Between May of 1956 and March of 1957, the Rock and Roll Trio recorded a total of 25 tracks, including some of the most raw and energetic rockabilly music ever put to tape. They were not only at the forefront of the burgeoning rock ‘n’ roll sound, but in many ways, years ahead of their contemporaries.
Though Blackboard Jungle and Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” deserve recognition as indicators of a potential revolution in popular music, rock ‘n’ roll might be remembered today as a minor cultural uprising of limited significance if Elvis Presley hadn’t entered the scene. On January 27, 1956, Elvis released “Heartbreak Hotel,” following that mega-hit with three more chart-toppers in quick succession. The sales figures indicated that rock ‘n’ roll was here to stay, motivating record companies, promoters and TV impresarios to intensify their bush-beating efforts to find musicians who could play the music that transformed innocent, white teenage girls into wanton vixens, thereby opening the door to the promising revenue stream in the burgeoning teen market.
By the summer of 1956, even the most casual observer of the music scene would have wagered that the Rock ‘n’ Roll Trio were sure bets for stardom. The Burnette brothers (Johnny and Dorsey) had formed a trio in the early 50s with guitarist Paul Burlison (a Delta blues aficionado who had played with Howlin’ Wolf on Beale Street) and over the years had developed their brand of country-bluegrass-cottonpatch-blues music (i.e, rockabilly) well enough to earn something of a following in Memphis and other locales in Tennessee. The history gets a little shaky at this point, with some claiming that they auditioned for Sam Phillips while others say they never set foot in Sun Records. Whatever the truth, it became apparent to the trio that they had reached a dead end, so when Paul and Dorsey lost their day jobs in Memphis in early 1956, the trio decided to try their luck in the Big Apple.
After settling in at the YMCA, they auditioned for Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour and landed a spot because one of the screeners felt it was time for the show to reach out to the lucrative teen market. The trio won the amateur competition three weeks in a row and within a few weeks had signed a management contract and scored a deal with Coral Records. Their victories on the Mack show earned them a spot in the finalists’ nationwide tour, concluding with a television appearance on The Arthur Godfrey Show. Meanwhile, Alan Freed had selected the Rock and Roll Trio to appear in his showcase film Rock, Rock, Rock, alongside such luminaries as Chuck Berry, LaVern Baker, The Moonglows, The Teenagers with Frankie Lymon and Tuesday Weld lip-syncing to Connie Francis.
Yet despite the extensive exposure and favorable publicity, none of their singles made the national charts. Not one. Zippo. By the fall of 1957, the Rock and Roll Trio had faded into history.
An autopsy reveals that the cause of death was a combination of poor decision-making, bad luck and a brotherly squabble. Some of the songs that Coral released as singles simply didn’t showcase the band at their best. Their appearance on The Arthur Godfrey Show happened to coincide with Elvis Presley’s first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, and though Godfrey still managed to draw five million viewers, that was a mere pittance compared to the record-setting audience that tuned in to see The King.
The brotherly squabble had to do with the decision to add a drummer to the lineup. The trio had rarely worked with a drummer until May 1956 when the label brought in a guy named Eddie Grady to handle the drums for their initial recording sessions in New York. After shifting to Nashville in July for the next round of recordings and working with longtime studio drummer Farris Coursey, the trio decided to engage a full-time drummer for live performances and reached out to Carl Perkins for suggestions. Carl hooked them up with his cousin Tony Austin, who was quickly anointed as a regular band member (but would never appear on any of their recordings). This turn of events left them in a bit of a pickle because they were no longer a trio, and their records had been released under the name the Rock and Roll Trio. Their manager responded to the crisis by unilaterally changing the band name to Johnny Burdette and the Rock ‘n’ Roll Trio for live performances and the Johnny Burdette Trio on their third single. Brother Dorsey took offense to the name changes because he had been the lead singer on some of their songs. Things went downhill pretty quickly after that brouhaha, and the combination of sibling rivalry and endless nights on the road led Dorsey to quit the band a few weeks before the shooting of Rock, Rock, Rock.
