PACE SETTER “We came straight out of the cotton fields, except for Elvis, who was a city boy,” recalls Burgess (second from left) of his days at Sun Studios.
Sonny Burgess had his first hit for Sun Records in 1956 — two minutes and 26 seconds of howling wild-ass stomp called "We Wanna Boogie." Even for those unhinged times, when rock and roll was a blank slate, the song is unique for his crazed singing and a walloping trombone solo. With that tune and a clutch of others including "Red Headed Woman," "Ain't Got a Thing," and "Bucket's Got a Hole in It," he helped establish the blend of blues and hillbilly music that came to be known as rockabilly.
Fifty-four years later, Burgess is still on the road, playing more than 100 shows a year, among them a date at Church in Boston this Wednesday that will see a rare reunion of the city's own rockabilly faves the Raging Teens as his openers.
"I can't think about retiring," he explains by phone from his home in Newport, Arkansas, where he was born in May 1931. "There's nothing to do here. If you retire, you might as well let them throw dirt on you."
There's barely dust on Burgess, who still manages to kick up a storm with the latest version of his Sun-era group the Pacers — now known as the Legendary Pacers and still including his '50s running partners Kern Kennedy on piano and drummer Bobby Crafford.
"We still do the old hits and some new songs from the '70s and '80s, like tunes by George Strait," he says of their live shows. "I always liked country music. That, and rhythm and blues. Ernest Tubb was my favorite. He was slick with an audience. And I love the big band that Ike Turner had with Tina."
Burgess recalls his Sun years as "so much fun. We were all country boys who didn't have nothing." The "we" he's referring to is J.L. "Smoochy" Smith, J.M. Van Eaton, Stan Kessler, Marcus Van Story, Paul Burlison, and D.J. Fontana — the core musicians who played on many of the records that came out of Sam Phillips's Memphis-based Sun label, where an important strain of early rock was minted, and who banded together in the '80s for a run as the Sun Rhythm Section.
"We came straight out of the cotton fields, except for Elvis, who was a city boy," says Burgess. "All of a sudden, we were playing music and making money and meeting all the girls — and anybody who's ever picked cotton can tell you that was a lot better. Hell, anything's better than picking cotton. But it was a wonderful time."
Burgess still picks his Telecaster guitar like the gifted scion of the music-seeped Southern soil that he is, albeit a little slower than he did a half-century ago. But his singing remains the call of a rock-and-roll animal.
"Sonny still has his own unique style," says Kevin Patey, frontman of the Raging Teens. "His voice is out of this world. We only do one or two shows a year at this point, for Christmas or other special occasions, but when we got a chance to be on a bill with him, we jumped at it. He is one of the guys who invented the music we love."