R.I.P. Sonny Burgess, Primal Rockabilly Wildman

Albert “Sonny” Burgess recorded for the legendary Sun Records label in its mid ‘50s heyday. Although never achieving the iconic stature or popular success of labelmates such as Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, Burgess made unforgettable contributions to Sun’s legacy. His incendiary single “Red Headed Woman” b/w “We Wanna Boogie” (which stands proudly between Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line” and Carl Perkins’ “Dixie Fried” in a chronological list of Sun releases) remains a jaw-dropping track even today, with Burgess’ frantic vocal overpowering the primitive recording equipment as it battles against Richard Nance’s raging trumpet. Musician Dave Alvin (The Blasters, X) would later recall that his first experience hearing Burgess “was like standing in the middle of an alley on a hot night, between a country bar and a blues club, with both back doors open.”

Born near Newport, Arkansas, Burgess became known as “The Arkansas Wildman” and remained stubbornly true to his home state. Although he won a reputation as one of the more colorful characters around Memphis (Roy Orbison fondly recalled a gig where Burgess showed up with dyed red hair and matching crimson suit, shoes, and Fender guitar), Burgess never relocated. Sun label boss Sam Phillips lamented that Burgess “never got the right break,” but the artist himself chalked up his career’s demise to location, location, location. “If we had moved to Memphis, we might have been more successful,” he would later opine. By the mid ’70s he was running a shoe store in Little Rock.

But the ‘80s rockabilly revival gave Burgess’ career a second life. He started performing again, both as a solo act and with The Sun Rhythm Section, a loose confederation of veteran Sun sideman for whom Burgess assumed the lead vocal role. He recorded new albums for Hightone and Rounder Records, and performed onstage with artists such as Rosie Flores and Bruce Springsteen. His final public concert was a surprisingly energetic set at this year’s Viva Las Vegas Rockabilly Weekend festival in April.

Sonny Burgess died on August 18 from injuries sustained in a fall at his home the previous month. He was 88.