Though the Rock ‘n’ Roll Trio quickly faded into memory in the United States and the let-it-all-out rock of Little Richard, Chuck Berry and pre-army Elvis gave way to saccharine-drenched substitutes, their rough-and-ready brand of rockabilly eventually caught the attention of wannabe rockers in Jolly Olde England. Some were probably attracted to Johnny Burnette’s hold-nothing-back vocals, but most were knocked out by Burlison’s raw guitar sound that was unlike anything they’d ever heard before—the result of Coral head honcho and co-producer Bob Thiele’s suggestion to turn up the treble to the max and Burlison’s accidental discovery that a loose tube produced the gritty sound we now refer to as distortion. Burlison would eventually be identified as a major influence by Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton.
In their best work, though, you’ll find an aggressiveness that can’t be attributed to tonal modification or messing with an amplifier’s innards. Every biographical sketch of the band identifies the one interest beyond music that they all had in common:
Despite their collective love of music, all three men were initially devoted to boxing, a sport in which they each excelled. The Burnette brothers also had a reputation for less structured violence, as Elvis’ longtime guitarist Scotty Moore recalled. Describing a joint show at a local honky tonk, Moore said “All hell broke loose. Johnny and Dorsey were notorious fighters. They’d been banned from all the Cotton Carnivals. I don’t know how many the two of them were fighting – a bunch of them. I decided then, ‘Well boys, I don’t think we can book you again around here.’”
—from the Memphis Music Hall of Fame
That got me to a-wonderin’ if pugilists developed higher testosterone levels than your average bloke, and lo and behold, I found a 2019 study titled, “Effects of Boxing Matches on Metabolic, Hormonal, and Inflammatory Parameters in Male Elite Boxers.” Even better, I found a summary of the study on Linealboxing.com so my readers would not be traumatized by the bio-chemistry jibber-jabber in the original. The answer is “no,” “yes” and “it depends.”
Male athletes who are in peak physical condition will always have higher testosterone levels than the average person, regardless of the sport they compete in. However, as we mentioned earlier, there is no evidence that actual boxing matches increase their testosterone levels. But I think for males at least, in order to be a fighter, you have to have a certain level of competitiveness and aggression. So I anticipate that those men who end up having a career in combat sports naturally have higher testosterone levels to begin with.
I’m going to go with “higher testosterone levels to begin with” and run with it. As clearly portrayed in the non-Oscar-winning film Elvis, rock ‘n’ roll scared the hell out of legislators and parents because the “negro music” played by Presley at peak testosterone levels simultaneously triggered an estrogen rush in white adolescent females. Elvis was the model that every wannabe rocker wanted to emulate, so the trio followed his lead and then some, releasing full blasts of testosterone into their music to create a unique brand of raucous, rockin’ rockabilly.
Tear It Up is the title of multiple compilations; this release contains all the recordings made by the trio in New York and Nashville during the period between May 1956 and March 1957. Most of the really good stuff was recorded in Nashville in early July 1956. Consumers should take the subtitle “The Complete Legendary Coral Recordings” very seriously, because the folks responsible for this particular compilation took the kitchen-sink approach and loaded the album with alternate takes of questionable value and the usual amount of crappy stuff that you’d expect from a band still trying to find their bearings in the studio. Some of the blame for the uneven nature of the recordings can be attributed to the split loyalties of producer Owen Bradley, who produced the Nashville sessions (Bob Thiele took care of production in New York). Bradley was one of the founders of the Nashville Sound, the string-and-chorus-loaded production style that eventually turned Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings into outlaws. Though Bradley did co-produce “(The) Train Kept a Rollin'” and most of the hottest tracks, the truly awful stuff comes from Bradley channeling his affection for the Nashville Sound.
Ergo, I won’t waste your time by even bothering to comment on the crap. Of the twenty-eight tracks in the collection, I’m going to focus on thirteen songs that capture the rock ‘n ‘ roll essence of the trio, forming a compilation pretty close to the more manageable version of Tear It Up released in 1978 on Solid Smoke Records. Given the fact that all the recordings were completed in less than a year, there’s really no development story here, so I’ll present the songs in alphabetical order.
One last thing. If you developed a fancy for lo-fi music during the 90s, you’re going to love this album because it’s obvious on many of the tracks that the needle had drifted into the red zone and stayed there for a while. You’d think that given all the testosterone gushing from the trio, the engineer would have watched that needle like a hawk, but it’s also possible that the red zone violations were a deliberate attempt to draw attention to the trio’s boundless energy.
