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The Nashville Scene

(Issue Date: July 4, 1996)

Rock Therapy

A Nashville Trio

By Daniel Cooper

Forty years ago, Johnny Burnette, Dorsey Burnette, and Paul Burlison, known collectively as the Rock 'n' Roll Trio, spent the afternoon of the Fourth of July relaxing in producer Owen Bradley's boat on the Cumberland River. Recording that week at Bradley's 16th Avenue studio, the Memphis threesome had already laid down some of the most frantic rockabilly sides of that real gone era--including their delirious, fuzz-guitar-driven cover of Tiny Bradshaw's "The Train Kept A Rollin'." But when they arrived at the studio on the Fourth, things didn't go quite so well.

"We went down to the studio, we couldn't get nothing done," says Burlison, the lead guitarist and only surviving member of the Trio. "Ah, man, I'll tell you what, we had been out drinkin' some beer and stuff that night before, and got to feeling bad, and all of us were feeling bad, and went down to the studio the next day...couldn't get anything right. Wasn't nothing sounding right, and Owen just stopped the whole session. Right in the middle of the thing, he said, `That's OK, boys, let's take a break.' He took us down to the river and took us out on his yacht.... We rode up and down the Cumberland River on his yacht, eating watermelon and everything, came back, man we knocked out three songs."

A quaint little story on the surface, Burlison's recollection actually flies in the face of 40 years' worth of orthodox rock 'n' roll history. For much as Bradley has been honored for his work with Patsy Cline and other country legends, his--and Nashville's--contributions to rockabilly have been widely perceived as nonexistent. But as Burlison's anecdote reveals, Bradley's sensitivities were sufficiently well tuned to know when a rock 'n' roll session was falling apart, and to know what to do to fix it. Among the three tunes recorded that July 4, presumably after the Trio returned from their Cumberland River outing, were "Rock Therapy" and "Rock Billy Boogie." The latter, especially, has since entered the repertoire of every history-conscious band that has ever seen fit to tear it up in homage to their 1950s forebears.

A trio of ex-Golden Glove boxers from Memphis, Burlison and the Burnettes, both of whom sang in the group, arrived in Nashville via New York City. Though they had one poor-selling indie single to their credit, they weren't discovered until they appeared on the Ted Mack Amateur Hour. They signed with a manager, bandleader Henry Jerome, and with a record label, Coral. Capitol Records had also wanted to sign the Trio, and Burlison says he wanted to go with them. But Jerome and the Burnettes voted him down, opting for Coral. As a result, says Burlison, Capitol signed Gene Vincent instead. "The reason he was on Capitol is because we didn't go with Capitol. That's why. That's the truth."

On May 7, 1956 (three days after Vincent recorded his classic "Be-Bop-A-Lula" at the Bradley studio in Nashville), the Rock 'n' Roll Trio's first Coral session was held in New York. Though the Big Apple environment produced one rockabilly gem, "Tear It Up," the Trio thought the New Yorkers fairly clueless about what they were trying to achieve. Hence they asked for permission to record their next session in Nashville.

Rockin' and rollin' Johnny Burnette, Dorsey Burnette, and Paul Burlison at the Python Temple, New York City, 1956

Arriving in Music City, the Trio took a room in the old Andrew Jackson Hotel downtown. Their contract permitted them to choose much of their own material, so Burlison and the Burnettes prowled the Nashville record stores looking for songs to augment their originals. After buying the records, they'd take them back to the hotel, spin them on a portable player, and work up their own arrangements. Besides "The Train Kept A Rollin'," they picked the Delmore Brothers' "Blues Stay Away From Me," Fats Domino's "All By Myself," and Stick McGhee's "Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee," among others, all of which they reinvented during the remarkable July sessions.

Much as he contributed production-wise, Owen Bradley is humbly adamant that he was not responsible for the success of the Rock 'n' Roll Trio sessions. "Henry Jerome worked for our company in New York, and he brought people down, and I'd do whatever he wanted me to do," Bradley says. "He'd depend on me for help to get the most out of the people we had, but the final decisions were all up to Henry. 'Cause it was his act, it wasn't mine."

Bradley hired session pro Buddy Harman to play drums throughout (a vast improvement over the drummer they had in New York, Burlison says), and he hired the Anita Kerr Singers and guitarist Grady Martin for a couple of cuts that Jerome apparently hoped to pitch to the mainstream pop market. But though Jerome called the shots, Burlison speaks of Bradley as having been the hands-on guy in the studio--and as a producer who worked hard to get the best out of the Trio.

