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The Train Rolls On

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."

As it turned out, one of the amp's tubes had worked its way partially out of its socket in the fall, creating a jarring noise that hit home with the Trio. Burlison shared this secret with legendary Nashville producer Owen Bradley (whose credits include work with Gene Vincent, Patsy Cline and countless country-music heavies) as the band was getting ready to cut "Train Kept A-Rollin'." Bradley urged Burlison to fiddle with the tube again, then added a healthy dose of echo while the threesome played. The result was the Tone--the unmistakable guitar growl that rockers have been trying to reproduce ever since. However, no one's ever managed to surpass the sound that Burlison achieved on "Train." The juxtaposition of his over-driven chicken-picking and Johnny's needle-pegging vocals make it a masterpiece of pre-punk. To this day, one would be hard-pressed to find a recording that better fuses primitive beauty with the reckless urgency of youth. "We was kind of wild, and I guess that just came out of us," Burlison admits. "Johnny was screamin' and hollerin' and I was fuzzin', and Dorsey, he just slapped the heck out of his bass. We just had fun doin' it."

The impact of "Train" was immediate--and because of Burlison's background in electronics, the press portrayed him as something of a mad genius. When engineers would call asking what he had done to his amplifier, "I told them, 'I just got a loose tube,'" Burlison recalls. "But they didn't want to believe me."

Even "Train" wasn't powerful enough to carry the Trio past Presley, however. They slogged across the country, personally promoting their records at radio stations, but "Elvis didn't have to do nothing," Burlison says. "Colonel Parker hired girls to come into the theaters up there in New York. He'd give 'em five or ten dollars apiece to go in there and just applaud and scream and holler. The more noise they made on those television shows, the more they got paid. Absolutely. That is the truth; that's why they would scream and pull their hair and everything. RCA spent a million dollars promotin' Elvis." Before long, Burlison grumbles, "they wouldn't even play our records around Memphis. They said we were Elvis impersonators."

This turn of events caused the Trio to splinter. After the band added a permanent drummer and changed its handle to Johnny Burnette & the Rock 'N Roll Trio, Dorsey left to pursue a solo career. In 1957 Burlison tendered his resignation, too. "Nothin' big was happenin' at that time," he explains, "and I felt that I could make as much money at home workin' as an electrician as I was makin' on the road. See, I was just hopin' that somethin' big would happen where I could make enough money to open up an electrical-supply company. That was my goal. I had kids, and I didn't get to see 'em 'cause I was gone two or three months at a time. I'd get home and the kids would look at me like I was a stranger. It would just tear my heart out. And when I'd leave, they'd cry."

Stepping away from music was made more difficult for Burlison by the separate successes of the Burnettes. "I put my Telecaster up in the attic where I couldn't even see the thing, because Johnny and Dorsey both had hit records, and I could hear 'em on the radio," he reveals. "They were callin' me all the time tryin' to get me to come back and join 'em, but I wouldn't do it."

The two Burnettes perished before their time: Johnny, who hit with "You're Sixteen," died in a 1964 boating accident, while Dorsey enjoyed minor action on the pop and country charts during the Sixties and Seventies before dying of a heart attack in 1979. Burlison, meanwhile, made a good living in the electrical-contracting field in west Tennessee and did even better after branching out into the home-construction business. But beyond the occasional weekend gig, he mostly steered clear of music until the early Eighties, when representatives of the Smithsonian Institution invited him to perform a series of outdoor concerts with several veterans of Sun Studios. The performances gave rise to the Sun Rhythm Section, a group that recorded an album for the Flying Fish imprint in 1986 and participated in a cultural-exchange tour that demonstrated to Burlison the far-reaching appeal of rock culture. "We played places that no other band had played, and we got a good response," he says. "People jumped up and down and roared way down in the Sudan. They didn't know the words to a lot of the songs, but they knew the beat, and they knew the music when we played it. They kept hollerin' up to the stage, somethin' about 'the ice cream song.'" After quizzing their interpreter, the musicians finally figured out what the audience wanted to hear: "Tutti Frutti."

Train Kept A-Rollin', Burlison's new disc, offers further proof of the timelessness of rock and roll. Issued by Sweetfish Records, it features a stellar cast of contemporary artists and Trio worshipers, including David Hidalgo and Cesar Rojas of Los Lobos, Fabulous Thunderbirds frontman Kim Wilson, the Band's Rick Danko and Levon Helm, and Mavis Staples. Also present are Rocky Burnette and Billy Burnette (the sons of Johnny and Dorsey, respectively), who participate in a stirring rendition of the title cut complete with a new version of Burlison's careening, octave-spanning lead. The disc also boasts several more Trio remakes and a few new compositions by Burlison, who tosses off glorious solos at every turn. "The guys on my record, every one of 'em did it because they like me and because they wanted to do it from the heart," he points out. "That's what I like about it." The only acolyte to back out of the project, he notes, was Jeff Beck. He had contacted Burlison during the Eighties to volunteer his services on any future recordings by the guitarist, but when the time came, Burlison discovered to his chagrin that Beck's price tag had risen to "five thousand damn dollars. So I told my record company to tell him to forget it. I don't even want to talk to the man again."

Not that Burlison's complaining. "I've had the best of both worlds. I've been successful as a builder, I think I've been successful as a musician, and because I play the guitar, I have met people and played places that I never would've gotten to see in my life. I never played on a big hit record, but I have enjoyed every moment that I have played music. And I will till I die."

As for his decision to take a sabbatical from music forty years ago, he says, "I don't have a regret at all. I went to see every little play that my kids was in, I coached their Little League baseball team, I was on the Boy Scout committee. I was at everything that my kids did--everything. To me, all those trophies sittin' on the shelf at home that I saw them get ridin' in horse shows and playin' in little basketball games and softball tournaments--to me they're just as good as a gold record."

Paul Burlison, with Ralph Gean. 9:30 p.m. Saturday, February 27, Seven South, 7 South Broadway, $6, 744-0513.