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Sonny Burgess, Rockabilly Legend, Dead at 88

Rolling Stone logo Rolling Stone 8/21/2017 Stephen L. Betts
Sonny Burgess: Rockabilly legend Sonny Burgess onstage at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in 2015. © Rick Diamond/Getty Images Rockabilly legend Sonny Burgess onstage at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in 2015.

Rockabilly singer and guitarist Sonny Burgess died late Friday, August 18th, at BaptistHealthMedicalCenter, in Little Rock, Arkansas. He was 88. With his band, the Pacers, Burgess created some of the most raucous rockabilly tunes of the Fifties. Signed to Sam Phillips' Sun Records in 1956, the Arkansas native and his band recorded "Red-Headed Woman" and "We Wanna Boogie," their debut release for the pioneering label. While their singles couldn't match the success of some of Sun's other artists at the time, the group became especially noted for their high-energy theatrics on stage. 

In the summer of 2015, Burgess, then 86, stole the show when he participated in a Sam Phillips tribute concert at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, tearing through the two aforementioned rockabilly classics and earning a standing ovation.

"I always heard my dad say that Sonny was one of the outstanding guys he worked with," Jerry Phillips, son of Sun Records founder Sam Phillips told the Commercial Appeal in Memphis. "Sonny had his own unique sound – which was the highest compliment Sam could give you. Sonny had a little bit of Howlin' Wolf in his singing, and of course my dad really liked that. But Sonny was one of those guys who traveled the world, had a great long life, and had people who loved him all over the place. He's going to be missed."

Albert "Sonny" Burgess was born into a cotton-farming family in Newport, Arkansas, 60 miles west of Memphis, in May 1929. In his youth, he led a boogie-woogie band, the Rocky Road Ramblers, while also planning to play pro baseball. He joined the Army during the Korean War and returned to cotton farming in Arkansas in 1953. Burgess then fronted the Moonlighters, a local dance band that would share the stage in 1955 with two of Sun Records' most popular acts, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley. That same year, Burgess expanded his band and rechristened them the Pacers.

Sun Records historian Colin Escott would later say of the "Red-Headed Woman"/"We Wanna Boogie" recording, "It was punk before punk, thrash before thrash." Although none of the group's handful of Sun singles were significant hits, Burgess looked back on the experience with fondness, acknowledging that it was difficult to duplicate their frenetic stage show on record.

Burgess and the Pacers toured throughout the Sixties, often with fellow Sun alums Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash. He would go on to tour as a member of Conway Twitty's band for a time before eventually scaling back his touring and playing around Arkansas with the group Kings IV. By 1970, Burgess had traded the music business for a day job as a traveling salesman. But he would join a group of Sun veterans, including D.J. Fontana, "Smoochie" Smith, Paul Burlison and Stan Kesler, playing as the Sun Rhythm Section.

In the Nineties, Burgess recorded a pair of albums that exposed him to a whole new audience. Tennessee Border, for Hightone Records, paired him with former Blasters frontman Dave Alvin, in 1992. Four years later, Rounder Records released a self-titled disc produced by the E Street Band's Garry Tallent, and featuring a previously unreleased Bruce Springsteen tune, "Tiger Rose." Burgess also reunited late in Nineties with the Pacers, touring throughout the world for the next decade. Sonny Burgess and the Pacers are members of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame of Europe.

Related slideshow: Stars we've lost in 2017 (via Photo Services) In Memoriam 2017: Stars We've Lost This Year

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