It was in Florida in late 1961, when a friend from Arkansas first told me about Sonny Burgess and the Pacers. It was about 12 years later, while reading a record collector’s magazine, whet I came across the name for the second time. Another 12 years passed and brought the opportunity to speak with the man in 1985. Originally published in “Legends of Sun Records,” 1985.
Born May 28, 1931 to a farming family in Newport, Arkansas, Albert “Sonny” Burgess heard mostly country music during his formative years. In his late teen years he would play Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell songs on his guitar. The U.S. Army called in 1951 and, upon his discharge two years later, he returned to farming and music, including playing in a band. Within a year he began singing, a circumstance brought about by the departure of the singer.
The Moonlighters included Ray Kern Kennedy on piano, Russ Smith (who would later work with Jerry Lee Lewis) on drums, Johnny Ray Hubbard on bass and Punky Caldwell on sax. “We played theaters ... anywhere we could,” recalled Burgess. “When we got pretty good we started playing the Silver Moon Club and that was our base for many a year.”
On December 19, 1955, the Moonlighters played a show at Bob King’s Club in Swifton, Arkansas, with Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley. Elvis offered jobs to Kern Kennedy and Punky Caldwell, but both musicians turned him down; they had regular jobs and didn’t want to travel. Burgess had another memory of that night: “‘Only You’ had just come out by the Platters and Elvis sang it that night,” he said. “It’s one of the best songs he ever did and I don’t believe he ever recorded it. It’s a shame.”
The Silver Moon played host to all the big names who traveled to the area: Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee, Louis Armstrong, Woody Herman, Fats Domino, Bob Wills, the Dorsey Brothers and others. A wide variety of music was being presented and by this time Burgess was playing more rock and roll and rhythm and blues and listening to artists such as Fats Domino, Jimmy Reed and Muddy Waters.
The Moonlighters evolved into the Pacers, retaining Kennedy, Smith and Hubbard and adding Jack Nance (who would soon cowrite “It’s Only Make Believe” with Conway Twitty. Oddly enough, Nance worked as a roadie with the Jacksons in later years.) When the band auditioned for Sun Records, Sam Phillips encouraged Burgess to copy Junior Parker guitar licks and to sing in a more coarse style. The first release, “Red Headed Woman,” (which featured a trumpet solo by Nance) did well, selling around 90,000 copies. There were big expectations for the follow-up, “Restless”, but after a quick start, it quit selling.
Billboard magazine described Burgess’ records as wild, screaming, driving and crazy and he was known as quite a flashy character. At one time he tried dying his hair blond and it turned out bright red. With his red suit and red Fender guitar, he must have been quite a sight.
The Pacers toured with many country and rock stars: Johnny Cash, Bobby Lord, Jimmy C. Newman, Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich, Jerry Lee Lewis, Warren Smith, Billy Lee Riley and Marty Robbins. There were appearances on Wink Martindale’s Dance Party on channel 13 in Memphis and shows with Johnny and Jonie Mosby, Ray Price, Don Gibson, Joe Maphis, Danny and the Juniors, the Collins Kids and Merle Travis. “It would take a while to mention everyone we worked on tour with,” said Burgess. He recalled meeting Buddy Holly backstage at a Johnny Cash show in Clovis; New Mexico.
Burgess had two more releases on Sun, including an instrumental, “Itchy”, that featured Billy Lee Riley on harmonica, Charlie Rich on piano, Jack Clement on bass and Jimmy Van Eaton on drums. The next release, “Sadie’s Back In Town”, also used session musicians and was issued on Phillips International. “We didn’t spend much time in the recording studio. I wish now that we had,” said Burgess. “We had some real good ideas ... just needed to work them out and we didn’t take the time. We had a great band. We could never get it on tape, but if we had been in studios like today’s, we would have come up with some great stuff.”
Burgess felt that the Pacers’ forte was in live performance. “Ask anyone that saw us,” he states. “We had the best show group that walked on stage. We could steal a show from anyone except Elvis, and I feel that if we hadn’t all been crazy and had good management, we might have done a little better than we did.”
Regarding Elvis, Burgess said, “We did three shows with him and HE WAS THE BEST ... no doubt about it! Elvis, Scotty and Bill had the best sound of a three piece group you have ever heard and I don’t feel that records ever captured Elvis as good as he really was ... Sam Phillips got close.”
Around the end of 1959, Burgess left the Pacers to play guitar on a Canadian tour with Conway Twitty, whom he said, “was great to work with and for. In fact Johnny Cash and Twitty were two of the best people you would want to meet in our business ... class acts.” When Burgess took that tour, Bobby Crafford took over the name of the Pacers. Crafford was involved with the Razorback label in Little Rock and there were many releases by the revised Pacers without Burgess. When Burgess returned he also recorded for the label with his new group, the Kings IV.
After Razorback, there were efforts for Rolando, Ara and Arbur, three companies that were all at least partially owned by former Sun guitarist Roland Janes. In about 1970, Burgess was doing a TV show and an EP was released on the TSBS (The Sonny Burgess Show) label, featuring him and others from the show. It was shortly after that that Burgess left music as a full time occupation. He later had had a shoe store in Little Rock and worked in sales for a St. Louis company, but he never stopped playing.
In 1985, Burgess played at a beauty pageant in Memphis along with Roland Janes and former Sun guitarist, Marcus Van Story. For a while the old Sun band got together about once a year and Burgess also played local country club dates two or three times a month with Bobby Crafford and Kern Kennedy.
There were reissues, but an album of all new material was recorded in England in April 1985. In looking back on it all Burgess said, “No regrets … I had a great time.”
© 1985 & 2011 by
Gary E. Myers/MusicGem,PO Box 4777, Downey, CA 90241-1777