Born in Memphis, the boxing brothers, Johnny and Dorsey Burnette, along with lead guitarist Paul Burlison, were “tearin’ it up” in the honk tonks of west Tennessee in 1953 with their hyped-up, no-holds-barred versions of traditional country and R&B songs.
Paul Burlison met the Burnettes in 1949 at a boxing tournament where Dorsey took home the trophies. Pulling no punches, Paul and Johnny joined a country band led by pianist Doc McQueen, and Dorsey joined up with Scotty Moore and Bill Black’s country goup playing pedal steel guitar. Dorsey rejoined Doc McQueen’s band playing upright slap bass and in 1953, Johnny, Dorsey and Paul created the now legendary “Johnny Burnette Trio” by doing double-duty, performing their special rockin’ kind of music between swing dance sets by the McQueen band. In the summer of 1953, both Johnny and Dorsey were blessed with the birth of sons—Dorsey’s son, Billy, was born in May, and Johnny’s son, Rocky, was born in June. The Burnettes celebrated the birth of their sons by dedicating songs to the babies. Fans loved these rockin’ new songs so much, they began requesting that “Rock ‘n’ Billy” music—which quickly translated to R-O-C-K-A-B-I-L-L-Y music.
Elvis Presley lived in the Lauderdale Courts, the same Memphis federal housing development where the Burnettes and Paul Burlison also lived. The Johnny Burnette Trio rehearsed their songs in the concrete-walled laundry room because it had great echo. Elvis would come around the massive laundry room while they were rehearsing, but the Burnettes ran him off because they wanted nothing to do with him or his “crooner” songs.
The Johnny Burnette Trio planted the roots of the Rockabilly tree by introducing a new, energetic mixture of country, R&B and gospel music, distinctive with its aggressive guitar and slap bass playing, and infused with soulful rhythm and vocal delivery that they perfected while crossing all segregation barriers and playing with Howlin’ Wolf. As performed by the trio, this new music was dubbed “Rockabilly,” but others called it the “Devil’s Music” instead. Had these pioneers recorded “Rockabilly Boogie” in 1953 before Elvis and the “Big Bang,” Rockabilly history would be completely different.
Excerpt from The Rockabilly Legends DVD Documentary 2-DVD Set.