Around Christmas time I like to treat myself to some books on rock’n’roll and this year was no exception, the two books I bought were:
The Next Elvis: Searching for Stardom at Sun Records (2004) by Barbara Barnes Sims who worked there as a publicist between the summer of 1957 and 1960. It’s a nicely wrought little book, excellent dust-cover, like treasured LP artwork and if she missed the early days of Elvis, Perkins, JLL, Billy Lee Riley etc in 1956. She was there at the heart of the action as Jerry Lee’s ‘whole lotta shakin’ and ‘great balls of fire’ brought Sun the greatest success. It’s not sensationalistic or attention-grabbing but it really gives you a feel of how it was like at the studios and in the neighbourhood of Union Avenue, Memphis, from day to day during Sun Records’ heyday. Nothing else I’ve read on Sun studios brought me closer to the time and the place … None of us have probably heard of Barbara (unlike one of her predecessors Marion Keisker whom Elvis first contacted) but she definitely wasn’t asleep during her time at Sun Records. She comes over as a sharp observer of personalities with a crystal clear memory of events and people. It’s warts and all so we hear the ups and downs of all the colourful characters. I completely recommend it!
We Wanna Boogie: The Rockabilly Roots of Sonny Burgess and the Pacers (2014) by Marvin Schwarz. What’s not to like in an honest attempt to capture the story of Sonny Burgess and his band the Pacers, an outfit I’ve never heard being dissed by anyone even if they never hit the big time. I’ve not read it all, but my impression is that Sonny, when he’s quoted, is much more vague than Barbara when quoted talking about other musical characters we might know. But the book is particularly interesting because its author Schwarz is a bit of a sociologist egg-head who has specialised in writing about land reform and farming rural leaders, including a book entitled A History of Swimming in Central Arkansas (!) and memories from Little Rock Central High 1957–1959 (although he’s not even from the state!). But what is lacking in revelations from Sonny Burgess (maybe he wasn’t bothered about talking or maybe he was just an uncomplicated happy man) is made up by Schwarz taking the opportunity to weave the history of Burgess’s home town Newport, Arkansas, around the Sonny Burgess story, so we get to hear about ramblers, monnlighters, razorbacks, Newport in the 1950s, roadhouses and rednecks and Arkansas Rock’n’Roll Highway 67 (including maps of the route and the site and location of all 19 music/drinking/gambling clubs lying in Jackson County during those times! One is called ‘Porky’s Rooftop’!). I don’t think that within the covers of any one other book that you can get a description of a US small town in the 50s that’s as rounded and informative as this one. So I also recommend this one.
It’s not as if Sonny Burgess is forgotten within this broad canvas, and here’s a quote from the man himself from page 200 following tours in Europe (he first came in 1986). His comments will please teds no little (take heed rockabillies and 50s authentics!):
The Europeans try to dress like we did in the ’50s, but they don’t, they dress like city people. We [himself and the band] didn’t wear them rolled up blue jeans. We tried to wear dress pants if we had them, and we wore suits when we were playing. I like a band to look like a band.
That is quite something to hear the roughest most unpolished but brilliant singer of 50s ‘rockabilly’ saying he prefers the well-dressed to the casual look. The Pacers certainly didn’t try to dress like 50s hicks but as 50s cool.
And what’s more, the Pacers were far from the stereotypical rockabilly trios enshrined by Elvis and his Blue Moon Boys (Scotty & Bill) because they fielded not only a piano but also a trumpet player in Jack Nance which added to the group’s particular sound). Funnily enough there’s an anecdote that Elvis playing nearby at Swifton on Highway 67 on the 9th of December 1955, before immense celebrity overtook him, played the same evening as the Moonlighters (the Pacers’ original name). Elvis and the Blue Moon Boys took part in a jam with the Moonlighters that evening. Sonny recalled (page 117) that Elvis kicked his guitar across the room and vowed he’d never go on stage again with a small band.
Another Sonny quote (page 53) may tell us what we have already read or heard elsewhere, but it’s just fine to hear it from him:
I never heard the term ‘rockabilly’ back then. Nobody did. We never really pinned it down, where that term came from. When people asked what music we played, we were rock’n’rollers.
POSTED December 2015.