Forgotten Music: Johnny Burnette's Rock N Roll Trio
Though you’ve probably never heard of The Rock And Roll Trio, I guarantee you've heard at least one cover of Train Kept A-Rollin'. Regrettably, like most of the rockabilly pioneers, they never managed to land a huge, national hit and, as evidenced by their influence on the British Invastion, achieved more success abroad.
If mentioned at all, it’s usually just the Elvis connection. Johnny and his brother Dorsey grew up in the same projects as Presley. Dorsey and Paul Burlison both worked for Crown Electric where Elvis drove trucks. When Dorsey finally quit the Trio prior to their appearance in the Alan Freed film Rock, Rock, Rock, he was replaced by Johnny Black, the brother of Presley’s bassist.
Frequently their lack of big success is dismissed due to their “Elvis” similarity. But none of them were ever ripoff artists and ripoff artists don't have the lasting effect on a generation of muscians they did. In fact, the Burnette Boys wrote “Rock Billy Boogie” in 1953. Their mistake was not recording it until 1957, after Elvis hit. While surpassing him in skill, The Rock and Roll Trio always lacked both Presley's luck and his charisma.
They only had two recording sessions together before breaking up in 1957. During their incarnation they left a body of rocking and often covered songs like “Rock Therapy”, “Midnight Train”, “Tear It Up”, “Oh Baby Babe”, and “Lonesome Tears In My Eyes”.
After the dissolution of the band, Burlison left the music world for a reliable paycheck. When he finally returned in the late 1980s, he discovered a fan base of guitar gods clamouring to know how he achieved the Trio sound.
The Burnette Brothers stuck it out, but would never produce anything with the same influential force. The two of them headed to California and landed a gig writing songs for Ricky Nelson. It worked well and this success spurred the pair through a number of different incarnations (The Burnette Brothers, The Texans, and The Shamrocks) on a number of different record companies.
Eventually, they again went their separate ways. Dorsey and Johnny both pursued solo work. Johnny had the better luck. Capital picked him up and marketed him as a teen idol. However, even a saccharine pop hit like “You’re Sixteen” wasn’t enough for a contract renewal.
Afterward, Johnny released two singles on his own label: “Fountain of Love” and “Bigger Man.” We’ll never know where he might have gone from there. On August 14, 1964 a fishing boat hit Johnny’s cabin cruiser and he drowned.
I try not to dwell on any of it. Because, for me, it’s always about The Trio. About Johnny’s frenetic vocals, Burlison’s distinctive fuzzed out guitar stylings, and Dorsey’s driving bass. Especially on one of my favorite Rockabilly songs ever, "Lonesome Train (On A Lonesome Track)."
I never get tired of that song.
But my wife does.