Dorsey Burnette was born on December 28 1932 to Willie May and Dorsey Burnett Sr. in Memphis, Tennessee. The ‘e’ at the end of the name was added later. His younger brother John Joseph (Johnny) was born nearly fifteen months later on March 25 1934. The Burnette Brothers grew up in a public housing project in the Lauderdale Courts area of Memphis, which from 1948 until 1954, was also the home of Gladys and Vernon Presley and their son, Elvis.
The young Dorsey Burnette has been described as a tough kid with a violent temper and not very skilled at keeping it in check. There are reports that he was constantly in trouble in school and that he spent time with the wrong crowd. Jimmy Lee Denson, one of the sons of the pastor of the Poplar Street Mission described Dorsey as a “badass kid, who was violent and not very bright.” He said that his brother, Jesse Lee Denson and Dorsey served time in a reform school in Nashville for incorrigible truancy. Cub Koda of Goldmine Magazine has described Dorsey as having a reputation for being a proto-juvenile delinquent, always willing to mix it up with anybody, who gave him the remotest inkling of a hard time.
Dorsey was a competent athlete with an interest in boxing. Both of the Burnette Brothers turned out to be successful amateur boxers, becoming local Golden Gloves champions. In 1949, Dorsey was introduced to another young boxing contender named Paul Burlison by his boxing teacher, Jimmy Denson and they were to become firm friends. Later, Burlison was introduced to Johnny Burnette and they also become firm friends.
All three men had a mutual interest in music to which they had had an early introduction to music. Burlison had begun to receive guitar lessons when he was eight years old and in 1939, Dorsey Sr. gave his two sons a pair of Gene Autry guitars. According to most sources, the brothers immediately broke them over each others heads. Dorsey Sr. doggedly bought them two more guitars. Dorsey was later to recall that their father had said, “Learn to play those guitars. You can be like those folks on the Grand Ole Opry if you want to ……. Dorsey said that he learned the G, C and E chords and when the strings broke, he would use bailing wire.
After graduating from the Catholic High School in Memphis, Dorsey tried his hand as a professional boxer becoming a Southern pro champ before working at a number of daytime jobs, which included a cotton picker, an oiler on a Mississippi riverboat, a fisherman, a carpet-layer. He was finally to work at the Crown Electric Company with Paul Burlison as an apprentice electrician and would spend six years studying for an electrician’s license. Johnny Burnette also worked as a deck hand on barges, which traversed the Mississippi River and though they worked separately, each of them would bring his guitar on board and write songs during his spare time. After work, they would perform those and other songs together at local bars with a varying array of sidemen. Paul Burlison joined them after his discharge from the US Armed Forces and in 1952 or 1953 they formed a group, which may have been called The Rhythm Rangers at the time. Johnny Burnette sang the vocals and played acoustic guitar, Dorsey played bass and Paul Burlison played lead guitar.
Promotional appearances were arranged on Dick Clark's American Bandstand, Steve Allen's Tonight Show and Perry Como's Kraft Music Hall, together with a summer tour with Carl Perkins and Gene Vincent. On September 9 1956, they appeared as finalists in the Ted Mack Original Amateur Hour at Madison Square Garden. Despite all of this activity, however, the three singles, which were released over this period failed to make the national charts.
In order to cover their living expenses, the Trio was forced to go on the road, completing what seemed to be an endless stream of one night stands. This exhausting regime led to squabbles, which were exacerbated in Dorsey’s case by Jerome’s use of the name Johnny Burnette and the Rock and Roll Trio on records and live dates. Things finally came to a head at a gig in Niagara Falls in the fall of 1956, when, as a result of a fight, Dorsey quit the group a week before they were to appear in Alan Freed’s film Rock, Rock, Rock. Johnny Burnette and Paul Burlison rapidly recruited Johnny Black, the brother of Elvis’s bassist Bill Black, to fill Dorsey’s place and the Trio were duly completed their spot in the film. Despite the film appearance and three more single releases and one LP release, the group failed to achieve any chart success. The Rock and Roll Trio officially disbanded in the fall of 1957.
Most sources say that Dorsey returned to Memphis, where he found himself a lead guitarist and a bassist (he switched to rhythm guitar – by then the accepted norm for a singer) and formed his own group called Dorsey Burnette and the Rock and Roll Trio. They briefly toured the South, but achieved little success and called it quits.
