One of Arkansas' original rock 'n' rollers will be remembered during a special performance Friday.
Sonny Burgess, the Newport-born rockabilly singer and guitarist will be celebrated with a screening of Arkansas Wildman, a documentary film by director Nathan Willis, and a set by Burgess' longtime band, The Legendary Pacers. The show, at Central Arkansas Library System's Ron Robinson Theater, is part of the Arkansas Sounds Music Series.
Sonny Burgess Tribute Featuring the Legendary Pacers
7 p.m. Friday, Central Arkansas Library System’s Ron Robinson Theater, 100 River Market Ave., Little Rock
Burgess, who died Aug. 18 in Little Rock at 88, was among the first wave of rockabilly singers to emerge from Sam Phillips' Sun Records in Memphis, where Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and others started their careers. Burgess and the Pacers recorded the Phillips-produced "Red Headed Woman" backed with "We Wanna Boogie" in 1955. The fiery, R&B-fueled single sold about 100,000 copies, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture.
Burgess and the Pacers recorded four more singles for Sun -- "Thunderbird," "My Bucket's Got a Hole in It," "Sadie's Back in Town" and "Ain't Got a Thing." In 1960, Burgess began working with Conway Twitty, who was born in Mississippi and raised in Arkansas. By 1965, he formed another group, The King's Four, but by the early '70s, the singer/guitarist was making music part time while working as a salesman.
A PBS documentary on Sun Records sparked interest in authentic roots acts such as Burgess, and he and The Pacers were soon back on the road, discovering a new legion of fans in rockabilly-friendly Europe and playing steadily across the United States and beyond.
Drummer Bobby Crafford was there for just about all of it. The 82-year-old Cotton Plant native became a Pacer in 1957.
"Their drummer joined Conway Twitty's band, and I gave them a call," says Crafford, who now calls Maumelle home. "I went and tried out at [Newport's] world famous Silver Moon Club and, bad as I was, they were hurting for a drummer and they hired me."
Crafford had a front-row seat for those heady, early days of rock 'n' roll.
"It was crazy," he says. "We'd be at Sun going over songs to record and anybody would walk in. We've got songs that we cut there that Roy Orbison sang background on."
One of those tracks, the toe-tapping "Find My Baby for Me," was recorded right before the band was about to leave for a tour.
"Sam didn't like the way it sounded," Crafford remembers, "so he put Roy to singing high background on it. Roy liked it so much, he put it on one of his CDs."
Burgess and the Pacers were known for their showmanship and energetic shows.
"He enjoyed his music," Crafford says of Burgess. "He was very particular about it, but he really put on a show. He had a long guitar cord and he would run out into the audience. That went over big. We always dress sharp. We try to outdress everybody and outplay them."
This is not their first tribute to Burgess. The Pacers -- Crafford; Jim Aldridge, saxophone, harmonica, vocals; Fred Douglas, bass, vocals; Kern Kennedy, piano; and Rick Campbell, guitar -- were in Las Vegas recently for another show devoted to the memory of their leader.
"It's different," Crafford says of playing without Burgess. "You look for him each time. He used to call me about every day, and I look at my phone on some days and wonder when he's going to call. Playing these shows, especially the bigger shows over in Europe, it's been tough because they really loved him."
Rock 'n' roll might be a young person's game, but don't tell that to these Pacers. The youngest among the group is newcomer Campbell, who is in his mid-60s, Crafford says. The rest of the band are in their 70s or 80s and they aren't planning on quitting anytime soon, with shows booked here at home and a September show in Spain.
"We're still rolling," Crafford says. "It's going to slow down some without Sonny, we know that, but we talked about it after Sonny died. We're not going to back off. We're going to play."
Weekend on 05/17/2018
Print Headline: The Legendary Pacers carry on, honor Burgess