Paul Burlison holds two distinctions in American music history. As a founding member of the Rock ’n Roll Trio, he helped pioneer rockabilly and, through a fortuitous amp accident, he reportedly played one of the first notable fuzz guitar sounds on a rock record. (On the 1951 Chess Records single “Rocket ’88,’” credited to Jackie Brenston & His Delta Cats, guitarist Willie Kizart had also achieved a fuzz sound, the result of his amp having a ruptured speaker.) Over the years, the song Paul fuzzed in 1956 – the Trio’s cover of Tiny Bradshaw’s “Train Kept A-Rollin’” – has been redone by the Yardbirds, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Aerosmith, and many others, but his version remains unsurpassed.
Growing up in Memphis, rockabilly’s epicenter, Burlison played in country bands before forming the Rock ’n Roll Trio with brothers Johnny and Dorsey Burnette. Inspired by Elvis Presley’s early success, the trio traveled to New York City in 1955 and made it onto TV’s popular Ted Mack Amateur Hour.
Winning three shows in a row brought them a national tour, during which crazed female fans literally tore the shirt off Johnny’s back. Upon their return, the Rock ’n Roll Trio signed with Coral Records. Burlison co-wrote their first single, “Tear It Up,” recorded in New York City on May 7, 1956. While on tour, Burlison dropped his amp, which loosened a tube and caused his amp to distort onstage. He liked the sound so much he employed it at their next session, held in Nashville in July 1956 with Grady Martin on second guitar. The session yielded their biggest single, “The Train Kept A-Rollin’” backed with “Honey Hush,” which also featured fuzzed guitar. That 45, and the album that followed in December, failed to bring the Rock ’n Roll Trio the success they hoped for, and they called it quits in 1957
Paul returned home to raise his family, work as an electrical contractor, and play in country bands. In 1978, Solid Smoke, a small indie label in San Francisco, anthologized the original Rock ’n Roll Trio recordings as the Tear It Up album. A copy reached me during my third week on the job at Guitar Player magazine, and I jumped at the opportunity to interview one of rock’s unsung guitar innovators. At the time, Paul was living near Memphis in Walls, Mississippi. A heavily edited version of our May 30, 1978, interview was published in the magazine. Here, for the first time, is a transcription of our complete conversation.
When did you get interested in music and playing the guitar?
Everybody tells about their first guitar. You want me to tell you about it?
Now this is the truth – I mean, you hear a lot of tales about how people got their first guitar – my mother gave me three dollars to go uptown. I had a hole in the bottom of my shoe and she gave me three dollars to get that pair of shoes fixed. She was at work, school was out. We lived close to town, where I could walk up there and back. So I went up there and went down on Beale Street. They had a bunch of pawn shops and stuff there in town, in Memphis. I went down there and saw this old guitar. Fellow told me that he wanted $3.50 for it. I told him all I had was three dollars. He could tell that I wanted it real bad, so he sold me the guitar. It didn’t have a case. It just had one of those ol’ fishin’ cords on it. I took the thing home back to my house and I put a piece of cardboard inside of my shoe to cover the hole up. I hid the guitar up under the bed. My mother was workin’ and my dad was workin’ during the day, so when they would work during the day, I would take the guitar out and try to play a little bit on it. Those strings on the guitar was up about a half, three-quarters of an inch above the neck. I didn’t know one chord from the other.
Do you know what kind of guitar it was?
I think it was an old Regal – something like that. It was a round-hole guitar. It had an old bridge that stuck up real high – I think somebody been playing it with an old bottle, like a steel guitar. I think they’d raised the tail bridge up and played it with a bottle – that’s the way a lot of blues back then was played here. They’d take an old bottle instead of a bar and slide the bottle up and down the neck – like a whole bottle or something – and play slide. I think it was used primarily for that, but I wanted to play chords.
What kind of songs did you start out doing?
