The intriguing story of the Johnny Burnette Rock 'N Roll Trio touches several different areas of rock-and-roll history. As performers together, these contemporaries of Elvis Presley were pioneers in the early days of rock but produced no top forty hits. Individually and together some members of the group were responsible for writing some well known hits, placed records of their own in the top forty, and had children who went on to have their own distinguished careers in music.
The three members of the Johnny Burnette Rock 'N Roll Trio were Paul Burlison (born in Brownsville, Tennessee in 1929), Dorsey Burnette (born in Memphis in 1932) and his brother Johnny Burnette (born in Memphis in 1934). All three of them were boxers as young men (Dorsey and Johnny were at one time Golden Gloves champions) and all had a passion for music. According to some sources the Burnette brothers both attended Humes High School in Memphis, where Presley was a student; others say they attended Catholic High School in Memphis. And at one time or another, Dorsey, Johnny and Presley all worked for Crown Electric in Memphis.
Burlison and the Burnette brothers worked in various aspects of the music business around Memphis and formed their group in 1953. Paul Burlison had done some work with Howlin' Wolf, and it was Burlison's buzz-saw-like guitar work that gave the group it's distinct sound. They were an early rockabilly group and attempted to record at Sam Phillips' local Sun Records recording studio -- the same studio where Presley, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and other future rock notables had recorded when they were unknown talents -- but were turned down. The Johnny Burnette Rock 'N Roll Trio decided to head to New York City.
In 1956 they appeared on Ted Mack's Amateur Hour several times, winning each time, and eventually secured a recording contract with Coral Records. They recorded the jump blues tune Train Kept A-Rollin' and Tear It Up, neither of which became big-selling records but both of which are regarded today as important recordings in the evolution of rockabilly music.
Dorsey left the group later in 1956 and was replaced by an old colleague from Memphis, Johnny Black, whose brother Bill would reach the charts several times in the years to come with his instrumental group, Bill Black's Combo. A live performance ensued that was captured on film in Alan Freed's movie Rock, Rock, Rock. Burlison left in 1957 and a short time later the Johnny Burnette Rock 'N Roll Trio broke up. But there was much more to come from the individual members of the group.
Dorsey and Johnny Burnette moved to the West Coast and wrote songs. Some of their songs, written individually or together, were recorded by rising star Ricky Nelson in the late 50's and became hits -- Waitin' In School, Believe What You Say, It's Late, and Just A Little Too Much. After years of traveling, writing, performing in clubs, and recording, the Burnette brothers had finally produced music that garnered national attention.
The Burnettes were good songwriters, had good singing voices, loved music, and got along well together. In 1960 both burst on the national scene and placed records in the top forty, this time as performers. First up was Dorsey with a song he had written some years earlier titled (There Was A) Tall Oak Tree. In late summer Johnny had his first big hit with Dreamin'. He followed with a snappy hit You're Sixteen, which would become a rock-and-roll standard. Other hits for Johnny the following year included Little Boy Sad and God, Country And My Baby. Dorsey had a lesser hit with Hey Little One.
On August 1, 1964, Johnny Burnette was on a fishing trip on Clear Lake in California, fell from his boat, and drowned. It was a difficult time for his brother Dorsey, who turned to country music; neither brother would reach the pop top forty again. Paul Burlison had left the world of music to run a construction business, and would later return to performing. In 1979 Dorsey suffered a fatal heart attack in Canoga Park, California.
But their musical legacy lived on. In early 1974 Ringo Starr had a number one hit with his remake of Johnny's You're Sixteen. Dorsey's son Billy Burnette is a fine guitarist, songwriter and record producer who spent some time as a member of Fleetwood Mac. Rocky Burnette, Billy's cousin and the son of Johnny, was a songwriter with Acuff-Rose and as a performer managed to crack the top ten with Tired Of Toein' The Line in 1980.
The song with which any member of the Johnny Burnette Rock 'N Roll Trio is most closely associated today is probably You're Sixteen, Johnny's fine ode to a teenage girlfriend. The story of the careers of these excellent rockabilly artists is one that is of interest to those who appreciate the popular music of the 50's and 60's.
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