Rockabilly Legend Dies
Albert Austin “Sonny” Burgess, a 2002 Rockabilly Hall of Fame inductee, died Aug. 18. He lived 88 years.
Born May 28, 1929 to Albert and Esta Burgess in Anderson, Arkansas, Sonny learned to play guitar at an early age and started playing rhythm guitar with his uncles. A lifelong Newport resident, he graduated from Newport High School in 1948. Following a three-year enlistment in the U.S. Army, Burgess joined Johnny Ray Hubbard, Gerald Jackson and Kern Kennedy and formed the Moonlighters. The band opened for Elvis Presley during an October 1955 show at Newport’s Silver Moon Club.
Presley recommended the band record with Sam Phillips at Sun Records in Memphis. The band added Joe Lewis and Jack Nance, then changed its name to Sonny Burgess and the Pacers. Their hits included the Burgess-penned classics “We Wanna Boogie” and “Red Headed Woman,” which sold more than 90,000 copies. Razorback Records released his 1965 hit, “The Short Squashed Texan.” AVI Records released “Hitting That Jug: The Best of Sonny Burgess” in 1995.
Although contemporaries of Elvis, Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison, the band never received the same recognition. Yet a “frantic” stage act led to a degree of notoriety. The group disbanded in 1971, but gained a European following. He later toured with the Sun Rhythm Section before reforming his final band, Sonny Burgess & the Legendary Pacers.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame of Europe inducted Sonny in 1999. A year later, the Legendary Pacers released “Still Rockin’ and Rollin’,” voted as the best new album in the country and roots field in Europe. A 2016 documentary short entitled, “The Arkansas Wild Man,” chronicled Burgess’ trip to England to play for his fanbase.
The Arkansas Entertainers Hall of Fame inducted the band in 2007. Memphis’ Rock and Soul Museum devotes an entire wall to the Pacers. Arkansas State University bestowed an honorary doctorate of music on Burgess in 2011. Burgess co-hosted the weekly radio program “We Wanna Boogie” with June Taylor on KASU, 91.9FM in Jonesboro until his death.
Preceded in death by his son, Peyton, survivors include a son, John, and former spouse, Joann Adams.
For more information, see the Encyclopedia of Arkansas entry, the MusicianGuide biography and articles posted to the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. Sun Records promotional photograph courtesy of Sonny Burgess.
(Editor’s note: Burgess was born in 1929, not 1931; this made him 88 years old.)