“I’m Just Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail” – that was the first song. Remember that song? “I didn’t come to town to stay / said a lady old and gray / I’m just here to get my baby out of jail.” It’s real old. But anyway, I kept it there two or three days, and my mother didn’t really pay attention whether I got shoes or not. My sister got mad at me one day and she told my mother what had happened. I’d been keeping the guitar up under the bed. So my mother came home from work that evening, and she got real upset. She told my daddy, and my daddy told me, “I’ll tell you one thing: If you spent that money and you want that guitar that bad, you better pick me a tune tonight when I get home!” Man, I got that old thing out and worked all day until I could pick a melody [sings riff] just on the two bottom strings. I learned it enough that you could kind of make out what I was playing, and that kind of pleased him – pacified him, anyway, for the time bein’.
Who were the first musicians you started getting into?
I liked the blues, and I liked country.
Did you see any of the old country blues performers?
Oh, yeah. There were a bunch of them around Memphis here at that time – you know, Muddy Waters, people come to town here and play. They had these little groups right up there on Beale Street. Then there were some people lived out on the farm where I grew up, these colored people that played a lot. You know, they’d sit around on Saturday night, on the street, and play these blues. Push their strings up and play blues. I just liked it, because they’d sit around and play like “I hate to see the evening sun go down” – “St. Louis Blues” – and stuff like that. It was just real cotton-patch kind of stuff, you know. Of course, I liked country music. Somewhere I drifted off into country more than blues because that’s what that people I would associate with was doin’. I just kind of drifted that way off from the blues. I still liked it, and when I got the chance I would play when I had the opportunity. And I played some with Howlin’ Wolf.
What was the first good guitar you ever got?
The first good one? I bought a Les Paul model Gibson, the first one they came out with. It’s a collector’s item now. That was 1953. Now, that was the first good guitar I ever had. I had some before that. I had a couple of little ol’ funky guitars. I had a Sears guitar, and then I had a little ol’ small amplifier. I made an electric guitar out of a regular guitar once. The first one that I had, I electrified it myself. I took the mouthpiece off of a telephone, taped it to the guitar, put a jack on it, and I plugged into a little amplifier. This was a Sears guitar, just a little ol’ round-hole guitar. The part [of the telephone] you talk though – I taped it to the box, on the outside, and plugged it into the amplifier and it would come out.
How old were you when you did that?
I was about 12, 14. I liked to pick the melody. My brother-in-law, he’d play cords and sing. I’d play behind him. Then the second one I had was a just little ol’ f-hole guitar – I believe it was a Kay. I bought a DeArmond pickup and put it on there. It was a pickup attachment that you could fasten to it. And I had a little bitty small amplifier – that’s all I had there for a long time. And then I got me a black Gibson with one pickup on it. This is when I started playin’ in a little group with Shelby Follin [in 1949]. We played country music in Memphis and surrounding areas.
What was your earliest group?
The first group I played with was called the Memphis Hoboes. They would travel from here to Jackson, Tennessee. They had a thing up there called the Hayloft Frolic, on Saturday nights. This was in the ’40s – this is like ’44. The show was up there in the Armory building in Jackson, Tennessee. It was kind of like the Grand Ole Opry. There was five in the band, and we played country and bluegrass. We had a fiddle player, a banjo player, electric guitar, bass, rhythm, and a steel guitar. I played rhythm and electric guitar leads. But I wasn’t playin’ much lead at that time because the fiddle and the violin was doin’ most of the lead work.
What was your next band?
The next band was Shelby Follin. That was a country band. It was five of us in that – electric guitar, steel guitar, still had the upright bass then, and then they had the rhythm guitar. The guy that wrote “I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone” that Elvis recorded – Stan Kesler – he played steel with us. This was somewhere like ’49, ’50.
This is when you got your first Gibson electric guitar?
Yeah. It was just an old black Gibson that had one pickup on it. I don’t remember what series it was or anything, because at that time it didn’t mean anything. It was just the cheapest thing I could buy that was a pretty good guitar.