“All By Myself” (Nashville, July 2, 1956): This Fats Domino cover is a good place to start because the compare-and-contrast between the original and the cover is stark, to say the least. Both versions lay out the same set of circumstances: a guy is presented with the opportunity to have a girl all to himself.
When I commented on the original in my review of The Fats Domino Jukebox, I described The Fat Man’s performance as “energetic and delightful” and his vocal as “sung with a wink in his eye and a wallet full of dough ready to treat his lady to a good time.” In his telling of the story, he instructs the girl to “Meet me in the park about half past one/We are going out and having some fun,” implying a night on the town or a trip to an amusement park. In other words, good clean fun.
By contrast, I would describe Johnny Burnette’s hiccup-loaded vocal as the sound of a guy with a raging hard-on threatening to rip a hole in his blue jeans—no mean feat. The first verse adheres to the lyrics of the original, but Johnnyborrows a verse from the Roy Brown tune “Good Rockin’ Tonight” for the second verse, making it perfectly clear that a ride on a roller coaster isn’t what he has in mind:
Well meet me in a hurry behind the barn
Don’t be afraid I’ll do you no harm
All by myself, all by myself
I don’t need no-one to love you
Gonna love you all by myself
It sure sounds like Johnny envisions an energetic roll in the hay, an interpretation confirmed by his tomcat screams and shouts during Paul Burlison’s first treble-at-the-max guitar solo. Johnny then replaces the original’s third verse with a couplet from the old folk song “Cumberland Gap”: “Well I got a girl who’s six feet tall/Sleeps in the kitchen with her feet in the hall.” Though it makes no sense in the narrative, it’s interesting that Johnny chose to borrow from a song that became a #1 hit for another musician mentioned as a major influence by nearly every British rocker of the 60’s—Lonnie Donegan.
The fundamental difference between the two takes is best explained by an analogy. If the girl in question brought Fats home to meet her parents, they’d be delighted. If the girl showed up with Johnny Burnette in tow, daddy would reach for his shotgun and put the girl on restriction for a whole year.
Story aside, the song is notable for Paul Burlison’s fluid guitar work integrating raw country and electrified cotton patch blues. The chording is three-chord basic blues (used in nearly all the songs in the collection), and Burlison takes full advantage of the freedom inherent in that simple structure, spending most of his time picking away at the lower strings and flying high to deliver some pretty cool blues riffs.
“Blues Stay Away from Me” (Nashville, July 2, 1956): The original by the Delmore Brothers is only one of the estimated 1,000 songs they wrote during a career that spanned a quarter-century. “Blues Stay Away from Me” came out towards the end of that timespan in 1949 and became their best-known song. The Delmores are considered country music pioneers, combining gospel harmonies with folk guitar and blues and leading the way to the sound we know as rockabilly.
The Delmore version is flat-out sad, a result of vocal restraint and the melancholy offerings of harmonica master Wayne Raney. The vocals are as smooth as silk, with Alton and Rabon displaying their gift for tight vocal harmonies. The hint of a rockabilly future is found in the opening riff, reminiscent of some of Burlison’s treble-heavy work on the lower strings.
Unsurprisingly, the trio’s version is much more muscular, a tone established in the first verse where they replace the harmonies of the original with a call-and-response approach featuring Dorsey on the call and Johnny on the response. It almost sounds like the brothers are engaged in masculine competition, as in my-dick-is-bigger-than-your-dick. They do ease up a little bit when switching to harmony, but never come close to approaching the sadness of the original; their tone is much closer to “defiant,” conveying an absolute refusal to let the blues get them down.
Johnny again manages to throw in a couple of screams during Burlison’s solo, but the timing of his utterances indicates that the screams aren’t a stylistic gimmick but a sincere reaction to some pretty damned hot picking. This sincerity is apparent throughout the album—you can’t listen to Tear It Up and fail to conclude that the boys were absolutely thrilled to find themselves recording in a real recording studio.
“Drinking Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee” (Nashville, July 2, 1956): Y’all know this one, though you may have heard it under a different title with different lyrics. “Down in New Orleans where everything’s fine/All those cats/people just drinkin’/sockin’ that wine . . . ” Got it? It’s been covered by half the musicians on the planet, she exaggerated, but it sure feels that way. Electric Flag. Jerry Lee Lewis. Hank Williams Jr. Wynonie Harris. Even teetotaler Richard Thompson managed to crank out a pretty fair version.
