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Sonny Burgess, Rockabilly Wild Man, Is Dead at 88

The record was said to have sold nearly 100,000 copies, but Mr. Burgess, who wrote both songs, was unable to capitalize on its success. His later releases for Sun went nowhere, and after leaving the label in 1959 he scratched out a living playing bass with the country singer Conway Twitty and performing with a variety of groups, including the Legendary Pacers, a reconfigured version of the original group.

Photo

Sonny Burgess in 2009.

Credit
Mike Wintroath/Associated Press

Rediscovered by European fans, Mr. Burgess enjoyed a resurgence in the 1990s, recording albums with Dave Alvin of the Blasters and Gary Tallent of the E Street Band. In 1999 he was admitted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, which called his Sun records “among the most raucous, energy-filled recordings released during the first flowering of rock and roll.”

Albert Austin Burgess was born on May 28, 1929, near Newport, Ark., about 60 miles west of Memphis. His parents, Albert Austin and the former Esta Parsley, ran a cotton and soybean farm.

After graduating from high school, he spent two years in baseball’s minor leagues but could not hit a curveball. Giving up on a baseball career, he formed a country band, the Rocky Road Ramblers, with three friends.

He served in the Army during the Korean War, stationed in West Germany with the military police. On his return to Arkansas, he reorganized the Ramblers into the Moonlighters, taking the name from the Silver Moon Club in Newport, where the group often played.

Mr. Burgess, a fan of the blues singers Jimmy Reed and Big Joe Turner, performed a mix of rhythm and blues and old standards, but in 1955 the group changed its sound after opening for Elvis Presley on four dates.

“We heard Elvis and said, ‘Man, I want to go to Memphis and record and be like that,’ ” Mr. Burgess told Kicks magazine in 1988.

Presley, in turn, liked the group’s version of Smiley Lewis’s “One Night of Sin,” which he recorded in 1958 as “One Night.”

Photo

Sonny Burgess in an undated photo.

Credit
Charly Records

Adding a second guitar and trumpet and taking a new name, the Pacers, the group began recording at Sun with Mr. Phillips, who encouraged Mr. Burgess to coarsen his vocal style and let loose, which he did, on the Sun singles “Thunderbird,” “Ain’t Got a Thing,” “My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It” and “Sadie’s Back in Town.”

“Maybe Sonny’s sound was too raw, I don’t know — but I tell you this,” Mr. Phillips said in an interview for a boxed set of Sun recordings. “They were pure rock ’n’ roll.”

In performance, the Pacers lived up to their sound. Inspired by Freddie Bell and the Bellboys, whose stage antics had enlivened Bill Haley and the Comets’ movie “Rock Around the Clock,” they did splits and back flips onstage, formed a human pyramid and threw themselves into the audience at the end of every performance.

“The bug dance was real big with us,” Mr. Burgess told Kicks. “I’d throw a ‘bug’ at one of the guys, he’d start itchin’ and goin’ crazy, then he’d throw it on somebody else and we’d throw it all around the audience and get them all tied up in it.”

After touring with Mr. Twitty, Mr. Burgess formed a new group, the King’s IV, but in 1972 he left the music business to become a traveling salesman for St. Louis Trimming, a sewing-supply company.

In the mid-1980s he joined with former musicians from the Sun label to form the Sun Rhythm Section. He later recorded the solo albums “Tennessee Border” with Mr. Alvin and “Sonny Burgess” with Mr. Tallent.

With June Taylor, he was the host of “We Wanna Boogie,” a Sunday night show on KASU, the radio station of Arkansas State University, in Jonesboro.

In addition to his son, he is survived by a sister, Ann Heath.

Mr. Burgess welcomed the accolades and late-life acclaim but took a modest view of his role as a rockabilly pioneer. Speaking to Mr. Escott, he said, “It wasn’t super good music, but it felt good to us.”

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