Born 28 December 1932, Memphis, Tennessee
Nowadays, Dorsey Burnette is best remembered for the legendary rockabilly recordings he made with his brother Johnny and the Rock 'n' Roll Trio in 1956, but back in the fifties these tracks were not widely known and the first time I encountered the name Dorsey Burnette was in 1960, through his first pop hit, "Tall Oak Tree".
Born in Memphis in 1932, Dorsey grew up in a public housing project in the Lauderdale Courts area of Memphis, which from 1948 to 1954 was also the home of Vernon and Gladys Presley and their son Elvis. Dirt poor, Dorsey and his younger brother Johnny (born March 25, 1934) had a reputation for being proto-juvenile delinquents. Both were successful amateur boxers and in 1950 Dorsey won the local Golden Gloves championship. In 1949 Dorsey met another aspiring boxer, Paul Burlison (born February 4, 1929), who shared the brothers' love for music and played guitar in a hillbilly band. By 1951 the three men started playing together, straight country music at first, but when Elvis broke out of the housing projects in 1954 with "That's All Right Mama", they were seriously bitten by the rockin' bug. In 1955 the trio cut a record for the Von label out of Booneville, Mississippi, which was credited to Johnny Burnette ("You're Undecided"/"Go Mule Go"). Music was not yet a full-time occupation. Dorsey and Paul worked as apprentice electricians and Johnny held down a number of jobs.
Possibly they recorded a demo session for Sun Records, though Burlison couldn't remember this and no tapes have been found in the Sun vaults. Next they tried their luck in New York City where they won first prize on the Ted Mack Amateur Hour three times in a row (March - April 1956), which led to a recording contract with Coral Records. It was at this time that the Burnettes and Burlison formally adopted the name of The Rock 'n' Roll Trio.
For the first session (May 7, 1956) Bob Thiele brought in an orchestra of 32 musicians. Before the boys dispensed with the services of the orchestra they cut one number, "Shattered Dreams", which remained in the vaults for many years. The core of the session were the rockabilly numbers "Tear It Up" and a rewrite of "You're Undecided", which were were coupled for the first single, credited to Johnny Burnette and the Rock 'n' Roll Trio. This billing, the brainchild of their manager / producer Henry Jerome, would lead to internal tensions between Dorsey and Johnny.
The three boys did not want to record in New York again and persuaded the powers that be to hold their future sessions in Nashville. It was there that the trio made history during four days of sessions in July 1956. Songs like "The Train Kept-A Rollin'", "Rock Billy Boogie", "Lonesome Train" and "All By Myself" have gone down as landmarks in the history of rockabilly. Johnny Burnette took the lead vocals on most songs, but Dorsey, the bass player of the trio, also sang lead on a few tracks, most notably "Sweet Love On My Mind". An album was released as well as several singles, but they didn't give the boys the hit they were looking for.
Aggression between Dorsey and Johnny came to a climax during a gig in Niagara Falls in August 1956. Dorsey quit the group, just a week before a scheduled appearance in Alan Freed's "Rock! Rock! Rock!" movie. Johnny Burnette and Burlison hastily recruited Johnny Black (Bill Black's brother) as their new bassist. Meanwhile, Dorsey formed his own Rock & Roll Trio and cut two singles for Fabor Robison's Abbott label in November. The original trio was contractually obliged to do another session for Coral, which took place in March 1957, again in Nashville. It's unclear if Dorsey or Paul Burlison were present, but aural evidence suggests that they were not. The four tracks from this session were released under the name of Johnny Burnette.
Not long thereafter Dorsey returned to the band, but this didn't prevent the formal demise of the Rock 'n' Roll Trio in the autumn of 1957. Johnny and Dorsey then moved to Los Angeles and started writing songs together. They tracked down Ricky Nelson's house, waited an hour until Ricky came home, introduced themselves and played their songs for him on the Nelsons' front lawn. This meeting proved very fruitful, considering the amount of Burnettes tunes that Ricky successfully recorded in the next few years, the hits "Waitin' In School", "Believe What You Say", "It's Late" and "Just A Little Too Much" among them. The Imperial doors opened for the brothers both as writers ("Hip Shakin' Baby"/"Be My Love Tonight" for Roy Brown, "Good Good Feeling" for Jackie Walker) and as recording artists ("Warm Love" / "My Honey" as the Burnette Brothers).
In November 1957 Dorsey had recorded the first version of "Bertha Lou" (for the Surf label), one of his best solo numbers. But as he was still under contract to Coral, this single had to be withdrawn. Surf solved the problem by having Johnny Faire (the later Donnie Brooks) record his voice on top of Dorsey's on both sides.
While they were contracted as a duo to Imperial, Johnny obtained a solo recording contract with the Liberty subsidiary Freedom and was moved to the parent label in 1959, where he scored hits ("Dreamin'", "You're Sixteen" and others) with string-laden pop songs, far removed from his uninhibited rockabilly style. Dorsey also made solo recordings for Imperial (as well as a great number of demos with Johnny), but didn't have commercial success until he signed with Herb Newman's Era label in late 1959. He scored hits in 1960 with "(There Was A) Tall Oak Tree" (# 23) and "Hey Little One" (# 48). Like his brother, he tamed down his music to accommodate to the changing musical taste. Next Dorsey recorded for Dot, Reprise (teaming up with Johnny again for the excellent "Hey Sue"), Mel-O-Dy and Smash. Johnny Burnette's tragic death in 1964 (he drowned in a boating accident) was a blow from which Dorsey never really recovered. He became a chronic alcoholic and drug abuser. Dorsey was also to suffer the effects of the British Invasion before finally reviving his flagging career as a country singer / writer. After signing with Capitol in 1970, he scored six country hits on that label in 1972-74. It is ironic that he was voted "Most Promising Newcomer of 1973" by the Academy of Country Music, almost twenty years after cutting his first platter on Von! There were further (minor) country hits on Melodyland and Calliope, but just when his first Elektra single, "Here I Go Again", was about to enter the country charts, Dorsey Burnette died of a heart attack on August 19, 1979, aged 46.
Dorsey was a prolific songwriter, with 391 titles in the BMI database. His solo recordings are not as good as those of his younger brother. For the most part they are pop-flavoured ballads of no great distinction. His best work was done with the Rock 'n' Roll Trio and on a number of duets with Johnny. Today, the Burnette family tradition is carried on by Dorsey's son Billy and Johnny's son Rocky.
More info :
Discographies / sessionographies :
Acknowledgements : Colin Escott, Adam Komorowski, Klaus Kettner, Jean- Marc Pezet.
Dik, October 2012
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