I have a very strong preference for Nick Gravenites’ vocal with the blazing horn section and Mike Bloomfield’s licks on the Electric Flag take, but Johnny does a fair job with the song. The real puzzler with the Rock ‘n’ Roll Trio recording has to do with its release as a single because it begs the question, “Who the fuck was their target market?” I can’t imagine this song having much appeal to 50s teens except for hoodlums and juvenile delinquents, and that demographic was more likely to steal records than to buy them.
“Eager Beaver Baby” (Nashville, March 22, 1957): As this song was co-written by Bob Thiele, I suppose the trio felt obligated to give it a shot, and they actually do a pretty good job with it. The highlight is Johnny’s vocal, where he not only channels Elvis in the chorus but demonstrates his ability to immerse himself in a role—in this case, a guy who is being stalked by a likely nymphomaniac. During the stop-time segments in the verses, Johnny comes across as truly freaked out that this chick follows him everywhere and has no problem taking the initiative (a distinctly unfeminine act at the time):
She’s always there beside me, no matter where I stop
She follows me at the movies, even to the barbershop. . .
She gets me in her parlor and switches off the light
Before I know what’s happened she’s a-huggin’ me so tight
I call her my eager beaver baby, eager beaver baby
Well what am I gonna do with that eager beaver baby of mine?
She loves to mess my hair up and loosen up my tie
And when she starts a-kissin’, I’m a real gone guy
I call her my eager beaver baby, ooh eager beaver baby
Well what am I gonna do with that eager beaver baby of mine?
At this point I begin laughing hysterically, pausing only to shout, “Fuck her, you dumb ass! Grab a Trojan and give her what she wants!” I think the song could have been even hotter if the eager beaver actually shot her beaver, but that would have been taking things a bit too far in the Eisenhower Era.
“Honey Hush” (Nashville, July 3, 1956): The opening track on the album carries layers of baggage, so we’ll clear that pile out of the way before considering the trio’s performance.
First, this is a Big Joe Turner song, predictably as sexist as sexist gets. In Turner’s original, the sequence goes like this: honey, hush and make my dinner . . . honey, hush, you talk too damn much . . . honey, hush and stop that goddamn crying . . . all leading to the ultimate honey-hushing technique:
Come in this house, stop all that yackety yack
Come in here woman, stop all that yackety yack
Don’t make me nervous, ’cause I’m holdin’ a baseball bat.
Turner’s version spent eight weeks at #1 on the R&B charts in 1953 and I’ll bet a gazillion dollars that not a single protest was raised by the submissive females of the era.
True confession: I really like Joe Turner’s version. I navigate past the threat of domestic violence by placing myself into the song, grabbing the bat and smacking a sharp line drive right up his middle.
The second piece of baggage involves the term “whitewashing,” a rich array of practices used by white folk in the music industry to screw black performers and songwriters out of their rightful due. The most common form involves white appropriation of black music, a practice largely facilitated by the media with blessings from the moguls. Bill Haley, Pat Boone and Elvis Presley were all accused of appropriation in the 50s, but despite Presley’s game attempts to draw attention to Little Richard, Big Mama Thornton and the other black musicians who created the music, the media focused all their attention on Elvis and the other white guys. Even in the face of the stunning success of African-American musical artists since that heavily segregated era, the media continues to shine the spotlight on white performers, as noted by Eve McKeown in an article on The Boar: “This has been carried on to today, with Eminem hailed as the ‘King of Rap’, and Justin Timberlake seen to be the ‘King of R&B’.”
Another form of “whitewashing” was more prevalent in the 50s and 60s: modifying the sex-drenched lyrics of some African-American R&B compositions to make them more wholesome and palatable to the teen audience (and their parents). Turner’s “Shake, Rattle and Roll” was neutered by Bill Haley with all the skill of a veterinarian:
Big Joe Turner, “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” second verse:
Way you wear those dresses, the sun comes shinin’ throughWay you wear those dresses, the sun comes shinin’ through I can’t believe my eyes, all that mess belongs to you
Bill Haley, “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” second verse:
Wearin’ those dresses, your hair done up so rightWearin’ those dresses, your hair done up so right You look so warm but your heart is as cold as ice
Bill Haley was such a pussy.
