Larry Donn's Rockabilly Days - Sonny Burgess

Rockabilly Days

LARRY DONN writes for Now Dig This (May '95)

On the evening of December 22nd, I fired up the ride and motored to Bob King's club, near Swifton, Arkansas, for a party. This was not your usual party with free booze and naked women (unfortunately), it was the fortieth anniversary of Sonny Burgess & The Pacers. Funny, I never knew they were married. Actually, playing in a band is sort of like being married, or at least living in the same family, which, in a sense, you are.

I had learned from Sonny that no recording was planned, except for a couple of friends who were bringing their video cameras, so I packed along the necessary equipment to preserve the evening for whatever use the future may bring.

The Pacers, when I first knew them, were: Kern Kennedy on piano, who has retired from many years with the railroad and currently lives near Little Rock; Johnny Ray Hubbard on bass, who is also retired and living in Newport; Joe Lewis (or maybe it was Louis ... I forget) on guitar, who played bass with Conway Twitty for many years and was killed in a car crash in the '70s; Russ Smith on drums, who played with Jerry Lee Lewis for awhile in the '50s, and I heard he also had expired several years ago; Jack Nance on trumpet, who managed Conway Twitty through the '50s, then starred in some low-budget movies a few years later. (I only know this because I saw two of them at a video rental store. I don't recall the names, but if I ever run into them again, I'll have a look and give you a report. Of course, it could have been a different Jack Nance, but I'd be willing to bet it was the same guy.)

There were other members of the group over the years, and I don't know all of them, but one of the most visible is sax and harmonica player, Jim Aldridge, who lunges about the stage as a true rock and roller should. He lives in North Little Rock, and still plays several times a week.

J.C. Caughron was something like a 'legend' to me in the late '50s. Benny Kuykendall mentioned his name a few times, and I could tell by the way he said it that he had a great deal of respect for the man's guitar playing. Eventually, I heard him and had to agree with Benny. At the time, he was one of the best guitar players I had ever heard. He had a driving feeling in his playing that reeked with the very essence of rock n roll. He wasn't fancy, nor particularly fast, but his playing made me want to boogie all over town. He played with my group on a few jobs in the early '80s until I sort of "burned out" and gave it up for awhile.

Of those mentioned, only Kern, J.C. and Jim made it to the party. Johnny Ray was ailing a bit, although he did attend an anniversary dinner before the party. Jack Nance was probably off somewhere looking for the lost ark of the covenant. Bobby Crafford, who played drums with the Pacers, then later led the band (and probably still does) had something going on and couldn't make it. He lives in the Little Rock area and has produced many records on the Pacers and other artists for his Razorback record label over the years. Joe Cyr was the Pacers' for awhile in the early '60s. I never knew much about him, except that he was from up north somewhere and did some recording for Joe Lee at Alley Records in the early '60s. I think he did at least one record for Alley, and one or more for Razorback. I remember a song called 'Man in The Moon', but I'm not sure if it was on Alley, nor can I remember the other side, but I'm certain it was recorded at the Alley studio. He was a bit of a "crooner", and appeared to like jazz-blues best of all, but he could sing just about anything he wanted to sing. Unfortunately, he couldn't make it to the party, having died about a year ago. (This dying thing seems to be catching on.) Jimmy Luke, whose real name I think was Jimmy Ray Paulman, was The Pacers' singer for awhile during the '60s. I think he also played lead guitar, but that's about all I know about him. In any case, he didn't make it to the party either. Perhaps he's dead, as well.

I pushed open the back door and stepped up about two feet into the room. There is only a small block for a step, and I rarely use it. "There's Larry Donn Gillihan", I heard a voice say. I waved a hand in the general direction of the voice and looked around the room. Musical instruments covered the bandstand, all set up and ready to play. The sound system was provided by Danny Baty, whose band plays there on weekends. I surveyed the crowd, which was quite large for a week-night. I saw several of Sonny's close friends with whom I am also acquainted, and a musician's face here and there. The voice that announced me belonged to Kern Kennedy and I quickly enlisted him to help carry my recording equipment in. As long as he's been in the music business, one would think he would know something about carrying recording equipment, so I simply took advantage of his vast experience. If only I could have conned him into hooking it all up.

The Burgess fellow, whom you will recall I have mentioned at least twice in this space, suddenly leaped into 'Red Headed Woman', and the band joined in as if they'd heard the song before. I suppose now is a good time to mention the bass player and drummer. Perry Kennedy, the bass player and Kern's son, apparently has inherited some of his old man's musical genes, as he plays all the right licks in all the right places. He was about two years old the last time I saw him. Won't be too many years until he is older than me. The drummer was Ty Corbett, who has been added to my list of "best drummers I've ever played with". I heard someone say that he had played with some famous names, but I'm not sure which famous names are the famous names he's played with. Jerry Reed was one of the names mentioned. Ty lives in the Little Rock area, and apparently plays some with Jim Aldridge and/or J.C. Caughron.

