Saluting Sonny Burgess, The Arkansas Wild Man

This month, we're paying tribute to one of the pioneers of rock and roll

THE LEGENDARY Pacers probably don’t need the adjective. There aren’t, after all, many other better descriptors for a band that helped bring rockabilly a-rockin’ and a-wailin’ into the world. In 1955, while playing as the Moonlighters, having taken their name from Newport’s Silver Moon Club, a home base of sorts where they were a regular fixture, the band had opened for Elvis on a handful of occasions, back when he was still playing high-school gymnasiums, and was not yet a king. Not long after that, with Elvis’ blessing, the door to Sun Records in Memphis had cracked open, eventually leading to the formation of the Pacers (an expanded version of the band) and the 1956 hits “We Wanna Boogie” and “Red Headed Woman.” But it’s the man who stood at the front of the stage, Sonny Burgess, the Arkansas Wild Man, who was the one who seemed to have captured lightning in a bottle—who came up from the Delta playing on a Gene Autry flat-top guitar bought from Sears Roebuck for $3.25, who dyed his hair red to match his suit and guitar, who took full advantage of the 50-foot cord. In a word, though Sonny—who died on August 18, 2017—and the Pacers never gained the sort of acclaim accorded to some of their rockabilly counterparts, as these voices from past and present attest, there’s little doubt the imprint he and the band made was truly legendary. 

 

“Sonny Burgess has a distinctive voice that gives me chills every time I hear him. He is a person that deserves much more than I could give him.” —Sam Phillips, founder of Sun Records 1

“When Sonny Burgess skipped across the stage, everyone rocked. They played some of that great old-time rock ’n’ roll. Sonny Burgess was one of the best rock ’n’ roll entertainers in the South in all the ’50s.” —Ronnie Hawkins, legendary frontman for the Hawks 1

“My dad always said Sonny Burgess had the best band that recorded at Sun.” —Stan Perkins, musician and son of Carl Perkins, rockabilly pioneer known for “Blue Suede Shoes” 1

“Sonny Burgess is not only a pioneer of rockabilly but still carrying the torch, on the road with his band the Pacers, bringing the feel and energy night after night. And what a great story has ensued over these years. A tireless and enthusiastic icon of the true rock ’n’ roll spirit.” —Garry Tallent, bass player and founding member of the E Street Band 1

“The spectrum of musical talent that came through northeast Arkansas is still difficult to fully fathom. You had larger-than-life personalities like Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis. You had Al Bruno, who moved to Newport so he could play guitar with Conway Twitty and went on to have a legendary musical career. And then you had Sonny Burgess and the Pacers. They took the sound they helped craft—and have continued to use to capture the spirit of the time—to generation after generation, decade after decade.” —Gov. Mike Beebe 1

“They were always well dressed, six guys in Lansky suits, with brightly colored jackets and ties. … On the road, each of them carried five or six outfits, [Johnny Ray] Hubbard recalled, because their clothes would be soaked with sweat after a show. On any given night, they would do the bug dance and the human pyramid. They would drag each other across the stage by their guitar necks. Their 50-foot cables gave them plenty of room to jump into the audience, drawing the crowd into the frenzied hilarity created by their high-energy music.” —Marvin Schwartz 1

“Sonny and his band continue to inspire people. These guys are in their 80s and playing more dates now than ever before. And he’s one of the last men standing who recorded on Sun Records. He’s the real deal. And his influence runs deep and wide. That’s why Bruce Springsteen went out of his way to give him a song to perform at that benefit in New Jersey following 9/11. You can influence a lot of people without having huge chart hits.” —John Miller, Arkansas Sounds music coordinator for the Butler Center 1

“We fronted [Johnny] Cash for three years. And Orbison traveled with us. His band quit on him, so he rode with us in our long green Cadillac. … Cash had his Cadillac, so we rode all over the country, opening for him and backing Orbison and whoever else was on the show with us. Don Gibson. Conway Twitty. A lot of Grand Ole Opry stars.” —Sonny Burgess 2

“This man was wild in the ’50s. He’d take off and jump as far as he could in the aisle, in the middle of the audience. And then all the good-looking women would grab him and try to run off with him.” —W.S. Holland, Johnny Cash’s drummer for 37 years 3

*Correction: Due to a copy-transfer error, the following sourcing information for the above article wasn’t included in the original post.

1) We Wanna Boogie: The Rockabilly Roots of Sonny Burgess and the Pacers by Marvin Schwartz. (Editor’s note: Schwartz’s book provided much of the information for the introduction as well.)

2) Chicago Sun-Times, June 26, 1996

3) The Arkansas Wild Man by Nathan Willis