John Joseph "Johnny" Burnette (March 25, 1934 - August 14, 1964) was an American rockabilly musician. Along with his older brother Dorsey Burnette and friend Paul Burlison, Burnette was a founding member of The Rock and Roll Trio. He was the father of 1980s rockabilly singer Rocky Burnette.
Johnny Burnette was born to Willie May and Dorsey Burnett Sr. in Memphis, Tennessee. (The 'e' at the end of the name was added later.) Johnny grew up with his parents and Dorsey Jr. in a public housing project in the Lauderdale Courts area of Memphis, which from 1948 until 1954 was also the home of Gladys and Vernon Presley and their son Elvis.
Early press reports, dating back to 1956, claimed that Johnny attended Humes High School with Elvis Presley, which was not true. Johnny went initially to the Blessed Sacrament Parochial School and after graduating from the eighth grade he moved on to the Catholic High School in Memphis. Here he showed an aptitude for sports, being on the school baseball team and playing as linebacker on the school's football team. In one famous incident, he was knocked out in a tackle by future singer Red West. Both he and Dorsey were also keen amateur boxers and were to become Golden Gloves Champions. After leaving high school, Johnny tried his hand at becoming a professional boxer, but after one fight with a sixty dollar purse and a broken nose or an encounter with Norris Ray, a top paycheck of $150, he decided to quit the ring. He went to work on the barges traversing the Mississippi River, where Dorsey Burnette also worked. Johnny worked mainly as a deck hand while Dorsey worked as an oiler. Both of the brothers worked separately, but they would take their guitars on board and write songs during their spare time, which consequently led to them becoming folk heroes. After work they would go back to Memphis, where they would perform those and other songs at local bars, with a varying array of sidemen, including another former Golden Gloves champion named Paul Burlison, whom Dorsey had met at an amateur boxing tournament in Memphis in 1949.
The Rock and Roll Trio:
In 1952, the Burnette brothers and Burlison formed a group called The Rhythm Rangers. Johnny Burnette sang the vocals and played acoustic guitar, Dorsey played bass and Paul Burlison played lead guitar. For economic reasons, the three young men moved to New York in 1956 and managed to get an audition with the Ted Mack Original Amateur Hour. Winning the competition three times in a row gained them a place in the finals and a recording contract with Coral Records, and they officially became The Rock and Roll Trio. They also gained a manager, bandleader Henry Jerome, and a drummer, Tony Austin, a cousin of Carl Perkins.
Promotional appearances were arranged on Dick Clark's American Bandstand, Steve Allen's Tonight Show and Perry Como's Kraft Music Hall, together with a summer tour with Carl Perkins and Gene Vincent. On Sunday September 9, 1956, they appeared as finalists in the Ted Mack Original Amateur Hour at Madison Square Garden. Coincidentally, the same night the Trio was on the Amateur Hour (ABC-TV), Elvis Presley made his debut appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show on CBS. Despite all of this activity, however, the three singles which were released over this period failed to make the national charts.
In order to cover their living expenses, the Trio was forced to go on the road, completing what seemed to be an endless stream of one-night stands. This exhausting regime led to squabbles, which were exacerbated in Dorsey's case by Jerome's use of the name Johnny Burnette and the Rock and Roll Trio on records and live dates. Things finally came to a head at a gig in Niagara Falls in autumn 1956, when, as a result of a fight, Dorsey quit the group a week before they were to appear in Alan Freed's film Rock, Rock, Rock.
Johnny Black, the brother of Elvis' bassist Bill Black, was rapidly recruited to fill Dorsey's place. Despite the film appearance and three more single releases and one LP release, the group failed to achieve any chart success. The Rock and Roll Trio officially disbanded in autumn 1957.
Success in California with Ricky Nelson:
Now unemployed in Memphis, Johnny decided to try his luck in California. He and a friend, Joe Campbell, hitched down to the West Coast. Here they joined Dorsey and with their past differences forgotten, the brothers attempted to resurrect The Rock and Roll Trio, by sending for Paul Burlison. He joined them briefly, but decided to return to Memphis and concentrate on his electrical business. Dorsey and Johnny continued with their song writing activities, but Dorsey continued with his day job as an electrician to pay the family expenses.
The Burnettes' brashness got them their first success in the music business in California. On arriving in Los Angeles, Joe Campbell bought a copy of "A Map to the Stars" which showed the location of the teen idol Ricky Nelson's home. In an effort to get their songs to him, the Burnettes and Campbell decided to sit on the steps of the star's home until they could get a meeting with him. This persistence worked and Ricky was sufficiently impressed with their work, that he wound up recording many of their songs including "Believe What You Say", "It's Late", "Waitin' In School", and "Just a Little Too Much" amongst others. Other Imperial Records artists, such as Roy Brown, benefited from their songwriting abilities. He successfully recorded the brothers' "Hip Shakin' Baby" and this led to them signing a recording contract with Imperial Records as a duo. While in California, they met future Buck Owens and the Buckaroos bass player and solo artist Doyle Holly. Holly played bass guitar for a short time with the band.
