This week on American Routes Shortcuts, we revisit an interview with the late Sonny Burgess. Sonny grew up in Newport, Arkansas, and was part of the first generation of white musicians to mix country or hillbilly music with the blues to make a new sound: rockabilly. Burgess quit farming to play music in local clubs and became known for his wild stage antics. Sonny fronted bands like the Moonlighters and the King’s Four, and recorded at Sun Records with his band, the Pacers, in 1956. Host Nick Spitzer asked Sonny what it was like going from work in the cotton field to the honky-tonks.
Sonny Burgess: Jackson County was a wet county, but all around us was dry counties. All these people came to Jackson County, to Newport, to come to the clubs with the dancing. That’s how we got started was the dancing. Most of our influence then was, oh, Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, Ernest Tubb was one of my big heroes. But the only black music that I listened to, that I really liked then, was Big Joe Turner and Jimmy Reed, which are still my favorite black artists. I never really heard many white people play the blues right.
Nick Spitzer: Maybe you could set the scene for us in some of these honky-tonks around Newport and elsewhere that you played. Give us a feeling for the club.
SB: They come out to have a good time, I’m talking about they’d get drunk, wiped out, I’ve seen people bring their babies in, lay ‘em on the table where they’re sittin’, while they got out there and danced. One of the babies about rolled off the table.
NS: Sonny, when you were out on the road with the Pacers, I understand you all had quite an acrobatic stage act going that kind of got the crowd behind you. What did you do?
SB: Well, we did a lot of things. We were in pretty good shape back then, young, and full of that vinegar. And at the end of the show we’d do a song, and we’d jump off of the stage. John Ray laid down on the bass; Joe would straddle him, Jack would get up on the back of that thing, I’ve got the neck of that bass pullin’ him around the dance floor. Well we pulled the neck off that bass about three or four different times. Stuff like that, anything crazy we could think of.
NS: Tell me about getting to Sun Records. How does that come to pass?
SB: Well, that was due to Elvis, of course, Elvis you know was on Sun at that time. Believe it or not, that’s the only two times we ever practiced and we practiced “Red Headed Woman” and “Wanna Boogie” hundreds of time. And from then on we never practiced anything.
NS: Now, at a certain point, you decided you wouldn’t keep playing.
NS: Tell me what happened and what you ended up doing for a while?
SB: My brother-in-law’s neighbor was working for St. Louis Trimming, and he wanted to get out of it. And so I said, well that looks pretty good, cause you’re not- we wasn’t making a ton of money playing music. Making a living and that’s about it. I wanted something I little better, so I said, I’ll try it, so I tried it.
NS: St. Louis Trimming, what did St. Louis Trimming sell?
SB: Ok, we sold lace, rhinestones, all that type of stuff that goes on women’s clothes.
NS: Decorative things to put on women’s clothes.
NS: So you went from being an on-stage rockabilly with the orange hair and slender suits and all the jumps and moves and style to selling lace and women’s fashion accessories!
SB: Yes, I did.
NS: It’s been over 50 years since you recorded “We Wanna Boogie,” and you are still boogying!
SB: Not too fast.
NS: Why do you get out and rock and roll, I mean, isn’t it easier to stay home and rock in the chair?
SB: Not really. Well I guess it is, when you think about it. But it’s better than sitting at home and doing nothing. Better than picking cotton.
To hear the full program, tune in Saturdays at 7 and Sundays at 6 on WWNO, or listen at americanroutes.org.