August 22

In Memory: Top-caliber Rockabilly Pioneer, Sonny Burgess dies at 88

Do you still remember Sonny Burgess? He is one of the key artists at Sun Records in Memphis and a Rockabilly pioneer. Sad news though, he died last August 18 in Little Rock, Arkansas at age 88, according to The Commercial Appeal newspaper in Memphis.

Burgess was one of the most prominent singers and guitarists of Rockabilly like Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis.

He was the lead of the band Rocky Road Ramblers before joining the Army during the Korean conflict. After he returned to Arkansas in 1953, he worked as a cotton farmer at the same time leading the Moonlighters. It was a dance band that became the Pacers two years after.

The Pacers opened for Burgess’ concerts in Arkansas then, later on, got a recording offer with Sun Records. Their debut single  “Red-Headed Woman” and “We Wanna Boogie” released in 1956 put them in rock’s history. “Ain’t Got a Thing,” “Restless,” “Daddy Blues” and “Thunderbird.” Followed after.

They continue to tour in the 60’s, Burgess was also a member of Conway Twitty’s band at the same time. In the 80’s, he collaborated with guitarist Paul Burlison, bassist Stan Kesler, and several other Sun Records alumni to form the Sun Rhythm Section, therefore releasing the album Old Time Rock ‘n’ Roll in 1987.

In the 90’s Burgess was brought back together with the Pacers for a tour and they became famous in Japan and Europe. Burgess continued to perform until July but after an accident, he was hospitalized.

In 2014, he got an honorary doctorate from Arkansas State University and in 2016, the Arkansas Arts Council gave him the Folklife Award. The exact cause of his death has not yet been disclosed.

“I always heard my dad say that Sonny was one of the outstanding guys he worked with,” said Jerry Phillips, son of Sun Records founder Sam Phillips. “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.”


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