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The Boxing Burnette Brothers Pack A Pop Punch

Many an arena was rocked by the strains of the song Aerosmith chose to close their shows, a tune with a long legacy known as “Train Kept-A-Rollin’.” Long before the first Aerosmith fans lit their Bics for an encore, the song was a staple of the hard rock scene.

It was the first song Led Zeppelin played when they formed in 1968.

Led Zeppelin formed, of course, from the remnants of blues-rock innovators The Yardbirds, who had their own go at the song in 1965.

The Yardbirds were inspired to add it to their repertoire because of the 1956 version cut by three Memphians known as The Rock And Roll Trio.

The Rock and Roll Trio can trace their first generation pedigree back to their beginnings. Growing up in Lauderdale Courts, learning guitar with the Denson brothers, working for Crown Electric and finding acclaim playing in a mid-50’s rock trio; these are elements of the Elvis Presley story, but they also form the foundation for the bio of Dorsey Burnette. Dorsey and his brother Johnny were Golden Glove champs who also shared a love for music. Johnny spent time working barges up and down the river, writing songs to pass the time as the miles drifted by like so much flood-washed flotsam. They teamed up with another boxing champ and budding electrician, Paul Burlison, who also had a musical side. The three picking pugilists hit the honkytonks and jamborees to hone their country and bluegrass sound into a hard edged rockabilly grit.

When the pickings got slim in the Mid-South, they headed for New York City to look for work as electricians. Catching wind of auditions for the Ted Mack Amateur Hour, they signed up, and won three straight times in the spring of 1956. Signing with Coral Records, they actually predated Buddy Holly’s success on that label. They put out several singles, including the one which moved “Train Kept-A-Rolling” up the tracks from Tiny Bradshaw’s original jump blues version to a rock classic. None of the trio’s singles charted, but obviously they didn’t go unnoticed. Across the Atlantic, two teenage guitarists in Liverpool were soaking up anything they could get their ears on, and a few years later the live repertoire of the young Beatles included a couple of Rock And Roll Trio tunes, such as “Lonesome Tears In My Eyes.”

In 1960, Paul Burlison tired of the band arguing, splitting, and reforming, and came back to Memphis to start his own subcontracting company, Safety Electrical. The Burnette brothers wanted to give show biz one more try, and relocated to California. They bought a “map to the stars,’ found Ricky Nelson’s home, and camped out on his steps until he gave them a listen. Rather than call the cops, Ricky signed them to Imperial Records, and personally covered a few of their songs. Taking on a more pop sound, Dorsey was the first brother to hit the charts in February of 1960 with “(There Was A) Tall Oak Tree.” That summer, Johnny hit with “Dreamin’” hitting number eleven. His follow up, “You’re Sixteen,” broke into the top ten in the fall of ‘60.

Johnny Burnette died young in a boating accident in 1964. Dorsey was deeply saddened by the tragedy, but continued to press on, recording until his death in 1979. Paul Burlison was rediscovered in the 80’s, and became the keeper of the Burnette’s legend. Their legacy is well represented by Johnny’s son Rocky and Dorsey’s son Billy, who both had chart success in the 80’s and continue making their fathers proud by keeping the music playing and the Burnette name alive.

Early rock-and-roll era nostalgia was given a shot in the arm with the success of the movie American Graffiti, which prominently showcased Johnny Burnette’s hit “You’re Sixteen.” The following year, a couple of those Liverpudlian admirers of the early Rock And Roll Trio took a tribute cover version of the song to number one. Ringo Starr sang it, and Paul McCartney waxed soulful on the kazoo solo. By the way, Ringo’s mis-singing of the lyric led to yet another number one hit. He was supposed to say “You walked out of my dreams and into my arms”; he in fact said “out of my dreams and into my car,” which caught Billy Ocean’s ears and fancy when he fleshed the malaprop into a number one song in its own right in 1988. 

My heroes have always been disc jockeys. I especially admired the ones who could take the canvas of the fourteen-second intro of a teeny-bopper song and paint a masterpiece. From my youth, I strove to emulate them. I had the good fortune to walk in some of their footsteps, albeit a respectful pace behind.