As the Rock ‘n’ Roll Trio was never successful enough to reach the point of media-aided appropriation, we can only measure the extent of their whitewashing through lyrical changes. The modifications the trio made to “Honey Hush” have all the markings of a rush job with too many cooks in the kitchen, resulting in a mixed verdict. They clipped out the opening semi-verse where Turner dreams of a roll in the cotton fields (ouch!) but kept the reference to the woman as an “alley cat” as well as the fade with its repeated “hi-ho Silver,” a clear allusion to studliness. On the sexist side, they did remove the demand for a home-cooked meal but embraced the blabbermouth and crybaby accusations while regrettably giving the baseball bat their stamp of approval. The difference is this: I know what Big Joe wants: his dinner, a little peace and quiet and her legs spread wide. I have no idea what Johnny Burdette wants; perhaps there weren’t any guys around to punch out and he had to take it out on a fictional woman.
I do like the energy in his vocals, but I’m more fascinated by the guitar duet. I wasn’t even sure it was a guitar duet until several run-throughs, as the high notes are very quiet and sound more like a cheap-ass synthesizer than a guitar. I’m assuming that Burlison takes care of the low notes and studio guitarist Grady Martin the high notes, but as the info on Discogs doesn’t reach that level of specificity, that’s just a guess.
“Lonesome Tears in My Eyes” (Nashville, July 3, 1956): This trio composition falls into the Tex-Mex genre popularized by Marty Robbins and Jay and the Americans. When I listen to the song, I get the sense the band wasn’t entirely comfortable with the high-speed tempo, resulting in a performance that sounds rushed. Johnny makes the needle go red a couple of times and Dorsey sounds a bit stiff on the bass fiddle. The lead guitar is really the highlight here, such as it is.
The song was rescued from oblivion by the Beatles, who saw possibilities in the song that completely escaped my ears. Their performance of the song as captured on Live at the BBC is an absolute knockout, with John Lennon handling the phrasing demanded by the hyper-tempo with aplomb and George Harrison having the time of his life perfecting his rockability chops. The Beatles’ rendition has a much stronger rockabilly feel than the original, an assertion that may seem ironic given that the genre was the trio’s sweet spot, but is easily explained by the simple truth that the Beatles were one of the tightest bands in history and had mastered many different styles of rock ‘n’ roll.
“Lonesome Train (On A Lonesome Track)” (Nashville, July 5, 1956): The compilation features the single version and an alternate version but you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference betwixt the two. However, if you listen very closely, you’ll hear Paul Burlison introduce more dissonance into his riffs on the alternate take, thereby winning my vote. Johnny’s vocal is typically intense and adorned by a few screams, but Burlison’s high-speed runs and experimentation are clearly the centerpiece.
While at times he seems to be an improvement over Eddie Grady, on this track it sounds like Farris Coursey put about as much effort into his drumming as I put into folding my underwear. If I didn’t know better, I might have assumed that the percussion was coming from a drum machine managed by a guy who picked the first pattern on the screen, hit “play” and promptly fell asleep.
“Oh Baby Babe” (New York, May 7, 1956): Meanwhile, back in Gotham, Eddie wakes up from his slumber, manages a few cymbal crashes and fills, and ends the piece with suitable punctuation. Yeah, he fell out of rhythm a couple of times, but I’ll take it.
This song could have easily been labeled a parody of Elvis with its chorus of “baby, baby, baby, bum-bum-bum-bum-bum-bum, baby, baby, baby, rinse and repeat,” but Johnny Burnette sounds so sincere and happy to be in front of a mike that he wins me over (especially when he gets to the verses). This is another trio-penned piece, and though the lyrics come close to nonsensical, the energy coming from the band is undeniable.
“Please Don’t Leave Me” (Nashville, July 4, 1956): Our second contribution from Fats Domino appears in the form of one of his lesser songs that didn’t make the cut for The Fats Domino Jukebox. The structure of the song is problematic in that the first two verses are wordless, with Fats singing “ooh-ooh-ooh” variants every four measures . . . not the most effective way to engage the listening audience. Fats does some of the best ooh-oohing I’ve ever heard, but these ooh-ooh-oohs go ooh-ooh-on way too long.
Johnny runs into the same problem, so I guess one of the geniuses in the room suggested doing an alternate take, instructing Johnny to mimic Satchmo’s growls in place of the ooh-ooh-oohs.
