Rockabilly singer, songwriter and guitarist Sonny Burgess — who became one of Sun Records’ stars with his raucous and unbridled whoops and howls, accompanied by his furious guitar — died at age 88, on Aug. 18 in Little Rock, Ark. Burgess’ son John told the New York Times that the cause of death was complications from a fall, but the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette noted Burgess had also been struggling with issues related to diabetes.
In recent years, Burgess was one of the hosts of a weekly program for member station KASU at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, Ark.; the show was named We Wanna Boogie, after one of the songs on Burgess’ first recording for Sun Records.
“He had a true R&B voice, like a tenor sax in full cry — short on subtlety and delicate shadings, but a magnificent rock’n’roll instrument,” music historians Colin Escott and Martin Hawkins wrote in their 1991 book Good Rockin’ Tonight: Sun Records And The Birth Of Rock ‘N’ Roll. They continued, “Burgess’ vocals were complemented by his guitar playing: rough, intense and blues-drenched.”
After his return to the U.S., Burgess re-grouped his band, which he renamed The Moonlighters, with an eye to auditioning for Sam Philips’ Sun Records in Memphis. They didn’t find immediate success, but by 1955 — his band expanded at Philips’ urging and renamed once more, this time as The Pacers — Burgess was sharing dates with the likes of Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash.
With all the elements that Philips had been looking for finally in place, The Pacers went to Memphis in 1956 to audition again at Sun. Philips promptly had them record two sides: “We Wanna Boogie” and “Red Headed Woman.”
The record was a hit, and live audiences loved their frantic energy and showmanship — but a string of follow-ups for Sun fared poorly, as did a single for Philips International. Burgess’ career as a frontman continued to dwindle, and by 1959, he was playing in country singer Conway Twitty’s band. Within a dozen years, he had left the music business altogether, and pulled together a new life for himself and his family by working as a traveling salesman.
In the 1990s, however, European fans’ enthusiasm for rediscovering old Americana was a vehicle for Burgess’ contributions to resurface, and he enjoyed a resurgent musical career. He recorded two albums in his sixties: 1992’s Tennessee Border, for Hightone Records, and 1996’s Sonny Burgess on Rounder Records, produced by Garry Tallent of the E Street Band and featuring a previously unreleased Bruce Springsteen tune called “Tiger Rose.”
Burgess eventually reunited with The Pacers, who were inducted in 2002 into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame and played dates in the U.S., Canada, Japan, Europe and Australia.