That’s when I met John and Dorsey [Burnette]. We was all playin’ Memphis. We was playin’ a show here in Memphis every Saturday. It was a show like Grand Ole Opry. That was on WKEM [radio] in West Memphis, Arkansas, right across the river from Memphis. And it was a big theater over there, and each group had their own sponsor. They let that big curtain down, and the sponsor was white flour or something cornmeal or some car lot, you know. They’d raise one curtain and drop the other one down. One group would come out and play for thirty minutes, and they would go off and other group would come on. Our sponsor was Joe Schaffer – at that time, it was just called Airways Motors. Then, at that time, they just had a little ol’ car lot at Lamar and Airways. Now they own the Buick dealership in Memphis. It’s one of the biggest dealerships in Memphis now. We used to play on the little trailer. After we’d leave the radio station show, we’d go out there and play in the afternoon, you know, try to draw some traffic.
Did any of those people who were playing ever make it?
That played with us? Yeah, one old boy used to come out there and sing with us out there on Saturdays made it real big.
What’s his name?
Elvis Presley. That’s right.
When did you first meet Elvis?
About ’53. He would just come out there and just sit in and sing a little bit every once in a while.
What were these type of shows called?
It was just a matinee. After we got through doing the regular program, we would play for our sponsor at the car lot back in Memphis. They would announce it on the radio that we would be out there from like 4:00 until 6:00 in the afternoon, and they had a big trailer set up. See, this guy in Memphis sponsored us over in West Memphis on the radio that was broadcast live every Saturday. We’d go over there and play our portion of the show, like from 10:00 till 10:30 in the morning, and he would announce it [imitates radio announcer]: “Okay, all you people come out to the cat lot this afternoon – we gonna be out there at Airways and Lamar from 4:00 until 6:00 this afternoon with a live show.” Get these people come out to the car lot to buy cars. And then he was payin’ for us to come out there too. And that’s when Elvis was just hanging around the studio over there – he would come out and watch, just sing with whoever would let him sing. We was the only one in town – band – that was playin’ live like that in Memphis. You know, they [the other bands] would go out and play someplace else that night, but we would go back to Memphis and play in the car lot.
Where did you go from the Shelby Follin band?
That’s when I started playin’ with Johnny and Dorsey.
How did you make the change from blues and country into rock and roll?
Well, there were several guys around the studio over there [in West Memphis], like Howlin’ Wolf. He was playin’ there. He played an afternoon show. See, we had a daily radio program over there too, besides the Saturday show. In the afternoon, we would come on – I was playin’ with Shelby – and we would come on, say, from 5:00 to 5:30, and Howlin’ Wolf would come on from like 5:30 to 6:00.
Would he ever use your band?
I played guitar with him, but he didn’t use the whole band. I just played the guitar, and a guy named Smokey Joe [Baugh] that played with the Snearly Range Boys played piano with him. That’s the only two that played with him. Smokey Joe, he sing like Louis Armstrong. He’s a white fellow, but he sound just like Louis Armstrong.
Tell me about the Rock ’n Roll Trio.
Neil’s Hideaway – that’s where the Rock ’n Roll Trio started?
Right there. And we were with Doc McQueen right there until we decided to go to New York. In fact, we had already packed up our clothes and everything and got all the way to Brownsville, Tennessee, which is 59 miles east of Memphis, before we even thought about calling Doc McQueen and telling him we wasn’t gonna be there. [Laughs.] This was on like a Monday or Tuesday, when we left for New York. I said, “Hey, ol’ Doc’s gonna be up a creek this week because we won’t be there.” The place had already started kind of filling up, you know. So we stopped at Brownsville, Tennessee, and I called Doc McQueen on the phone and I told him that we weren’t gonna be there that weekend. He said, “What do you mean? Where ya goin’?” We told him we was goin’ to New York!” [Laughs.] He said, “What are you goin’ to New York for?” I said, “We’re goin’ up there to try to get on some of these shows.” Elvis had just got off of the Tom Dorsey Show [Dorsey Brothers’ Stage Show], and so we said, “Let’s go to New York and get on some of the shows up there.” He laughed. He said, “Oh, yeah. Well, let me know if you make it.” I said, “Okay.”
