LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – No one knew what to call Sonny Burgess’ music when he mixed rhythm and blues, gospel tunes and country riffs in the 1950s, but it was clear where it came from.
“It all came from our heart,” drummer Bobby Crafford said Tuesday. “They told us we were original; we played from our heart.”
Burgess died Friday in Little Rock after suffering a fall last month amid complications from diabetes. On paper, he was 88. While he was performing what came to be known as rockabilly with his band Sonny Burgess and the Pacers, it didn’t show.
“He continued playing up until the start of July. When he was on stage, he didn’t play like he was 88 years old. He was a young man when he was on stage,” said Anthony Allen, the funeral director at the Dillinger Funeral Home in Burgess’ native Newport. Allen has set up visitation for Thursday night at Newport’s Silver Moon club — where Burgess launched his career in 1954.
“He started out playing there. We didn’t think there would be anything more appropriate,” Allen said.
Initially known as the Moonlighters, taking their name from the club, Burgess’ group grew into the Pacers as it added more members — including a trumpet player after the band failed in its search to hire someone who could play saxophone. Their initial songs for Sun Records, “Red Headed Woman” backed with “We Wanna Boogie,” were both hits. Later songs included “My Bucket’s Got a Hole In It” and “Thunderbird,” named after the fortified wine.
“We took a break while recording it and all had Thunderbird wine,” Crafford said.
For five years, Burgess and his group played honkytonks and high schools along and near U.S. 67, which Arkansas designated as its “Rock ‘n’ Roll Highway” in 2009. Also on the bill at times: Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis.
“Back then it was crazy how the people who worked every day went out and partied every night,” Crafford said. “We played clubs on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, then the colleges on Friday and Saturday. How these people went to work the next day, I don’t know.”
Burgess left the Pacers in 1960 to begin playing for Conway Twitty, but by the mid-1960s, as the country’s musical tastes changed, he left the stage and worked in sales positions around Newport. A rockabilly revival in the late 1980s brought him back to the stage, and he and some members of the original band formed Sonny Burgess and the Legendary Pacers in the mid-1990s.
“We got back together and this thing started getting big. We’re getting calls from Europe,” Crafford said. Over the past two decades, the group split time among sites in Europe, festivals in the U.S. and clubs similar to those they played along U.S. 67 when they first set out. Playing together over 63 years came so naturally that they are in the Rockabilly Hall of Fame in Jackson, Tennessee.
“We blended together,” Crafford said. “We didn’t have to rehearse hardly ever. The Silver Moon was our rehearsal. If we were playing there Saturday night, we’d get together Saturday afternoon and run through things.”
Allen said he’d have Burgess’ music playing during Thursday’s visitation at the club, which can accommodate about 800 people.
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