Biography of Johnny Burnette

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Johnny Burnette (1934-1964) was an American rock and roll, rockabilly and pop singer and musician. He and his brother Dorsey Burnette and their friend Paul Burlison formed the Rock and Roll Trio in 1952. They recorded a handful of singles for the Decca label, and had an appearance in the Alan Freed movie Rock, Rock, Rock, but they achieved little success, other than a regional one.

One of the Earliest Rockabilly Stars

After the Rock and Roll Trio disbanded in 1957, Johnny Burnette found success in his solo career as a pop singer, churning out hit such as “Dreamin’,” “You’re Sixteen,” (his only Top 10 hit) “Little Boy Sad,” and “God, Country and My Baby” – all released on Liberty label. His songs, co-written with his brother Dorsey, were also recorded by pop star Ricky Nelson: “Believe What You Say,” “It’s Late,” and “Waitin’ In School.” Johnny Burnette’s success was tragically cut short, however, as he died on a boating accident on Clear Lake, California. He was 30 years old.

Early Life and Occupations

Johnny Burnette was born John Joseph Burnett (without the “e,” which was to be added later) in Memphis, Tennessee, on March 25, 1934. He spent his first years at a public housing project in Memphis where Elvis also grew up.

Burnette was a keen athlete, his interest veering toward baseball, football and boxing. He had played on his school’s baseball team and was a linebacker for his school’s football team. He also tried to become a professional boxer, but he quit after having his nose broken in one match. During his boxing days, Burnette met champion Paul Burlison who would later be his musical partner.

He then worked at a deck while his brother Dorsey Burnette was employed as an oiler. When spare time allowed them, they would take their guitars on board and write songs together.

Music Career – The Rock and Roll Trio (1952-56)

In 1952, the Burnette brothers and Burlison got together to form their own group. Initially naming themselves as The Rhythm Rangers, they became the Rock and Roll Trio. They had won the local competitions and eventually were signed with Coral Records. Despite heavy promotions — they performed on American Bandstand,Tonight Show (with Steve Allen) and Kraft Music Hall, among a host of appearances — their three singles still produced no hits, other than regional smashes.

They began to spend their life on the road, and because of exhaustion from too much touring the band members were often engaged in arguments. Dorsey quit the group at their Niagara Falls gig in 1956.

Finding Success as Songwriters with Brother Dorsey

Johnny decided to go to Los Angeles, California and try his luck there. He and Dorsey reunited, decided to bury their past differences and tried to revive the Rock and Roll Trio. Burlison joined them for a while but returned to Memphis. Johnny and Dorsey Burnette eventually found success as a songwriting duo, particularly penning hits for teen idol Ricky Nelson. Nelson’s hits written by Johnny and/or Dorsey include “Waitin’ in School,” “Believe What You Say,” and “Just a Little Too Much,” all of which went to Top 20 on the pop chart. Another Nelson song written by the Burnette brothers, “Gypsy Woman,” was a minor hit.

Short Solo Career

Johnny Burnette sought out a solo career and was signed to Liberty Records’ subsidiary Freedom Records. His first singles on Freedom didn’t chart, and as Freedom Records was finally dissolved, Burnette moved to the main Liberty imprint which definitely had more promotional muscle.

Johnny Burnette’s first singles on Liberty were, again, regional smashes but produced no national hits. However, his third single “Dreamin'” (written by Barry de Vorzo and Ted Ellis) finally made it to the Billboard Hot 100, just missing the top 10 in 1960. It also went to #5 on the UK singles chart.

The follow-up single “You’re Sixteen” (written by Bob and Dick Sherman) was even a bigger hit, going to #8 on the Hot 100 and #3 on the UK single chart. Another single “Little Boy Sad” (released in early 1961) also reached the US Top 20 at #17 (#12 UK).

Johnny Burnette also did some tours in northern and eastern cities, and also in Australia along with singer Connie Francis. His last major hit was the patriotic song “God, Country and My Baby” (written by John Dolan) which peaked at #18. When his Liberty contract was finished, Burnette signed with Chancelllor Records, but his singles there, including “I Wanna Thank You Folks,” didn’t chart. He also signed with Capitol, but none of his singles there were hits. Johnny also started his own label Sahara (later changed to Magic Lamp for legal reasons) and released his self-produced singles such as “Fountain of Love” and “Bigger Man.”

On August 14, 1964, Johnny Burnette died from a boating accident on Clear Lake, California. His brother Dorsey went on to have a moderately successful solo career. Johnny’s son Rocky followed his father’s footsteps and became a rockabilly star in his own right (Rocky even enjoyed a hit single in 1980, “Tired of Toein’ the Line”).

Legacy

Johnny Burnette gained popularity in 1973 for Ringo Starr’s version of You’re Sixteen. The song was originally by the Sherman Brothers but was performed by Burnette, which blew up and even got him recognized by the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. One of his songs, Train Kept A-Rollin by Tiny Bradshaw, would later be received and recorded by Motorhead, Yardbirds, and Aerosmith. 

His song, Tear it Up, was also popular and got covered by The Cramps. Poison Ivy also used Burnette as a massive inspiration as they found his raw guitar style and vocal approach very appealing and used it in their own music. You’re Undecided also got a new life as it was covered by a fellow rockabilly band, Tav Falco’s Panther Burns. This song and Tear it up are from Burnette’s first album and are well known for Burnette’s emotional vocal delivery. 

Lonesome Tears in My Eyes also gained traction after its initial release when it was covered by The Beatles with John Lennon at the BBC in 1963. During the airing, John Lennon acknowledged Johnny Burnette and the Rock ‘n Roll Trio as the original singers. The song also went on to influence a later Beatles song called “The Ballad of John and Yoko,” as the outro guitar riff was inspired by a similar guitar riff in the Lonesome Tears in my Eyes. 

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