A Fender Telecaster. It was one of the first ones. A little white solidbody box, and I had one of those little blonde [Fender] amplifiers.
Do you remember any of the model details about the amp?
No, I don’t. It was a little small one. Oh, about eighteen inches wide, two-foot high or something like that. It was tan – yellowish looking, you know.
What kind of leads were you playing at this time?
I was just playing some boogie beats behind country music – you know, kind of like that “Guitar Boogie” that came out. [Arthur Smith’s 1948 single “Guitar Boogie.”] There just wasn’t any rock and roll out at that time. I was just puttin’ that on there, some boogie licks, and stuff that I’d just heard around home here that kind of fit in with the type of stuff we was doin’. It was just what we felt like doin’. We might want to put some blues on some of it. If it was a slow song, you’d feel like you’d want to put some blues on it. If it was kind a fast song, you want to put a boogie on it. Just kind of mix them up.
Did you use a Telecaster the whole time you were with the Rock ’n Roll Trio?
Yeah, I’ve used it ever since. Except for that one period, where I bought that Les Paul model Gibson, the first one they came out with – you know, that gold one? I bought it, but I didn’t keep it for but six months. I never did like it because I got a bad feedback. This is when I was playin’ with Shelby Follin. I bought it when it first came out, in ’53. I didn’t like it because when you’d take your hand off the neck, off the top string, you’d get a bad feedback. I never did like it, so as soon as that Fender came out, I traded it for a Fender.
Tell me about going to New York and getting on the Ted Mack Amateur Hour.
Well, we left here. We took Dorsey’s old car – he had an old ’50-model Ford. We left here in that car – Johnny, Dorsey, myself – and all three, we was married at the time. I was out of work, Dorsey was out of work. But we were union electricians. The way this thing worked was if you went to the union and they didn’t have the work here in Memphis, they could give you a referral to any place that you wanted to go to that had work. You just go there and check into the union hall, and they would give you a referral out to a job. So actually we had a job waiting when we got to New York – Dorsey and I did. Johnny didn’t, because he didn’t have a trade. So we loaded up and just took off up there. Actually we were going up there to work as electricians. John, he was out of work at the time. Here in town, he was working for a finance company, going out and pulling cars in when people wouldn’t pay for ’em. He was doin’ that kind of work, and he didn’t like it. That was about the only thing at the time he could find. So we just packed up our guitars and everything and just took off up there.
How did you get your first break?
Dorsey went to a movie one night, and John and I went down to the Ted Mack Amateur Hour. So after the show was over, we went backstage there and started asking people how you go about getting on this show. This fellow told us, “See that man right over there? His name is Oscar Schumacher. He can tell you all about it.” So we introduced ourselves to him, and he told us to be down at the studio at the end of the next week at a certain time. We said, “Okay.” We were supposed to be there at 7:00. We didn’t take the bass fiddle, the upright bass, because it was so big. So we went down to the studio and rented an upright bass and had to carry it six blocks down Broadway. I had my guitar and amplifier under my arm, John had his guitar, and Dorsey had the big ol’ bass fiddle, tryin’ to get through that mob there going down Broadway. Walkin’ half the time in the street, and half the time on the sidewalk. So we finally made it down to this studio. We didn’t have time to tune the bass because we didn’t really get off work until 4:30. By the time we got down there, cleaned up, and rented the bass, we just rushed to get there at 7:00. We had to walk all the way – I said six blocks, but we must have walked eight or ten blocks.
What song did you do on the show?