Colin Escott of Showtime Magazine states that during or after his stint with his own trio, Dorsey recorded a demo session with Fabor Robinson (owner of Fabor Records, co-owner of Abbott Records and sometime manager of Johnny Horton and Jim Reeves among others). French researchers Giles Vignal and Marc Alesina place the demo session at the Sun Records Studio in November 1956 and they have Dorsey being backed by Johnny Burnette and Paul Burlison. Let’s Fall In Love and four other tracks were cut, but all have been lost. As a result of this demo, on November 24 1956, Dorsey went to a session at the Fabor Studio in Malibu, California, where he cut four tracks, namely The Devil’ Queen, Let’s Fall In Love, At A Distance and Jungle Magic. These tracks were released as two singles, Let’s Fall in Love/The Devil’s Queen (Abbott 188-45) on November 24 1956 and Jungle Magic/At a Distance (Abbott 190-45) on February 23 1957. Fabor Robinson offered to place Dorsey on either the Louisiana Hayride or the Town Hall Party (the West Coast’s leading country music showcase). As Dorsey had never been to California, he opted for the West Coast. After moving out to California, Dorsey found work as an electrician to make ends meet and began writing songs in his spare time. Once he had settled down, Dorsey sent for his family; his son Billy Burnette has described their relocation as being like the “Grapes of Wrath”.
By the fall of 1957, Johnny Burnette was now unemployed and he decided to try his luck on the West Coast. With a friend, Joe Campbell, he hitched a ride in a railroad boxcar out to Los Angeles, where they joined Dorsey. With their past differences forgotten, the brothers attempted to resurrect The Rock and Roll Trio by sending for Paul Burlison. He joined them briefly, but decided to return to Memphis and concentrate on his electrical business. Dorsey continued with his day job as an electrician to pay the family expenses, whilst he and Johnny continued with their song writing activities in their spare time.
In November 1957, the brothers were approached by songwriter John Marascalco, who had written Ready Teddy and Rip It Up for Little Richard, as well as Good Night My Love and other hits. He was looking for a singer to help him with a new song called Bertha Lou. Dorsey and Johnny went into the Master Recorders Studio in Hollywood and backed by Odell Hull (lead guitar), Danny Flores (piano) and H B Barnum (drums) cut two tracks, Bertha Lou and ‘Till The Law Says Stop. It was originally planned that Johnny should sing the lead vocals, but when he recalled that he was still under contract to Coral Records, Dorsey suggested that nobody would care if he sang the song. The vocal duties were switched, with Johnny singing some of the backing vocals. The two sides were released as a single (Surf SR5019-45) under Dorsey’s name. Contrary to expectations, however, Coral threatened to sue and so label owner, Kenny Babcock withdrew the record. Not wishing for the session to be completely wasted, however, Babcock had Dorsey’s voice overdubbed with that of one of his own singers, Johnny Faire (also known as John Faircloth). Surf SR5019-45 was subsequently re-released as by Johnny Faire. Johnny Faire was later to change his name and find fame as Donnie Brooks.
The songwriting credits show John Marascalco as the writer of Bertha Lou, but Cub Koda reports Brooks as saying that the song was in fact written by Johnny Burnette, who, as part of the recording deal, sold it to Marascalo. John Marascalco was later persuaded to release Dorsey’s version, which he still owned. In 1965, Bertha Lou/Keep A Knockin’ was released as Cee-Jam #6 with Bertha Lou under the name of Dorsey Burnette and the flipside Keep A Knockin’ under the name of “The Brothers”. In 1966, Bertha Lou/’Til The Law Says Stop was released as Cee-Jam #16 with both sides under the name Dorsey Burnette.
It was sheer bravado that enabled the Burnette Brothers to have their first major breakthrough as songwriters. On arriving in Los Angeles, Joe Campbell bought a copy of “A Map To The Stars” which showed the location of the then teen idol Ricky Nelson’s home. In an effort to get their songs to him, the Burnettes and Campbell decided to sit on the steps of the star’s home until they could get a meeting with him. This persistence worked and Ricky was sufficiently impressed with their work, that he wound up recording many of their songs including, Believe What You Say You Say, It’s Late and Waitin’ In School amongst others. Other artists on Ricky’s label, Imperial Records, such as Roy Brown, who covered the brothers’ Hip Shakin’ Baby, also benefited from their songwriting abilities and this led to them signing a recording contract with Imperial. What probably contributed to this success was a promotion service run by the brothers. Donnie Brooks said that shortly after the Bertha Lou session, he, Dorsey, Johnny and a songwriter named Jesse Hodges had an office in Hollywood from which they produced demonstration records. He said that “we would knock off demo sessions one after another; changing our voices to sing country, rockabilly, pop, whatever was needed.”
As the Burnette Brothers, Dorsey and Johnny were to have one single release on the Imperial label, Warm Love/My Honey (Imperial X5509), which was released on May 5, 1958. It did not make the charts. In 1961, they had two instrumentals releases on the small Infinity and Gothic labels. The first single, Green Grass Of Texas/Bloody River (Infinity INX-001), was released on February 20, 1961. The second single, Rockin’ Johnny Home/Ole Reb (Gothic GOX-001), was released on May 29 1961. Both of these records were under the name of The Texans. A further instrumental, Lonely Island/Green Hills (Liberty 55460) under the name of The Shamrocks was to appear on Liberty Records on June 6, 1962. Green Grass Of Texas/Bloody River was to be re-released in February 1965 on the Vee Jay label (VJ 658), again under the name of The Texans.