Bad idea. Really bad idea. The sound is somewhere between repetitive throat clearing and straining to take a dump.
If they’d only listened to me . . . okay, I admit I wasn’t born yet, but if I had been alive and in the studio on that fateful day, I would have jumped out of my seat after the first take and screamed, “Fuck the vocal! Make it an instrumental!” Paul Burlison’s reverb-tinged, treble-bright opening riff is frigging beautiful, a mini-celebration of the rockabilly sound. I can easily imagine that Mr. Burlison would have filled the track with enough delightfully clean rockabilly stylings to make the song a keeper.
“Rock Billy Boogie” (Nashville, July 4, 1956): I’m pretty sure the title is a typo, as it’s very clear that Johnny sings “rockabilly boogie” throughout the song. Putting aside the typo and the drum machine beat, this rock anthem kicks ass in a way that Bill Haley could only dream of. Johnny gives it all he’s got in a thrilling vocal and both Dorsey and Burlison rock like there’s no tomorrow, compensating nicely for the drum machine’s limitation.
The song “takes place” at a “little spot on the edge of town” called The Hideaway, where “they kick off their shoes, gettin’ ready to bop,” making for delightful scenes such as this:
Well, there’s little ol’ Suzie, turnin’ seventeen
Well, everybody knows her as a rockabilly queen
And there’s Ol’ Slim, as quiet as a mouse
He grabs Ol’ Suzie, they’ll tear up the house
Sigh. I wish they’d had sock hops when I was a teen. The mosh pits were great but sometimes I really could have welcomed an alternative to allow some time for my bruises to heal.
“Rock Therapy” (Nashville, July 4, 1956): This song was the brainchild of Milton Subotsky and Glen Travis Moore (who also wrote “Lonesome Train (On a Lonesome Track)” plus a woman by the name of Alice Bayer. Subotsky’s main source of income came from writing and producing for television and film, but one of those films was Rock, Rock, Rock, for which he penned “Lonesome Train” (lip-synced in the movie by the trio minus Dorsey). My guess is that “Rock Therapy” was also composed for the film but failed to make the grade.
The song’s structure bears a remarkable resemblance to “Heartbreak Hotel” with stop-time verses balanced by straight-time choruses. Johnny thickens his voice a bit for this performance, strengthening his assertion that he doesn’t need a doctor, a pill, a nurse or any vitamins, just the energizing experience of rock ‘n’ roll. Dorsey’s presence on the bass is more apparent here than in most of the tracks, and it syncs well with Johnny’s choice to go deep.
Now that I think about it, I could have pasted “Burlison is fabulous” in all my track commentaries and saved myself a lot of time. That sucker played one badass guitar.
“Tear It Up” (New York, May 7, 1956): The title of the song implies that we’re about to have a rip-roaring time but only the lyrics live up to that promise. Burlison’s guitar sound is unusually thin, Dorsey’s bass and Eddie’s drums are barely audible and while there’s no problem with Johnny’s delivery, his voice is shoved to the back by excessive reverb. It’s more a toe-tapper than an ass-shaker, hardly likely to motivate serious rockers to tear it up on the dance floor. I think they should have saved this one for the Nashville sessions when they really let it rip.
“(The) Train Kept a Rollin'” (Nashville, July 2, 1956): I was both surprised and delighted that my decision to present the songs in alphabetical order wound up saving the best for last. The trio’s rendition of this Tiny Bradshaw song is simply one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll recordings in history. As a long-time aficionado of punk, I completely agree with music journalist Miles Raymer’s contention “that ‘Train Kept A-Rollin’’ should be considered the world’s first punk song . . . ‘This is one of the first times in recorded history that a musician made the decision to intentionally make their instrument sound worse: Anti-hi-fi, halfway broken, fingers raised to the very notion of pristinity.'”
This sucker is fierce. The opening guitar riff provides more than sufficient motivation for the listeners to jump out of their seats in a paroxysm of excitement, and with brother Dorsey strengthening Coursey’s steady but pedestrian beat with a muscular performance on bass, the train starts a-rollin’ and keeps on chugging at full speed all the way to the finish. The guitar solo is flat-out nasty with its distortion and thick sound, adding to the sense of out-of-control acceleration. Johnny Burnette knocks it way, way out of the park with a testosterone-driven, no-time-to-catch-his-breath vocal spiced with shrieks, screams and shouts—easily one of the sexiest rock vocals I’ve ever heard . . . and that’s coming from a sex-and-rock connoisseur.