We did “Tutti Frutti.” We won three times in a row. That first night, you go back out to take your applause, and they had a big applause meter. That thing just stopped over there and stuck, man. Everybody liked it. People liked it so good, it went over so good, that everybody was just raving over it. We just walked off with it, just won three times in a row. Of course, after we won three times, we had to go on tour with Ted Mack. We couldn’t sign a professional contract because we were still considered amateurs until we got through with Ted Mack. That was the agreement when we got on the show – if we won, we would have to go on the tour. And then after we got off tour, we could do whatever we want to. He would advise you what to sign with, what to do, and so forth. We couldn’t sign with anybody until we got through with him. He gave us $100 a week to send home to our families, and he paid all of our expenses and everything.
How long did you tour with Ted Mack?
We were on tour about three weeks. We met ex-president Truman in Kansas City. We played there. After the show was over, we signed autographs for an hour and a half. People were lined up just as far back as you could see. Like the Boardwalk up in Atlantic City where they have Miss America? That’s the kind of place it was. We were out front on that big walkway, and they had them lined up. We sit down on the edge of the stage, and we were still signing autographs after everybody else was packed up and in the buses. Everywhere we went, everybody just loved us. And then when we got back to New York, five record companies wanted us to sign up with them. They let us come home – we told them we wanted a week or two off. We wanted to see our families. We’d been so busy, we were just runnin’, you know. We’d been gone there for about a month, and we hadn’t seen our families, so we wanted to go home and see our families. We told everybody we just wanted a week or two off and then we’d come back and try to make up our minds about what we wanted to do. Ted Mack advised us to do that too – he said not to rush anything.
Who did you end up signing with?
We signed with Coral. Capitol sent a man all the way down from New York to follow us to Memphis. He followed us everywhere we went, tryin’ to get us to sign up with them.
It was fine. That’s when Henry Jerome came in the picture. He became our manager. Remember him, the orchestra leader? He was our manager. Anyway, Bob Thiele, the general manager for Coral Records, called Henry Jerome and told him that we was hired, and told him to contact us. So Henry came into the picture just as soon as we got back from Memphis. He wanted to sign us to a management contract. So we signed with Henry. Capitol offered us $150 a side and we could pick half of our material. Coral offered us $200 a side and we could pick all of our material.
What was the first record you made for Coral?
“Tear It Up.” After the record came out, we signed with G.A,C. – General Artists Corporation – and they started booking us seven days a week. We played one nighters, man, until I was blue in the face.
Was rock and roll in its developing stage?
No, because every group we played with still had the horns and everything. They had the doo-wahs – you know, the voices and everything. That was still just getting out of the big band era.
Wasn’t it around this time that you kind of invented the fuzz-tone sound?
Yeah. What happened was, we was playing a show someplace. I still didn’t have a big amplifier. Of course, I didn’t have reverb, and they didn’t have wow-wows [wah-wahs]. They didn’t have all this stuff then. They didn’t even have fuzz tones as all. So we was goin’ into Cleveland, Ohio, and someway or another, just before the show went on I dropped my amplifier. The strap broke, up there on the top, this old leather strap you carried it with. This was that little ol’ blonde Fender amplifier. Anyway, it dropped. So when I plugged my guitar in when we went onstage, it had a real fuzzy sound. So I looked back there in the back of the thing, and saw one of the tubes was just barely sticking in the prong. So it was acting as a rheostat, with the electricity jumping between the prongs. It sounded pretty good, so I just left it there. And from then on, when I wanted to get that’s sound, I just reached back there and loosened the tube. That little ol’ amplifier had half the back off of it, you know. It had cardboard halfway up, and you can reach the tube by reaching up under the cardboard. I’d just reach up there and grab that tube and just wiggle it, shake it a little bit. When you hit the strings, you could tell when you was getting’ it. You get it just right, and it just sound real funky.
