Paul Burlison

Guitarist with the Johnny Burnette Trio
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The Independent Online

David Paul Burlison, guitarist: born Brownsville, Tennessee 4 February 1929: twice married (one son, four daughters); died Horn Lake, Mississippi 27 September 2003.

The Johnny Burnette Rock & Roll Trio had an influence and a reputation far beyond the handful of records that they released in 1956 and 1957. Much of that status can be attributed to Paul Burlison's innovative lead-guitar breaks on "Train Kept A-Rollin' " and "Honey Hush". Talking about Them's 1965 hit record "Baby Please Don't Go", the lead singer Van Morrison said, "Jimmy Page played that lick on my record but I'm sure he got it from 'Train Kept A-Rollin' ' by the Johnny Burnette Trio."

Burlison was born in Brownsville, Tennessee, in 1929. When he was eight, his family moved to Memphis. The adolescent Burlison had two interests - boxing and music - and they combined in 1948 when he was a contender for a welterweight title in Memphis where he met another boxer, Dorsey Burnette, who introduced him to his younger brother, Johnny. They all wanted to make music and their paths often crossed over the next few years.

Returning from national service in 1951, Burlison joined Shelby Pollin's country band. He accompanied the blues musician Howlin' Wolf on KNEW radio, and from such fusion of styles came rockabilly music. To Burlison it was a natural progression; he said, "I never thought much about it." Gradually, he started working with Johnny Burnette (vocals and rhythm guitar) and Dorsey Burnette (vocals and upright bass) as the Rock & Roll Trio.

Burlison worked as an apprentice electrician for the Crown Electric Company. Dorsey Burnette and Elvis Presley also worked there, while Johnny Burnette was a door-to-door salesman, offering "unbreakable" dishes to unsuspecting housewives. Burlison built himself an electric guitar by attaching a telephone pick-up to an acoustic but, once he had a little money, he selected a Fender Telecaster. Presley sang with the trio on occasion, but he called them "the Dalton Gang", after the notorious gang of robbers, as they got into so many fights.

The Rock & Roll Trio were the roughest, toughest group playing the roughest, toughest bars in the city, and they recorded an uninhibited tribute to one of them, the Hideaway club, in "Rockbilly Boogie". Johnny Burnette would eye up the girls in the audience and the evenings would often end in a fracas. One night Burlison was ill and couldn't play, and Dorsey Burnette was stabbed in the bottom with a knife. Burnette's father woke Burlison at four in the morning, kicking him out of his sick bed and making him join a posse to deal with the perpetrator.

Strangely, the Rock & Roll Trio was turned down by Sam Phillips at Sun Records, but perhaps he recognised their instability. After Burlison and Dorsey Burnette were laid off at Crown Electric in March 1956, they drove to New York in an old car with no heating or windscreen wipers. They took menial jobs and appeared as a novelty act on Ted Mack's Amateur Hour, which was screened nationally and which they won for three consecutive weeks. They appeared with Mack's road show and returned for the final on 9 September 1956, the same evening as Elvis Presley made his début on The Ed Sullivan Show.

The Rock & Roll Trio had impressed Coral Records - they had their first session in May 1956 at the Pythian Temple in New York, which is where Bill Haley recorded. They added a drummer, Eddie Gray, and also a 32-piece orchestra for "Shattered Dreams". The best performance was the energetic boogie "Tear It Up", which they had written.

That July Coral decided that the Trio should record in Nashville with the producer Owen Bradley. The first session was a revelation. Burlison had dropped his Fender Deluxe amplifier before a stage show and a valve had come loose. Burlison liked the buzzes and crackles, so he retained the faulty connection, thus creating the first example of "fuzzbox guitar" on record.

The trio recorded some marvellous tracks including "Honey Hush", "Lonesome Tears in My Eyes", "Sweet Love on My Mind" and "Lonesome Train (On a Lonesome Track)". "Listen to my guitar on 'Lonesome Train', and then hear Johnny screaming and carrying on," said Burlison. "We were complementing each other." Coral changed the name to Johnny Burnette and the Rock & Roll Trio, which incensed Dorsey. He quit just before the Trio was to appear in the film Rock! Rock! Rock! (1956). Burlison and Johnny Burnette took Dorsey's suit and cut it to size for Johnny Black, brother of Elvis's bass player Bill Black. In sheer annoyance, Dorsey formed Dorsey Burnette and the Rock & Roll Trio, but eventually the brothers came back together to write hit songs for Ricky Nelson.

Although their records had not sold well at the time, a mint copy of the UK release of the Rock & Roll Trio's album Johnny Burnette and the Rock & Roll Trio is worth over £1,000 today. The Beatles performed "Lonesome Tears in My Eyes" and Paul McCartney included "Honey Hush" on Run Devil Run (1999). The Yardbirds recorded "Train Kept A-Rollin' " and Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton and later Brian Setzer have all praised Burlison. Page said,

He was a massive influence to me . . . I don't let too many people play my guitar, but it'd be an honour if he played it.

When Johnny Burnette had some pop hits in the early Sixties, Burlison joined him briefly, but he preferred the security of his construction business, which was doing well. Johnny died in a fishing accident in 1964 and, when Dorsey followed him after a heart attack in 1979, Burlison recorded A Tribute to Johnny and Dorsey Burnette with the Sun rhythm section in Memphis. Burlison did some UK dates with the musicians, and also worked with Johnny's son Rocky, and Dorsey's, Billy. He played at several rock'n'roll festivals in the UK.

In 1997, Burlison released his own CD, Train Kept A-Rollin', with guests including Mavis Staples and members of The Band and Los Lobos.

Spencer Leigh

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