"He would suggest stuff every now and then, but he'd let you pretty well do what you wanted to do," Burlison says. "But if he didn't like it, he'd just say, `Let's do this. Let's add this.' And then--`I think I hear a little piano on this next song.' And he came out there and played the piano.... He was easy to work with."

Other than the July 4 troubles, the only major setback of the Trio sessions was due to the unexpected arrival at the studio of a young Memphis priest, Father Morgan, who had been on Bradley's TV show earlier that afternoon. Father Morgan knew Johnny Burnette and had asked Bradley if he could stop by to say hello. Though well-intentioned, his visit was hardly conducive to maintaining a loose, rock 'n' roll atmosphere in the studio. "It sort of put a cloud on things for a few minutes," Bradley recalls. "And Father Morgan, who was a really wonderful guy...he sensed all this and he left."

Certainly the free hand the Trio was given was never more important than on "The Train Kept A Rollin'." Before a live date in Philadelphia, Burlison had dropped his amplifier and, unbeknownst to him, partially disengaged one of the tubes. As a result, throughout the entire show his guitar had emitted a thick, fuzz-like tone. "We did the whole show with it that way," he says. "Every song we played. Because I didn't know what it was." But Burlison liked the sound and soon learned how to loosen the tube just enough to replicate it. At the studio in July, he suggested trying it out on a couple of tracks. Far from objecting to what essentially amounted to using faulty equipment, Bradley went along with the guitarist.

By itself, the Trio's locomotive-speed rendition of "The Train Kept A Rollin'," fueled by Johnny Burnette's out-of-breath screeching vocals, would have ranked as a rockabilly classic for the ages. But with Burlison playing a deceptively simple series of bass-string octaves through his fuzzed-out amp, the record proved an instant sensation within the industry itself.

"People started calling me right after the song came out. Boy! Engineers would call and ask me, `What are you doing on that song?' Every motel, every hotel we stayed at, somebody would call and wanna know what we were doing on it," Burlison says.

In fact, though Tiny Bradshaw originated the tune (and mind you, his jump blues version does not lack for raucous vitality of its own), the Trio's Nashville arrangement of "The Train Kept A Rollin' " is the one that has entered the rock 'n' roll canon. The Yardbirds resurrected that arrangement in 1965, then demolished it (under a different title) during an anarchic live sequence in the 1966 film Blow-Up. The following decade, Aerosmith continued the demolition of "The Train Kept A Rollin' " in their inimitably subtle fashion.

All the while, Burlison's tone never stopped confounding some of the best guitarists in the business. In one episode reported to him by Memphis musician-producer Jim Dickinson, Dickinson was in England with the Rolling Stones when they all wound up in the same hotel with Eric Clapton. As Dickinson told Burlison, Clapton was playing the Trio's "The Train Kept A Rollin' " on a portable record player, trying to learn it. Frustrated, says Burlison, Clapton finally "got up, and he took the guitar up, and threw it down on the bed...and he said, `What in the hell's he doing?' "

Another time, in the 1980s, Burlison was working with the Sun Rhythm Section at a show in Pennsylvania. Los Lobos was in town that night, and after Burlison came offstage the Los Angeles rockers were waiting for him in back. As Burlison recalls, Los Lobos' Cesar Rosas thrust a guitar at him "and said, `Show me.' I said, `What?' He said, `How you did "Train Kept A Rollin'."

Ironically, of all the most influential rockabilly sides of the 1950s, "The Train Kept A Rollin' " was among the worst-selling in its day. Though a regional hit, the record suffered from Coral's lack of know-how at promoting rock 'n' roll. The Trio hung on and cut one more session at Bradley's in 1957, but dissension and career frustration eventually broke up the band. The Burnettes went on to separate solo careers (Johnny Burnette's "You're Sixteen" being the most famous outcome) while Burlison retired from music to raise his family. Having done well with his own contracting business near Memphis, Burlison wasn't coaxed out of musical retirement until the early 1980s, when the rockabilly revival introduced an entirely new generation to the Trio's phenomenal work. Both Burnettes had died by then, so Burlison toured England with singer Rocky Burnette, Johnny's son. (Billy Burnette is Dorsey's son.) Since then, Burlison has continued to play when he feels like it, and as of this coming week he will be up at Levon Helm's studio in Woodstock, recording with the Band for an upcoming album of new material.

As for Owen Bradley, by the 1960s he was putting string sections behind country singers, thereby contributing to a trend for which the rockabilly police force has wanted his hide for years. It shouldn't be that way. For if nothing else, Bradley's Fourth of July offer of a boat ride on the Cumberland was precisely the rock therapy needed to continue one of the most important sessions in rockabilly history.

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