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Burnette, Johnny, and Dorsey Burnette

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Burnette, Johnny, and Dorsey Burnette MEMBERSHIP: Johnny Burnette, gtr., voc. (b. Memphis, Term., March 25, 1934; d. Clear Lake, Calif., Aug. 1, 1964); Dorsey Burnette, bs., voc. (b. Memphis, Dec. 28, 1932; d. Canoga Park, Calif., Aug. 19, 1979). With electric lead guitarist Paul Burlison (b. Brownsville, Term., Feb. 4, 1929) and brother Dorsey, Johnny Burnette founded the pioneering but largely overlooked rockabilly group The Johnny Burnette Rock ’n Roll Trio in the early 1950s. Although they never enjoyed national acclaim, the group provided some of the wildest rockabilly of the era. Disbanding the group in 1957, the brothers moved to Calif., where they wrote hits for Ricky Nelson and launched their own solo careers.

Johnny and Dorsey Burnette began playing in bands with electric lead guitarist Paul Burlison while still in high school. In 1952 all three worked as electricians for Crown Electric Company, which later employed a truck driver named Elvis Presley. Officially formed in 1953, The Johnny Burnette Rock ‘n Roll Trio auditioned for Sam Phillips’s Sun Records following the local success of Presley’s ’That’s Alright Mama.” Although they were not signed, they persevered, traveling to N.Y. in late 1955, where they won The Ted Mack Amateur Hour television competition three times in a row. Soon signed to Coral Records, the group recorded their first single in N.Y.C, in May 1956. The wild rockabilly classic “Tear It Up” became a regional hit in Boston and Baltimore, but failed to make the national charts.

The group toured nationally and finished their first album in Nashville at The Barn under producer Owen Bradley They returned to the Nashville studio in July, recording “The Train Kept A-Rollin’.” Years later The Yardbirds would re-record the song, recreating it virtually note-for-note. The group toured with Carl Perkins and Gene Vincent and appeared in the 1957 film Rock, Rock, Rock . The group went into the studio for the third and final time in March 1957, but Dorsey Burnette soon departed, to be replaced by Bill Black’s brother Johnny. The Johnny Burnette Rock ’n Roll Trio officially disbanded in the fall of 1957.

Dorsey and Johnny Burnette moved to Calif, in 1958, where they concentrated on songwriting and recording demonstration records. They provided Ricky Nelson with two of his most boisterous hits, “Waitin’ in School” and “Believe What You Say.” Dorsey supplied Nelson with “It’s Late” while Johnny furnished him with “Just a Little Too Much.” Johnny Burnette recorded for Freedom and Liberty, while Dorsey recorded for Era and later Dot. The most interesting of these recordings were “Way in the Middle of the Night,” “Sweet Baby Doll,” and “Cincinnati Fireball.”

In 1960 Dorsey scored hits with “Tall Oak Tree” and “Hey Little One” on Era, while Johnny hit with “Dreamin”’ and the classic “You’re Sixteen” on Liberty. The following year Johnny had success with “Little Boy Sad,” the forlorn “Big Big World,” and “God, Country and My Baby,” but on Aug. 1, 1964, he died in a boating accident on Clear Lake in Calif. Dorsey switched to country music in the 1960s and achieved a number of moderate country-and-western hits between 1972 and his Aug. 19, 1979 death from a heart attack in Canoga Park, Calif.

Dorsey Burnette’s son Billy (b. Memphis, May 8, 1953) played in his father’s band in the 1970s and had modest recording success in the country field in the early 1980s. He was a member of Fleetwood Mac from 1987 to 1993, returning for their 1994 tour. Johnny Burnette’s son Rocky (Jonathan Burnette, b. Memphis, June 12, 1953) had a smash pop hit in 1980 with “Tired of Toein’ the Line.” Each recorded an album in the 1990s.

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