The Porter Wagoner Trio at the Grand Ole Opry, 1950s
I just discovered Satanic Doo-Wop???
Like, I can totally see Crowley jamming out to this shit.
The Father of all things Rock and Roll.
“Blue Suede Shoes” was one of the defining songs of early rock n’ roll. It became a hit for Elvis Presley, but it was written by Carl Perkins. Many people suppose the song would have been just as big for Perkins if it weren’t for his tragic accident in 1956.
Johnny Cash claims to have given Perkins the idea with one of his Air Force anecdotes, but Perkins’ story is entirely different.
According to him, he’d gotten the idea from an overheard conversation one night at a club, in which a stylish young man told his date “Don’t step on my shoes!”
“That just bugged me,” says Carl. “I couldn’t sleep. So I went downstairs and I started to write a song about this guy and his shoes. Then I thought of the old nursery rhyme – One for the money, two for the show, three to get ready and four to go – where you used to put your head against a tree and the others would go hide…”
From The Outlaws by Michael Bane
“Someday (You’ll Want Me to Want You)” from Eddy Arnold Time, c. mid 1950s
Every generation of music appears to have had its trailblazing rebels. Someone seems to always muster up enough courage to reject convention and sonically give a middle finger to the status quo, daring people to call what they’ve created music. The most glaring example of this concept is probably derived from punk rock, but there were plenty of music rebels long before that. Rock and roll had been established between the late 40s and early 50s, but there was perhaps no one more raucous than Johnny Burnette and his Rock ‘n’ Roll Trio when they first burst on to the Memphis scene in 1956.
Johnny Burnette was an incredible Memphis rocker whose life was cut short as the young age of 31 because of a tragic boating accident. Unable to cut it as a professional boxer, Burnette quickly turned toward music, along with his brother Dorsey and guitarist Paul Burlison. Deeply inspired by the rowdy sounds being put forth by local phenom Elvis Presley, they set out to make similar music to his. In ‘56 they released three singles, none of which achieved any national success due to poor promotion. In a 1996 article in Nashville Scene, Daniel Cooper explains that Capitol wanted to sign the trio, but they wound up going with Coral Records instead. As a result, Capitol signed Gene Vincent, who became a 50s rock and roll superstar. To think what could have been for the Rock ‘n’ Roll Trio had they signed to the right label.
However, one of those failed Coral singles would manage to become a definitive piece of rock and roll history. “Train Kept A-Rollin’,” a cover of a jump blues tune originally released in 1951 by Tiny Bradshaw, features an incredible level of unrestrained energy from Johnny Burnette on vocals, along with what’s believed to be the first ever use of guitar distortion in rock music, courtesy of Paul Burlison.
On an energetic level, this definitely compares to Elvis, but at least the King had that signature, bellowing velveteen voice. What Burnette lacks in vocal talent, he makes up for in rambunctiousness, seemingly set on trying to piss off every last music purist lying in his wake. He sings slightly off-beat in certain instances because he can. He screams because he feels like it. No one’s going to stop him. His approach to singing definitely led to new types of rock and roll where pure, raw, powerful energy held way more value than technical skill. A watershed moment, to say the least.
And then there’s Burlison’s guitar. Rock music had never witnessed before the fuzz that Burlison had generated on “Train Kept A-Rollin’”. And according to Burlison, it all came from a mistake. That same Nashville Scene article goes into detail about how that fuzziness materialzied and how some of the world’s most famous rockers were totally gobsmacked by it:
Before a live date in Philadelphia, Burlison had dropped his amplifier and, unbeknownst to him, partially disengaged one of the tubes. As a result, throughout the entire show his guitar had emitted a thick, fuzz-like tone. “We did the whole show with it that way,” he says. “Every song we played. Because I didn’t know what it was.” But Burlison liked the sound and soon learned how to loosen the tube just enough to replicate it. At the studio in July, he suggested trying it out on a couple of tracks. Far from objecting to what essentially amounted to using faulty equipment, [producer Owen] Bradley went along with the guitarist.
By itself, the Trio’s locomotive-speed rendition of “The Train Kept A Rollin’,” fueled by Johnny Burnette’s out-of-breath screeching vocals, would have ranked as a rockabilly classic for the ages. But with Burlison playing a deceptively simple series of bass-string octaves through his fuzzed-out amp, the record proved an instant sensation within the industry itself.
“People started calling me right after the song came out. Boy! Engineers would call and ask me, `What are you doing on that song?’ Every motel, every hotel we stayed at, somebody would call and wanna know what we were doing on it,” Burlison says.
…Burlison’s tone never stopped confounding some of the best guitarists in the business. In one episode reported to him by Memphis musician-producer Jim Dickinson, Dickinson was in England with the Rolling Stones when they all wound up in the same hotel with Eric Clapton. As Dickinson told Burlison, Clapton was playing the Trio’s “The Train Kept A Rollin’ ” on a portable record player, trying to learn it. Frustrated, says Burlison, Clapton finally “got up, and he took the guitar up, and threw it down on the bed…and he said, `What in the hell’s he doing?‘
“Another time, in the 1980s, Burlison was working with the Sun Rhythm Section at a show in Pennsylvania. Los Lobos was in town that night, and after Burlison came offstage the Los Angeles rockers were waiting for him in back. As Burlison recalls, Los Lobos’ Cesar Rosas thrust a guitar at him “and said, `Show me.’ I said, `What?’ He said, `How you did “Train Kept A Rollin’.”
But Burlison’s version of events has been questioned. Vince Gordon and Peter Dijkema argue in their 2011 book, Rockabilly: The Twang Heard ‘Round the World: The Illustrated History, that Burlison’s description doesn’t make sense in relation to how the track sounds. Certain strings sound a lot cleaner than others, and if there really was a tube malfunction, then each string would have a similar amount of distortion. Gordon and Dijkema further contend that Burlison wasn’t even playing guitar at all and that the guitar work on “Train Kept A-Rollin’” actually tracks with that of session guitarist Grady Martin. Whatever the case may be, the use of guitar distortion on this song is easily one of the most important moments in the history of modern music. It made people reconsider the limits of what a guitar was capable of.
In 1956, the combination of Johnny Burnette’s passionate disregard of vocal formalities and Paul Burlison’s (or maybe Grady Martin’s) brand new, earth-shattering guitar fuzz constituted an unbelievable set of musical breakthroughs. Over 60 years later, the reverberations generated by “Train Kept A-Rollin’” are still felt to this day. It’s just a total shame that the song failed to chart nationally. Had Burnette and his trio signed with Capitol instead of Coral, they may have achieved a much higher level of success. Instead, they disbanded around 1957.
Brunette would go on to write songs with his brother Dorsey for teen heartthrob Ricky Nelson and would later chart a bunch of times as a solo act, but none of those contributions pale in comparison to the magic he and his trio generated with “Trian Kept A-Rollin’”.
Hey baby…it’s the Twomp
George Jones - “The Door”
Loretta Lynn - “Coal Miner’s Daughter”
Johnny Cash - “Big River”
Jeannie C. Riley - “Harper Valley P.T.A.”
Conway Twitty - “It’s Only Make Believe”
Hank Snow - “The Golden Rocket”
Dottie West - “A Lesson in Leavin’”
Don Gibson - “Sea of Heartbreak”