Alas, there is some debate regarding who actually plays that riff and the distortion-heavy solo, based on an analysis of the track performed by Vince Gordon and Peter Dijkema:
For years, it never struck me that anyone but Paul Burlison could be playing the brilliant lead guitar, on some of the classic Rock’n’Roll Trio songs recorded at Owen Bradley’s Quonset Hut studio in Nashville. Songs like: Lonesome Train, Sweet Love On My Mind, Rock Billy Boogie and Rock Therapy.
I used to tell people, who asked me rockabilly gear questions, that the only one I ever heard who got a fat and full sound out of an Esquire/Telecaster was Paul Burlison on some of the Quonset Hut recordings. Today I believe the mystery is solved: It wasn’t Paul Burlison playing a Fender Esquire/Tele at all, but instead Grady Martin playing with his trademark fat tone, used on numerous rockabilly recordings.
Even though I no longer think that Paul Burlison played lead on all those classic rockabilly recordings, as the official Rock’n’Roll history will have it, he still – without a doubt – played on the May 1956 recordings at the Pythian Temple, New York for instance. That session spawned two classic rockabilly tracks (Among other songs): “Tear It Up” and the Elvis Presley, “Baby Let’s Play House rip off ” – amazingly a great song in its own right – “Oh Baby Babe.”
The playing and sound on those sessions is typical single string blues influenced Tele/Esquire stuff, which I happen to think is great! However, it’s a far cry from the sophisticated jazzy stuff found on the Quonset Hut recordings. The classy chord playing found on “Please Don’t Leave Me” for instance is a completely different approach to lead guitar playing, than that of “Tear It Up,” which was recorded only three months earlier.
Of course, the study was performed years after the deaths of both guitarists, so neither was in a position to confirm or deny. However, the authors of that study do quote Burlison’s remembrances of the session in question:
[I was] in the dressing room with the loose tube. Johnny [Burnette] was playing an E chord and I was playing in a G position but I’d take my fingers off and play in octaves [using the thumb and middle or index finger]. He wasn’t singing ‘The Train Kept A-Rollin”, it was another song, and I got to doing doom diddle doom daddle doom daddle … [Later] I told Owen Bradley about it at the Barn, where we cut the stuff, and he said, ‘let me hear it’. So I started doing it and he said, ‘Well, let’s do it’.
It’s hard for me to believe that Burlison made up that story. Please note that Vince Gordon said “Even though I no longer think Paul Burlison played lead,” which qualifies his assertion as an opinion and not a fact. Without confirmation, I can only endow credit to the musician listed in the credits, and that’s Paul Burlison.
After the group’s final collapse, the Burdette brothers patched things up and decided to seek their fortunes in Sunny California. After an unsuccessful attempt to resurrect the band, the brothers literally planted their asses on the front steps of Ricky Nelson’s home and managed to pitch several of their new compositions to the teen idol. Nelson wound up recording several of their songs, including the hit “It’s Late.” Though the brothers recorded a few songs themselves, none of those efforts were successful, so they decided to continue songwriting while embarking on careers as solo performers. Johnny Burdette finally achieved success in the early 60s, abandoning rockabilly for the soft and insipid “rock” peddled by competitors like post-army Elvis, Frankie Avalon and Bobby Rydell. “Dreamin'” and “You’re Sixteen” were about as far away from raw and energetic as you could get.
Sadly, Johnny Burnette died in a boating accident at the too-young age of thirty. Dorsey also died young, at the age of forty-six. Paul Burlison retired from the music business for several years before re-creating the Rock and Roll Trio in the 80s; he would later release a solo album aptly titled Train Kept A-Rollin in 1997. Burlison passed away at the age of seventy-four in 2003.
Though the Rock ‘n’ Roll Trio never received the accolades they truly deserved during their lifetimes—and still haven’t received their due recognition from the idiots in Cleveland—they are enshrined in the Rockabilly Hall of Fame and the Memphis Music Hall of Fame. Even though things didn’t work out on the commercial side, I hope that each of them took pride in their status as rock ‘n’ roll pioneers, helping to shape the future during a uniquely exciting period in music history.