As the Burnette Brothers, they were to have one single release on the Imperial label, "Warm Love"/"My Honey" (Imperial X5509), which was released on May 5, 1958. It did not make the charts. After this failure, they continued to co-operate as songwriters, but they began to follow separate careers as performing artists. In 1961, however, Johnny and Dorsey had two instrumental releases on the small Infinity and Gothic labels. The first single was "Green Grass of Texas"/"Bloody River" (Infinity INX-001), which was released on February 20, 1961. The second single was "Rockin' Johnny Home"/"Ole Reb" (Gothic GOX-001), which was released on May 29, 1961. Both of these records were under the name of The Texans. A further instrumental, "Lonely Island"/"Green Hills" (Liberty 55460) under the name of The Shamrocks was to appear on Liberty Records on June 6, 1962. "Green Grass of Texas"/"Bloody River" was to be re-released in February 1965 on the Vee Jay label (VJ 658), again under the name of The Texans.
The Liberty years:
In the fall of 1958, Johnny obtained a recording contract as a solo artist with Freedom Records, which was an off-shoot of Liberty Records. He had three single releases on this label. The first single, "Kiss Me"/"I'm Restless" (44001), was released on September 11, 1958. This was followed by "Gumbo"/"Me and the Bear" (44011), which was released on March 6, 1959 and finally "Sweet Baby Doll"/"I'll Never Love Again" (44017), which was released on June 24, 1959. None of these records were hits and of the six songs, "Sweet Baby Doll" was the only one not penned by Johnny. Some sources have suggested that Eddie Cochran played guitar on "Kiss Me" and "I'm Restless" but it has not been substantiated.
In mid-1959, the Freedom Label was shut down and Johnny moved to the main Liberty Label under the direction of producer Snuff Garrett. Since Liberty had more promotional machinery than Freedom, Johnny's Liberty singles stood a greater chance of succeeding. His first Liberty single, "Settin' The Woods on Fire"/"Kentucky Waltz" (Liberty F-55222), was released on November 10, 1959 and his second Liberty single "Patrick Henry"/"Don't Do It" (Liberty F-55243), was released on March 4, 1960. Both singles sold well regionally but failed to become national hits. His third single, "Dreamin'"/"Cincinnati Fireball" (Liberty F-55285), however, which was released on May 4, 1960, made him famous to millions who had never heard of The Rock and Roll Trio. It reached No. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100 and it reached No. 5 in Britain. Unlike his older Coral recordings, "Dreamin'" was overlaid with an orchestral backing.
His fourth Liberty single "You're Sixteen"/"I Beg Your Pardon" (Liberty F-55285), which was released on October 5, 1960, did even better, reaching No. 8 on the Hot 100 and No. 3 in Britain and earned him a gold record. Johnny went quickly back into the studio and under Snuff Garrett's direction recorded "Little Boy Sad". This was released on January 3, 1961, backed with "(I Go) Down to the River" (Liberty F-55298). Shortly after its release, however, Johnny was hospitalized with a ruptured appendix, which was to keep him bedridden for several weeks. He was unable to undertake many personal appearances to promote the new record and it only reached No. 17 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 12 in Britain. Frustrated by this prolonged inactivity he tried to return to work too early and he promptly collapsed. This meant that his fifth Liberty single "Big Big World"/" Ballad of the One Eyed Jacks" (Liberty F-55318), which was released on March 30, 1961, received no promotion at all, and struggled to reach No. 58 on the Hot 100.
His sixth Liberty single, "I've Got A Lot of Things To Do"/"Girls" (Liberty F-55345), which was released June 14, 1961, was handled differently from his previous records. In Britain, the up-beat side, "Girls" was promoted as the topside and it reached No. 23 in the British charts in September 1961. In the US it was flipped over with "I've Got A Lot of Things to Do" as the topside, but despite heavy promotion, it failed to make the mark, peaking just outside the Hot 100 at No. 109.
After recovering from his illness, Johnny returned to the road with a triumphant tour of the Northern cities, culminating in a season at the Brooklyn Paramount Theatre, after which he undertook a highly successful tour of Australia with Connie Francis. Back in the limelight, his next release was scheduled to be a Carl Perkins' song "Fools Like Me"/"Honestly I Do" (Liberty 55377) but this was cancelled in favour of "God, Country and My Baby"/"Honestly I Do" (Liberty 55379), which was released on September 27, 1961. The patriotism of the song clicked predominantly with American record buyers and it reached No. 18 on the Hot 100. It was to be Johnny Burnette's last major American hit.
In 1962, Johnny toured Britain for the first time with Gary U.S. Bonds and Gene McDaniels, where he made an appearance on the New Musical Express Poll Winners' Concert and several TV appearances. His next single "Clown Shoes"/"The Way I Am" (Liberty 55416) was released on January 26, 1962, but it failed to make the US Hot 100 petering out at No. 113. It was more successful in Britain, possibly because of the tour, where it reached No. 35. The song "Clown Shoes" was written by a Texan named James Marcus Smith, who was to find fame in Britain as P. J. Proby.
