As a member of Johnny Burnette's Rock 'n' Roll Trio, guitarist Paul Burlison essentially pioneered the art of feedback. His solo on the classic "Train Kept a-Rollin'" is the first known deliberate example of six-string distortion on record, pointing the way for multiple generations of sound sculptors and noisemakers. Born in Brownsville, TN, on February 4, 1929, Burlison was raised in Memphis, learning to play guitar from his brother-in-law Earl Brooks and frequenting the blues joints along Beale Street. After designing his own electric guitar by taping a telephone pickup to his acoustic, he was hired to back Shelby Fallon on Memphis radio station KWEM. He sometimes collaborated on air with future blues legend Howlin' Wolf, but a tense racial climate meant the white Burlison could not join Wolf's all-black band full-time. Burlison concurrently pursued a career in boxing, even winning the local welterweight championship. While competing in the 1949 Golden Gloves tournament, he met fellow boxer Dorsey Burnette, and the two became fast friends, united in their similar musical tastes. With Burnette's younger brother Johnny they began performing throughout Memphis, and after Burlison fulfilled his U.S. Army obligations, they officially formed the Rock 'n' Roll Trio in mid-1952, cutting their first record, "Go Mule Go," for the tiny Von label two years later. The single sold fewer than 200 copies, and Burlison spent the next several years working as an electrician for Crown Electric, which also employed a then-unknown Elvis Presley.
The Rock 'n' Roll Trio relocated to New York City in the spring of 1956, winning three successive weeks on ABC Television's Ted Mack's Amateur Hour and signing to Coral Records, which inserted Johnny Burnette's name in front and installed Bob Thiele in the producer's seat. Thiele encouraged Burlison to crank up the treble on his amplifier, resulting in a clipped, blistering sound that wonderfully captures the primal abandon of early rock & roll. The trio's Coral debut, "You're Undecided," appeared in mid-1956 and, though not a significant hit, led to appearances on American Bandstand and The Tonight Show; when the follow-up, "Midnight Train," failed to chart altogether, the band returned to the road, calculating its next move. During a Philadelphia date in support of the Four Aces, Burlison dropped his amplifier, knocking a tube loose; he discovered the mishap created a fuzzy, distorted sound so compelling that he began pulling out the same tube on a regular basis, adding a dramatic new element to the Rock 'n' Roll Trio's sound that perfectly complemented Johnny's unhinged vocals. Burlison's fuzztone guitar lead made its epochal debut on their 1956 cover of Tiny Bradshaw's jump blues tune "Train Kept a-Rollin'," and electric guitar was never the same. Cited as a seminal inspiration by guitar gods Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck, the Rock 'n' Roll Trio's recording of the song led to renditions by the Yardbirds, Led Zeppelin, and Aerosmith, and either directly or indirectly influenced virtually every electric guitarist to emerge in its wake.
The same Owen Bradley-produced sessions that yielded "Train Kept a-Rollin'" also elevated Johnny and Dorsey's longstanding sibling rivalry to volcanic proportions, however, and the latter announced his resignation soon after, just a week before the Rock 'n' Roll Trio was to appear in the Hollywood feature Rock! Rock! Rock! Bill Black's brother Johnny was recruited to replace Dorsey on bass and the group still made its appearance on celluloid, but after fulfilling their remaining contractual obligations, Burlison exited as well in late 1956. He returned to Memphis to reconnect with his wife and children, opening his own contracting business, Safety Electrical, and retiring from performing for the next two decades. In subsequent years, he also operated a mail-order business specializing in rare recordings. In 1980 Burlison returned to music, launching his own Rock-a-Billy label to release Johnny Burnette's Rock and Roll Trio and Their Rockin' Friends from Memphis, an all-star tribute to the memories of Johnny and Dorsey Burnette featuring local legends like Jim Dickinson and Charlie Feathers. In 1986 Burlison joined the Sun Rhythm Section alongside the likes of former Elvis drummer D.J. Fontana, and four years later he signed on with Johnny's son Rocky Burnette's rockabilly revival band. In 1997 Burlison cut his first ever solo LP, Train Kept a-Rollin'; after a lengthy bout with cancer, he died in Lake Horn, MS, on September 27, 2003. ~ Jason Ankeny, Rovi