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For rock historians and rockabilly fiends, Paul Burlison, guitarist for the Rock 'N Roll Trio, is every bit as important a figure as Scotty Moore or Link Wray. Led by wildcat vocalist/acoustic guitarist Johnny Burnette and his stand-up bass-slapping brother, Dorsey, the Trio crafted some of the rawest music of the genre's early years, and Burlison's distorted, bone-crunching solos on the act's signature track, "Train Kept A-Rollin'," inspired Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and countless others. But in the fall of 1957, with the Trio seemingly on the crest of popular acceptance, Burlison left the group in order to spend more time with his family, and he stayed out of the spotlight for decades. Now, however, Burlison is back on stage in support of a star-studded CD, aptly titled Train Kept A-Rollin', that finds his raging technique undimmed by the passing of time. And no one could be happier about it than Burlison. "I feel like I'm in my second childhood," he says in a masculine Southern drawl. "I'm 69 goin' on 40."
Burlison's musical journey began in Memphis, Tennessee, where he cut his teeth playing in various country acts. He figured out how to sound like a Grand Ole Opry star using a novel method: "I'd take a quarter and put it on the arm of the record player to slow it down so I could pick up a few licks. That's the only way we could do it then. We didn't have all this television like we've got now."
In the early Fifties, Burlison's skills had advanced to the point where he was hired as a studio guitarist at a local radio station, KWEM. There he accompanied another famous wild man: the late blues icon Howlin' Wolf, whose given name, oddly enough, was Chester Burnett. In this way, he supplemented income he received for working at Memphis's Crown Electric Company, a business that also employed a young man named Elvis Presley during the same period. "Yeah, I knew him because he worked at Crown before he ever recorded 'That's All Right,'" Burlison notes. "I was a journeyman electrician when he went to work there as a truck driver."
Also on the Crown staff was Dorsey, who, like Burlison and sibling Johnny, was both an amateur boxer and a promising musician. In 1953 Burlison joined the Burnettes in a group that played to the teenage children of area farmers and blue-collar workers from Memphis and its outlying suburbs. "They'd come out of the cotton fields on weekends, and they wanted some excitement," Burlison remembers. "We played raw stuff. It was honky-tonk kind of roadhouse music they could bop to. It was between a jitterbug and a bop that they were doin' back in those days, but it wasn't really either one. They'd just get out on the floor and stomp their feet and jump around with those big ol' brogans on and those blue jeans all rolled up from the bottom. Man, they'd stomp that wooden floor and the dust would come up." He chuckles before adding, "It'd 'bout choke you to death."
After gaining a loyal following around Memphis, the boys lit out for New York City and landed a spot on the nationally televised Ted Mack Original Amateur Hour, an influential talent show. That the Rock 'N Roll Trio won the contest three weeks running continues to fill Burlison with pride. "We was on national television four times before Elvis was," he crows. "We was on television before Carl Perkins was. We was on there before Gene Vincent was on there. We were on before any rockabilly group ever. Ever!"
Following these triumphs, the three landed a deal with Coral Records. Their first session for the label, in 1956, took place at New York City's famed Pythian Temple, where Bill Haley & the Comets had recorded "Rock Around the Clock" two years earlier. But the folks at the studio still had no idea what to do with the Trio. As Burlison tells it, he and his mates found a 32-piece orchestra waiting for them. "The bandleader came over and said, 'We don't know anything about this rock and roll, so just tell us what you want and we'll do it.' We laughed at him and said, 'Man, we don't know ourselves. We just play what we like, and if you get more than three chords in it, we're lost.'"
In the end, the only orchestra member heard on "Tear It Up," the ageless track that was completed that day, was a drummer named Eddie Gray, who quickly learned that what was right for a symphony didn't cut it in rockabilly. "I kept tellin' him to play louder," Burlison attests, "and he said, 'I can't--I'm gonna bust the heads on my drums if I play louder.' I said, 'Bust 'em. I gotta hear you.' So he pushed the drums over to the side and got his cases, and that's what he's playin' on 'Tear It Up.'"
Prior to recording a successor to "Tear It Up," Burlison was involved in an accident at a show in Philadelphia that was to have a profound effect on rock and roll. "I was walkin' to the stage with my amplifier when the little ol' strap on my Fender Deluxe broke and it fell to the floor. Well, we'd always start off with a fast song; we'd crank it up pretty heavy so the people would fall back and we could see the soles of their shoes. But when we started playin' the first song, Johnny looked around at me because the amplifier sounded so distorted. He looked over at me like, 'What's happenin'?' but I just shook my head. I didn't know, either."