Johnny was to have two more single releases on Liberty Records. These were "The Fool of the Year"/"The Poorest Boy in Town" (Liberty 55448), which was released on April 13, 1962 and "Damn The Defiant"/"Lonesome Waters" (Liberty 55489), which was released on July 30, 1962. Neither of these singles was a hit, but "Damn The Defiant", which was a Johnny Horton-style naval saga, was Johnny Burnette's first self-penned A-side for Liberty as well as his last single for the label. It was probably inspired by the 1962 movie H.M.S. Defiant (known as Damn The Defiant in the USA), which starred Alec Guinness and Dirk Bogarde.
The Chancellor stint:
Johnny moved to Chancellor Records, which had had success with teen idols like Fabian Forte and Frankie Avalon. He had three singles released during 1962, namely "I Wanna Thank Your Folks"/"The Giant" (Chancellor C-1116), "Tag Along"/"Party Girl" (Chancellor C-1123) and "Remember Me (I'm The One Who Loves You)"/"Time is Not Enough" (Chancellor C-1129) but none of these singles were hits.
The Capitol sessions:
Johnny moved on from Chancellor, briefly joining Dorsey on Reprise Records for one single "Hey Sue"/"It Don't Take Much" (20153) before signing a one year contract with Capitol Records in the summer of 1963. Johnny's first recording session was held on July 23, 1963 at the Capitol Tower with Jim Economides and Jimmie Haskell overseeing the proceedings. A number of tracks were recorded, namely, "It Isn't There", "Wish It Were Saturday Night", "I'll Give You Three Guesses", "All Week Long" and "Congratulations, You've Hurt Me Again". Of these "It Isn't There"/"Wish It Were Saturday Night" (Capitol 5023) were issued on August 19, 1963 as his first American single. In Britain, the flipside was changed to "All Week Long", but neither single made the charts. On December 13, 1963, a second session was held, with the same two men in charge. Four more songs were recorded of which "The Opposite"/"You Taught Me the Way To Love You" (Capitol 5114) was selected for single release on January 20, 1964. Again it failed to find chart success. A third session was held on February 14, 1964, which produced four songs, "Aunt Marie", "Two Feet in Front of Me", "If I Were An Artist", and "And Her Name Is Scarlett". None of these songs, however, were deemed fit for release and remained in-the-can for thirty years. A fourth session was held on March 16, 1964, which was overseen by David Gates, who was later to find fame with Bread. This session produced "Sweet Suzie, I Think She Knows" and "It All Depends on Linda", which was written by Bobby Bare. Of these songs, "Sweet Suzie" backed with "Walkin' Talkin' Doll", which had been held back from the December 1963 session, were released as Capitol single (Capitol 5176) on April 5, 1964. This single again failed to make the charts.
His own label:
When his Capitol contract ran out, Johnny decided to take charge of his own affairs on his own terms. He formed his own label Sahara and in July 1964 released the single "Fountain of Love"/"What A Summer Day" (Sahara 512). When he was informed that the name Sahara had already been taken, he renamed the label Magic Lamp and a different single "Bigger Man"/"Less Than A Heartbeat" (Magic Lamp 515) was quickly released.
On August 14, 1964, Burnette's unlit fishing boat was struck by an unaware cabin cruiser on Clear Lake, California. The impact threw him off the boat and he drowned. When he received the news, Dorsey Burnette called Paul Burlison, who flew out to comfort him and attend Johnny's funeral. The two men were to keep in touch until Dorsey's death of a heart attack in 1979. Johnny Burnette was interred in Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California.
Burnette gained prominence in 1973 both for the inclusion of "You're Sixteen" on the American Graffiti soundtrack and for Ringo Starr's version of the same song. In addition, Burnette's original song was recognized by the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. One of his songs, "Train Kept A-Rollin'" by Tiny Bradshaw, would later be recorded by The Yardbirds, Motörhead and Aerosmith.
The Beatles, with John Lennon on vocal, performed "Lonesome Tears in My Eyes" at the BBC on July 10, 1963 for broadcast airing on July 23, 1963. During the airing Lennon introduced the song, originally recorded by Johnny Burnette and the Rock 'n Roll Trio on July 3, 1956 and released in March 1957, joking, "This is a Dorsey Burnette number, brother of Johnny Burnette, called 'Lonesome Tears in My Eyes', recorded on their very first LP in 1822!" This live in-studio recording of 'Lonesome Tears in My Eyes' (including Lennon's spoken intro) was later included on the Beatles' 1994 two-CD set, Live at the BBC.
My brother Dorsey and I first got to know Elvis Presley when he went to Humes High and we went to the Catholic High... Elvis would tote his guitar on his back when he rode past on his motor-cycle on his way to school. He would see us and always wave.
NME - February 1961
Text from this biography licensed under creative commons license