We cut the single. Coral set up the first session at this great big ol’ place in New York City, where Al Hibler and everybody cut all their records – this great big Temple thing [the Pythian Temple]. They took us up there right after we signed with them. They set up the session real quick. Henry picked us up in a big ol’ car and took us upstairs on the elevator. We walk in this room, this great big studio up there, and there’s a 32-piece orchestra up there, and people waiting on us, bringin’ us coffee and doughnuts and everything. “Man,” we said, “wow – lookie here!” Bob Thiele was there, the president of Coral Records was there, the vice-presidents, and several of the stars that was on Coral Records was there to greet us, like Theresa Brewer and Dorothy Collins and Johnny Desmond. The orchestra leader came over and told us, said, “Now boys, we don’t know anything about rock and roll. You tell us what to do, and we’ll do it.” We just laughed and said, “Well, we can’t tell ya how to do it – we just play what we feel. We just play what we feel like playin’.” I said we couldn’t even read music. That’s a funny thing. So the orchestra leader just shook his head and laughed. We said, “We can’t even read music, can’t tell you how to do it, can’t put it on paper for you.” So we just used his drummer [Eddie Grady]. Dorsey played on the uptight, I played the electric guitar, and Johnny played the guitar and sang.
How did playing in the Rock ’n Roll Trio change your life?
I enjoyed it, but the main thing was I missed my family. I was married and I had children. I missed my wife more than anything else. As far as the playin’ and everything, I’ll tell you what I really wanted to do: I enjoyed the playin’, but I enjoy playin’ just sittin’ around. I really do. And the fame – or whatever you want to call it – I don’t really think it ever affected me at all. I was really wanting to make enough money out of the thing to come home and open up an electrical supply company, because I was already an electrician. It takes quite a bit of money to open up an electrical supply company. That’s really why I headed back to my hometown.
How long were you with the Trio?
Well, we were on the road for over a year – I think it was about a year and a half.
Was this seven days a week?
Yeah. A different town every night, most of the time.
Did the crowd that came to see you mainly come to dance?
No, just shows. We just played big shows.
Did you tour with anybody?
Oh, yeah. We was on tour with everybody then that was big, it would feel like, like Chuck Berry, Lavern Baker, Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters, the Clifftones, Lonnie Donegan, who had out “Rock Island Line” – that’s when it was #2 in the nation [March 1956]. Pat Boone, Carl Perkins – you name it, just about, we toured with ’em.
How much were you getting paid for this?
Let’s see. I don’t remember. I think it was like $2,000 a week for the group, and then hotel bills and car expenses – all that came out of it.
What caused the Trio to break up?
[Long pause.] I don’t know. Me, myself, I just got tired of travelin’. I just got tired of runnin’ all over the country. I kept hopin’ for the big hit, the big hit, the big hit, but it never was happening. So I just got completely exhausted.
This was in 1957?
What did you do after that?
I came back home and went back to work doing electrical work. I went in business for myself as an electrical contractor.
How old were you at the time?
At the time I quit? Let’s see. I’m 49 now. I was born in ’29, and I quit in ’57.
After leaving the Trio, did you get back into performing in public?
Yeah, I play now. After I quit playin’ with them, we had a group. We played a club here in Memphis on Friday, Saturday nights. I played out there with Bill Black. He quit playin’ with Elvis right after I quit, and then he came out there and started playing bass with us. So I was playin’ with Bill Black and Johnny Black. See, Dorsey quit us first. Dorsey quit John and I.
I don’t know. Just a conflict. He wasn’t with the group about three or four months.
That’s around the time you recorded the Rock ’n Roll Trio album?
Yeah, that’s when he left – right after that. Just a few weeks after that. And then Johnny Black started playing with us – Bill Black’s brother started playing bass with us instead, slap bass. He was on tour with us, and he was in that movie with us, that Rock, Rock, Rock! that Alan Freed produced [in 1956], with Tuesday Weld. That was right after Dorsey left because Johnny Black was in the movie. We was on the American Bandstand a couple of times before he got nationwide. And we was on the Steve Allen show, the Tonight Show – Johnny Carson got it now, but Steve Allen had it at that time. And we did several TV appearances there in New York City for Alan Freed besides the movie that he produced. You remember Alan Freed? He was a big disc jockey back in those days.
