The world said goodbye to rockabilly pioneer Sonny Burgess on Friday, Aug. 18. Burgess died in his home state of Arkansas. He was 88 years old.
Sonny Burgess was one of the first to experiment mixing rock and country sounds, pushing the rockabilly envelope in the 1950’s. Burgess was signed to the famed Sun Records alongside acts like Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley, although his music was a bit further down the charts.
Burgess and his band The Pacers had a hit with their song “Red-Headed Woman” in 1956. He went on tour with Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash in the 1960’s and was eventually inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.
Sonny Burgess’s music was raucous. Even among a genre earmarked by loud piano and screeching vocals, his sound was particularly fierce. Burgess himself though, was not as coarse.
“I always heard my dad say that Sonny was one of the outstanding guys he worked with,” Jerry Phillips, son of legendary producer Sam Phillips, told the Commercial Appeal. “Sonny had his own unique sound, which was the highest compliment Sam could give you,” Phillips recounted. “Sonny had a little bit of Howlin’ Wolf in his singing, and of course my dad really liked that.”
By the 1970’s Rockabilly was all but extinct and Burgess began supporting himself as a traveling salesman, selling lace for bridal gowns. He reunited with The Pacers in the 1990’s though. Burgess spent the next 10 or so years on tour, playing gigs all across the world.
In 2015 Burgess played “Red-Headed Woman” at the Country Music Hall of Fame museum. The performance was part of a Sam Phillips tribute concert. It earned him a standing ovation from the audience.
Burgess is survived by his son, John Burgess.