Attempting to give a "blow by blow" (borrowing a phrase from the weatherman) description of the evening would cause me to have to think up all sorts of exciting descriptive adjectives, and possibly force me to actually use a dictionary, so I will just mention that Jim and Sonny were constantly dancing about the stage, acting like a couple of 16 year olds throughout the evening. It is truly amazing what rock n roll can do in the matter of energizing the body to writhe about with flailing limbs that otherwise would be stiff and sore. I speak from personal experience. Muscles that can barely move in the morning can rock n roll all night with nary a twinge of pain. When I awake every morning, I can barely turn a doorknob, but I can sit down at the piano and play half a good rocker and the stiffness and soreness disappears. I'm telling you, folks, this rock n roll music is good medicine!! If you don't play an instrument or a sing, put some good rockers on the turntable and relax with your eyes closed for a few minutes. You'll begin to feel better almost immediately! It probably won't cure VD, but it would be worth a try. (Another valuable service of NDT ... free medical advice from Dr. Donn.)

It was a night of reunions with old friends and of making new friends. Sometime during the first few minutes, Teddy Redell came up to say hello. I hadn't seen him in a year or more, but we talk on the phone occasionally. Bob Nelson and Doug Greeno, who played in Sonny's band The King's Four in the mid-'60s were there. I see Doug now and then, but I hadn't seen Bob in twenty years or more.

I attended the recorder for the first few songs then, satisfied that all was in order, walked up to the bar to say hello to Bob and Evelyn King. I've mentioned them here a few times before, but for those who missed the mentions, Bob King's club has been in continuous operation since 1951. In the '50s and early '60s, it was known as the B & I club. Elvis played there in the '50s, as did Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Billy Lee Riley and many others. Conway Twitty played there as Harold Jenkins, then again as Conway Twitty. Just about every southern rock n roller you can think of played there at one time or another in the '50s and '60s. Sonny played there many times with The Pacers in the '50s and he and I played there from '61 to '63.

During the evening, Doug Greeno sang a few and played bass with Bob Nelson on piano, Teddy Redell did three or four, including his song 'Judy' that Elvis also recorded, and I managed to slip in a few as well. A lovely young woman with a voice to match, Lisa Vaden, who sings with Kern's band, did a couple of songs. You may recognize the last name as being the same as Arlen Vaden, the owner of the 'Honey Bun' record label. I questioned her about it and she replied that she acquired the name from her husband, and she did not know if he was related to Arlen. Checking with Arlen's brother, Aaron, a few days later, I learned that they had a couple of uncles who once lived in the central Arkansas area and possibly still do, so it is likely that they are related.

A lad named Kenny Kidd, whom I had heard of but never met, also sat in for a few songs. He's from Kensett, Arkansas, near Searcy, and plays the piano quite vigourously in the manner of those of us who were inspired by Jerry Lee and other boogie-woogie piano players. He is only 30 years old, but plays rock n roll like a veteran. This kind of behaviour must be encouraged among the young. Real rock n rollers are as scarce as elephants around here, and good ones are even more so. If real rock n roll is to survive, it must be passed on to the young, or one day, the last rock n roller will go to play with Elvis in Hawaii and real rock n roll will go with him (or her).

Everyone had a great time, it was fun to see all the guys I hadn't seen in awhile, and I'm ready for the 50th. Incidentally, I'll be having my 40th anniversary in the business on August 30th, 1997. The Editor will, no doubt, be throwing me a big party and presenting me with a company car and a hefty expense account. The party will be on the beach in the Virgin Islands or some such tropical spot, will last for at least two weeks, and will, with a bit of luck, feature free booze and naked women. Watch this space carefully for the big announcement.


Changing the channels on my television recently while trying to find something reasonably intelligent, I caught a glimpse of a couple of familiar faces. They belonged to Scotty Moore and D.J. Fontana, who were performing in a music video by a group called The Tractors with a song titled 'Trying To Get To New Orleans'. It featured scenes from around the Memphis area, including Graceland, and a group of black musicians called The Preservation Hall Jazz Band. I don't know if The Tractors' song is a hit, as I don't listen to music on the radio and I don't watch music videos on television, unless somebody like Scotty and D.J. shows up.

Scotty seems to be smiling a lot these days. I don't recall him being that jovial when he was playing with Elvis. Perhaps it's because he's finally getting some long overdue and well-deserved recognition. I'm not implying that he didn't like working with Elvis, just that he seems to be having a lot more fun now.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY to Mrs. Jeanne Calment of Arles, France, who recently hit the 120 mark. (120? You mean years??) She is the oldest living person in the world. Mrs. Calment said she dined at the restaurant in the Eiffel tower when it was under construction, and met Vincent Van Gogh when she was a young girl. Wow! Can you imagine the stories she could tell? She is the oldest person whose age can be verified, so there may possibly be others older whose age cannot be proven. I recall hearing a few years ago of a Russian man who claimed to be 160 years old, but his claim was doubted as he didn't look a day over 159, and his grandmother said he was actually closer to 150. Wonder how old Johnny Cash is?