So once back in Memphis, you started playing with the Black brothers?
Just on weekends. I continued doing electrical work during the day. We played Friday and Saturday nights.
Did your band have a name?
Yeah, and I can’t even remember right now. Jack Earls – the one that sing was named Jack Earls. He would do a lot of that different-type stuff.
Did you play during the 1960s?
Yeah, I went back to country music. I played with a group called the Southerners. That group started about ’65.
How long did that last?
I’m still playin’ with ’em. Primarily we like to play Western swing, and we play country and we still play some of the ’50s-type stuff, rock and roll. We play in Memphis all the time – different shows. They have local shows around the area, music shows on Saturday nights. We play stage shows, just wherever people invite us, like if they have a country music show or fundraisers. We play in the veteran’s hospital some for the paraplegics up there. There are six of us. We have two fiddle players – twin fiddles. And the guy that sings with us, Earl Brooks, he’s my brother-in-law. The girl that sings with us now – we’ve had several – she’s got a record out. Her name is Sherie Black.
Where do you live now?
I’m in north Mississippi. I’m three miles south of Memphis, still right at home.
Over the years, have you run into any of the old blues guys, like Howlin’ Wolf?
No, I haven’t seen him in years. [Howlin’ Wolf died in 1976.] I’ve seen B.B. King – I’ve seen him a couple of times. I saw Chuck Berry not long ago – he came here and played a show, and I talked to him. I run into them now and then.
What do you think when you hear bands like the Yardbirds doing songs that you helped pioneer, like “Train Kept A-Rollin’”?
You never heard the Yardbirds’ “Train Kept A-Rollin’”?
No, I haven’t.
It’s close to the way you did it.
Is that right? I’ve heard that. I’ve heard people say that a lot, but I’ve never heard the record. And I never heard the other groups – what’s the other ones?
Foghat and Aerosmith.
I’ve never heard them. I’ve never even heard of them.
What do you think of guitar players today?
I like the way they’re playin’. I just don’t like all the electronics that they’re puttin’ in. They just about would have to take an engineer to get the sound with them everywhere they go. I like a more natural sound – I think you get pretty music if you don’t have so much electronics, and it’s better to listen to. There’s some guitar players that’s good, and that I like, but I think they would sound a lot better if they didn’t have so much electronics on it. Now they’ve got all kind of patches and everything, and those fine strings they push [bend] all the way at the top of the neck, and got that long-delayed action on it. You know, stuff like that. But some of them really know a lot of music. You could tell they really know a lot of music. But personally, I just like it more natural.
What would you advise a young guitar player who wants to turn pro?
I wouldn’t advise trying to start around Memphis! Go anywhere – California or New York, anywhere they can get some public exposure. And don’t hang around their hometown, because they’ll never make it in their hometown.
What kind of guitar do you play today?
I play a Fender.
No. It’s half-hollow. The top half is hollow, the bottom half is solid. It’s blonde and it’s got one f-hole up at the top part. The only one I’ve seen besides mine is a guy in Nashville plays one, called Johnny Paycheck.
Do you happen to know what model it is?
No, I sure don’t [a Telecaster Thinline.] I traded my other guitar, that old guitar I had, the Telecaster. We was playin’ a show in Pennsylvania, and I backed over that guitar. We were standing there talkin’ to Carl Perkins and his brother, and I had it leaning aside the back bumper of the car. I went around the other side, got in the car, backed up, and I happened to think of it when it went bump-bump. Got out, and my neck was warped so bad. Some fellow who does beautiful leather work here in Memphis, he covered my guitar in complete leather and put real pretty designs on it all the way around. Put my name all across the top of it, around the curve. It was the prettiest thing you ever seen, but I never could get the guitar to play right after that. A friend of mine has a music store and he had this guitar [the Thinline], and I don’t even know where he got it. But I played it and it had a real good neck on it. I liked it, and I kind of felt like it would be a collector’s item later on. I bought it from him, and they don’t make ’em any more. I’ve seen very few around like this.
