The Burnette brothers, Dorsey and Johnny, are best remembered for their seminal rockabilly recordings for Coral in the mid-1950s. Although sales fell far short of the standard set by their friend, Elvis Presley, the sheer verve and energy communicated by the trio’s records influenced the aesthetics of British and American rock stars in the 1960s and 1970s. Aerosmith, Foghat, and the Yardbirds are just a few of the acts who have recorded the trio’s songs.
Born in Memphis, Dorsey and Johnny Burnette grew up listening to country music, particularly on the Grand Ole Opry radio broadcasts. Learning to play string instruments at an early age, they began performing at local functions while still in school. By the early 1950s, their country band was a popular draw at dances and clubs throughout the Mississippi delta region. Initially, the brothers were not sure that music represented a viable career option; Dorsey, for one, tried pro boxing and spent six years studying for an electrician’s license. They began to reconsider after winning the "Ted Mack Amateur Hour" competition four straight times; they then toured with the show, playing such venues as Madison Square Garden and the White House.
While working at the Crown Electric Company in Memphis during 1954, Dorsey and Johnny decided to form a rockabilly trio with fellow employee, guitarist Paul Burlison. Word about their dynamic live act led to a contract with Coral Records. Although some of the Johnny Burnette Trio’s early releases went on to become rock ‘n’ roll classics—most notably, "Honey Hush"/"Train Kept A-Rollin’" (Coral 61759; 1956) and "Tear It Up" (Coral 61852; 1956)—none entered the national charts.
Feeling constricted on their home turf, the Burnettes relocated to the Los Angeles area. Concentrating on their songwriting skills, they were soon supplying teen idol Ricky Nelson with a steady stream of hits: "Waitin’ in School" (Imperial 5483; 1957; #18), "Believe What You Say" (Imperial 5503; 1958; #4), "It’s Late" (Imperial 5565; 1959; #9), and "Just a Little Too Much" (Imperial 5595; 1959; #9). Encouraged, the brothers decided to return to performing, but as solo acts. Dorsey was the first to have a hit record with "Tall Oak Tree" (Era 3012; 1960; #23), followed by "Hey Little One" (Era 3019; 1960; #48). The darkly handsome Johnny was groomed as a teen idol, scoring soon thereafter with the lushly romantic confections, "Dreamin’ (Liberty 55258; 1960; #11), "You’re Sixteen" (Liberty 55285; 1960; #8), "Little Boy Sad" (Liberty 55298; 1961; #17), and "God, Country and My Baby" (Liberty 55379; 1961; #18). The younger brother’s career was prematurely ended, however, by a boating accident.
After failing to achieve any more pop hits through the mid-1960s, Dorsey turned to country material. He found success on the country charts in the 1970s with self-penned songs such as "In the Spring (The Roses Always Turn Red)" (Capitol 3307; 1972; #21), "I Just Couldn’t Let Her Walk Away" (Capitol 3404; 1972; #40), "Darlin’" (Capitol 3678; 1973; #26), "Molly (I Ain’t Getting’ Any Younger)" (Melodyland 6007; 1975; #28), and "Thing I Treasure" (Calliope 8004; 1977; #31). In addition, his gospel compositions—most notably, "The Magnificent Sanctuary Band"—were widely recorded by other artists. Newly signed with Elektra/Asylum Records, his career was still in high gear when he died on heart attack at his Woodland Hills, California home.
The Burnette’s legacy has remained prominent with the re-release of both their trio work and solo pop recordings. Furthermore, their sons also went on to enjoy hit recordings; Dorsey’s son, Billy, scored with "Don’t Say No" (Columbia 11380; 1980; #68) as well as creasing the country charts with several songs, and Johnny’s son, Rocky, with "Tired of Toein’ the Line" (EMI America 8043; 1980; #8).
|Back to Rockabilly||Back to Table of Contents|