fats Domino's "All By Myself" and a version of Sticks McGhee's "Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee" completed the first Nashville recording date.
Paul Burlison had found a 78 record of Tiny Bradshaw's "The Train Kept A Rollin" in a Nashville record store. "When I heard the record I didn't feel it the way that Bradshaw did," Burlison remarked. The results were stunning as Burlison used a hard driving introduction to the tune which gave it a rough, raw edge.
The following day they returned to the studio and cut "Chains of Love," a cover of Joe Turner's "Honey Hush," and two originals "Lonesome Train In My Eyes" and "I Just Found Out." Owen Bradley added piano to these cuts and the Anita Kerr singers supplied their superb vocals on "Chains of Love." Coral realized that it had almost enough material for an album.
On July 4, 1956, with wild parties raging outside, the Rock N Roll Trio showed up at Bradley's Barn to finish their Nashville sessions. They began by recording two versions of Fats Domino's "Please Don't Leave Me," followed by "Rock Therapy," and an original "Rock Billy Boogie." Johnny Burnette joked that Elvis cut his sessions for Sam Phillips at Sun Records on July 4, two years earlier, and this further intensified the recording atmosphere. Finally, 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 N Roll Trio showed up on July 5, 1956 to 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 N Roll Trio original "Your Baby Blue Eyes." These sessions were enormously successful but no one knew that there would be only one more Rock N Roll Trio recording session and the group would soon disband.
Paul in Olive Branch, MS, May 29, 2003
The last Coral single released in December, 1956 "Lonesome Train (On A Lonesome Track)" backed with "I Just Found Out" (Coral 61758) failed to chart but Coral told the Rock N Roll Trio that it had faith in their commercial future. -courtesy Howard A. Dewitt
Photo Update: May, 2000
Viva Las Vegas 2000 ...
Where Paul and Rocky Tore It Up!! The following locations have photos and reviews:
Barry Klein's Viva Las Vegas 2000 Report w/Photos
PHOTOS from the VLV West Lounge RaB HoF Show
The Johnny Vallis VLV 2000 Photo Page
EDITOR'S NOTE: My wife Sonja and I had the great fortune to meet Paul in Memphis. To date we have not met a more genuine wonderful guy in Rockabilly music. He is a big-hearted, friendly, love-able man. What impressed us was the fact that after his early years touring with Johnny and Dorsey Burnette, he went back home to start his own electrical business. There he had a chance to spend time with his children, and it wasn't until they they were grown that he re-entered the music scene. Paul spoke of how great it was "to be there for the kids," attending scoccer games, plays, school functions and the works. He has five children: David Paul, Debbie, Laurie, Lisa and Holly. He boasts of 12 grandchildren and 1 great-grandson, Andrew. I tested Paul to see if he could name those 12 grandchildren. He quickly responded with: Chris, Coley, Bubba (Andrew's dad), Brad, Christy, Jonathan, Lauren, Tucker, Michael, Kellie, JoAnna and Abby. I guess, if the grandkids don't mind, we could make them all honorary members of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.
When Johnny, Dorsey and Paul were searching for a name, (other than "the Rock and Roll Boys from Memphis) Johnny suggested the "Burnette Brothers," but Paul countered with "the Burlison Brothers." After a good laugh they settled on "The Rock N Roll Trio."
Paul has many interesting stories about the Burnette Brothers. One he shared with us was about how the band practices went back in those days. As the trio would be rockin' away, working on their tunes, two little cousins wanted to be part of the act. They were, of course, Rocky (Johnny's son) and Billy (Dorsey's son). The boys would stand right along side their fathers, pretending to be singing, using two toilet plungers firmly planted to the floor as their microphone stands.
"Jessie Catlett & The Midnight Ramblers."
Left to right: Earl Brooks, George Tanner, Charlie Darnell, Paul Burlison
and Jessie Catlett (seated).
Rare 1949 newspaper photo, captioned: Title seeker Paul Burlison will go after novice lightweight honors in North Memphis Golden Gloves Friday and Saturday nights at Dave Wells Community Center. (Johnny and Dorsey Burnette were also in the boxing game - Johnny was a lightweight champ and Dorsey became a welterweight champ.)