What do you think about that label in San Francisco re-releasing the Rock ’n Roll Trio singles?
I think they’ve got a lot of guts. I admire them for it. It’s a new label, and I wish ’em all the luck in the world.
Will you be getting any of the proceeds?
Just for the songs that I’d write.
Have you seen any of the reviews for it?
Yeah. They sent me clippings and things, kind of what’s happening. They keep me informed on it. Both of them [Rick Tolmach and Marty Arbunich at Solid Smoke Records] seem like real nice guys.
In retrospect, what do you think of having played with the Rock ’n Roll Trio and the place the band has in the development of our music?
[Long pause.] I really don’t know how to answer that. At the time, I guess I kind of got bewildered with it ’long about then. We kept puttin’ out records, but we didn’t think we had what it took at the time. I said, “Well, this is not what’s sellin’.” I guess I just lost faith in the whole thing. And now, twenty years later, it seems like our music translated into punk rock. It seems like that’s what they want to play. But I’ll tell you what: Kids learnin’ to play guitar now, they use so much electronic stuff on these records that they don’t know what to do on a guitar. They get a little guitar, and they don’t know what to do. They don’t know how to get those sounds. And they refer back to our type stuff, it was simple. Kids around the block can pick it up and play. You take a kid that’s just learning to play a guitar, he can’t buy $2,000 worth of equipment and all the attachments and everything to go with it. He wants to learn to play the guitar, he wants make a name for himself, so he gets a record out that he thinks he can copy and play. They start playin’ that style, and their buddies start playin’ like that, and after a while it catches on. That way they don’t have to have all this big, expensive-type stuff and put in all the electronic equipment. They might go back to it later on. But to start off with, like I said, most kids can’t afford that kind of stuff. We couldn’t. If they had had it back then, I don’t guess we could have even bought it. We just had to buy the cheapest thing we could and learn as best we could. We didn’t take lessons. We didn’t have any formal music education or anything – we couldn’t even read music. We just had to learn and watch the boy down the street or a guy in a cotton field – whoever could play a few more licks than you could, you’d sit down there and watch him and try to learn something off it. That’s how we learned.
That’s where music gets its life.
That’s right! They can sit down and relate to something like this because it’s not complicated. They can hear the notes. They can hear you play. They can sit down and get a little ol’ guitar and a little cheap amplifier, and they can pick it.
After the breakup of the Rock ’n Roll Trio, Johnny and Dorsey Burnette moved to Los Angeles. They wrote several early hits for Ricky Nelson – “Believe What You Say,” “It’s Late” and “Waitin’ in School” among them – and launched recording careers of their own. Johnny became something of a teen idol, scoring a Top-10 hit with 1960’s “You’re Sixteen.” He died four years later in a boating accident. Dorsey found fame as a mainstream country artist and passed away in 1979.
After our 1978 interview, Paul Burlison continued to play around Memphis with the Southerners. In 1986 he recorded an album with the Sun Rhythm Section for Flying Fish Records. He leapt back into the national spotlight in 1997 with his acclaimed solo album, Train Kept A-Rollin’. His vital remake of the title track featured vocals by Johnny’s son Rocky Burnette and Dorsey’s son Billy Burnette. His other guest artists included Mavis Staples, Kim Wilson, The Band’s Rick Danko and Levon Helm, and Los Lobos’ Davild Hidalgo and Cesar Rojas. We did another interview that year, during which Paul said, “I still got some of the old licks down. I got the tone too. Everybody tries to copy that old sound.” He was still very much a family man, taking great delight in telling me about his eleven grandchildren and new great-grandson. Paul Burlison passed away on September 27, 2003.
For more rockabilly: Rick Nelson Remembers the Rockabilly Era
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© 2011 Jas Obrecht. All rights reserved. This interview may not be reposted or reprinted without the author’s permission.