Dorsey Burnette’s third single on the Era Label, The Ghost Of Billy Malloo/Red Roses (Era 3025) was released on August 29 1960 but unlike its predecessors, it failed to enter the charts. His final release for the Era label that year was This Hotel/The River And The Mountain (Era 3033), which was released on November 7 1960 and it also failed to become a hit. In 1961, he had two single releases on Era Records, Hard Rock Mine/(It’s No) Sin (Era 3041), released February 27 1961 and Great Shakin’ Fever/That’s Me Without You (Era 3045) released April 24 1961. These singles failed to become hits and in May 1961, Herb Newman of Era Records sold Dorsey’s contract together with the masters of his last two Era recording sessions to Dot Records, whose biggest recording artist at that time was Pat Boone.
Dorsey had three singles released during his time with Dot. The first was Rainin’/A Full House (Dot 45-16230) released May 1961 followed by Feminine Touch/Sad Boy (Dot 45-16265) released September 25 1961 and finally Dying Ember/A Country Boy In The Army (Dot 45-16305) released January 1962. None of these releases caught the public’s ear and he was released at the end of his six-month contract. From here, he moved to Reprise Records, the label owned at that time by Frank Sinatra. At Reprise, Dorsey worked with producer Jimmy Bowen and arranger Jack Nitzche and had two single releases in 1962. Castle In The Sky/The Boys Kept Hangin’ Around (Reprise R-20,093) was released on June 30 1962 and I’m Waitin’ For Ya Baby/Darling Jane (Reprise R-20,121) was released October 27 1962. Neither single was a hit. During 1963, he had four singles releases on Reprise. The first was Foolish Pride/Four For Texas (Reprise R-20,146) released February 23 1963, which was followed by Hey Sue/It Don’t Take Much (Reprise R-20,153), released March 9 1963 then Invisible Chains/Pebbles (Reprise R-20,177) released May 9 1963. His final release was Where’s The Lonely Girl? /One of The Lonely (Reprise R-20,208) released August 24 1963 and to coincide with this single, Imperial released Circle Rock/House With A Tin Roof Top (Imperial 5987) in August 1963. None of these singles reached the charts and so he moved on to the Mel-O-Dy label.
The Mel-O-Dy label was a subsidiary of Motown Records, which had been started in 1962. The early releases were soul oriented and included tracks by Lamont Dozier, The Vells (Martha and the Vandellas) and The Pirates (The Temptations). Later records on the label were country and featured such artists as Bruce Channel, Howard Crockett and The Hillsiders. His first single for Mel-O-Dy, Little Acorn/Cold, As Usual (Mel-O-Dy M-113) was released on May 14 1964, but it failed to enter the Hot 100.
Three months later Dorsey Burnette suffered a family tragedy from which, according to most sources, he never fully recovered. On August 14 1964, Johnny Burnette had gone out on a fishing trip on Clear Lake, California. After dark, his tiny unlit fishing boat was struck by an unaware cabin cruiser and the impact threw him into the lake where he drowned. Dorsey was distraught and he telephoned Paul Burlison, who immediately flew out to comfort him. The two men renewed their friendship and Johnny Burnette was interred in Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California. Several sources report that from this point, Dorsey, driven by guilt or depression and his self-destructive nature, became a chronic alcoholic and drug abuser. They also report that this affected his musical abilities and his reliability.
His last two Mel-O-Dy singles Jimmy Bowen/Everybody’s Angel (Mel-O-Dy 116) released October 1964 and Long Long Time Ago/Ever Since The World Began (Mel-O-Dy 118) released November 1964 failed to make the charts. The label was discontinued in April 1965 and from then on Dorsey recorded without luck on a series of labels such as Liberty, Merri, Happy Tiger, Music Factory, Smash (where he re-recorded Tall Oak Tree), Mercury, Hickory and Condor, who released The Magnificent Sanctuary Band/Can’t You See It Happening (Condor FF-1005) on February 7 1970. This song was to be widely recorded by other artists.
Commentary from Patrick Landreville who played the final show with Dorsey: "Most people that play benefits for national or international charities get paid for their performances, at the least their expenses are paid. But Dorsey and I choose to play for free at these affairs, though neither one of us is well off financially. Dorsey is a legendary figure in music and could command a hefty sum for his services but he's chosen to give, not to take. I'm proud to know him and to have had the opportunity to make music with him and I'm especially proud that he considers me his peer."
Dorsey Burnette’s pioneering contribution to the genre has been recognized by the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.
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