Rockabilly pioneer Sonny Burgess, one of the key artists at Sun Records in Memphis, died Friday night (Aug. 18) in Little Rock, Arkansas at age 88, according to The Commercial Appeal newspaper in Memphs.
While Sun labelmates Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis eclipsed Burgess in terms of commercial success, Burgess was one of rockabilly’s most influential singers and guitarists.
Born Albert “Sonny” Burgess in Newport, Arkansas, he led a band called the Rocky Road Ramblers before joining the Army during the Korean conflict. Returning to Arkansas in 1953, he worked as a cotton farmer while leading the Moonlighters, a dance band that evolved into the Pacers two years later.
After the Pacers opened concerts for him in Arkansas, Presley told Burgess to contact Sun Records founder Sam Phillips, who agreed to record the band.
Burgess and the Pacers’ debut single — “Red-Headed Woman” and “We Wanna Boogie” — was released in 1956. The raw power of the tracks established Burgess’ place in rock history. They followed it up with other singles, including “Ain’t Got a Thing,” “Restless,” “Daddy Blues” and “Thunderbird.”
The Pacers continued to tour during the ’60s, and Burgess also worked as a member of Conway Twitty’s band during the time period. In the ’80s, he teamed with guitarist Paul Burlison, bassist Stan Kesler and several other Sun Records alumni to form the Sun Rhythm Section, releasing the album Old Time Rock ‘n’ Roll in 1987.
Burgess reunited the Pacers in the ’90s and continued tour, finding renewed popularity in Europe and Japan. Burgess continued to perform until July, when he was hospitalized after falling at his home.
Burgess was awarded an honorary doctorate from Arkansas State University in 2014 and the Folklife Award by the Arkansas Arts Council in 2016.