Albert “Sonny” Burgess “grew up,” he says, “[in] what we call the Anderson Hickory Grove community ... about five miles out of Newport. I had a friend in school who played guitar, so that kinda got me interested.”
The Jackson County native, born May 28, 1931, took to music. By the mid-1950s, he was singing with the Moonlighters, which opened for Elvis Presley. “Elvis suggested we go to Memphis and talk to Sam [Phillips] — that was about the time [Elvis] was leaving [Sun],” Burgess says. Phillips told him “ ‘Go back and work a little more on this.’ So, we did, and when we came back, he recorded us.”
A new group had been assembled in Arkansas from the Moonlighters and another band led by Jack Nance. Renamed the Pacers, Nance brought in an element that few rock acts, then or now, possessed — trumpet.
“We added to our group Joe Lewis and Jack Nance,” Burgess says. “Jack was a music major who had gone to UCA ... and was assistant band director here at Newport. He was actually a drummer, but could play a little bit of everything. And he had an old trumpet. So that’s how come we wound up with [trumpet]. If he’d had a saxophone, we’d probably have [had a saxophone]. If he’d had a trombone, we’d probably had a trombone. But the trumpet worked real good because it was good and loud, and he could blow it loud. In clubs, that was great.”
The Pacers soon had a reputation for its ferocious live act.
On May 2, 1956, Burgess and the Pacers auditioned again in Memphis — and passed. That same afternoon, the group cut its classic single, “Red Headed Woman,” backed with another hard-driving Burgess original, “We Wanna Boogie.”
“Everything we ever cut at Sun, we had done at clubs,” Burgess says. The Pacers played through the Delta, especially the Silver Moon in the band’s home base of Newport: “We kind of thought the Silver Moon was our home. We had Bob King’s in Swifton, which we played; we had Porky’s Rooftop, where we first saw Elvis. And then you had Jarvis’, and then you had numerous other clubs all up and down Highway 67.”
The “Red Headed Woman”/”We Wanna Boogie” single did well — in pockets: “We didn’t get much out of the Delta. We got up to Louisville, Kentucky, that was about as far away as we got. We didn’t know anything — [the single] got to No. 2 in 1956 on the charts in Boston. We had other songs — we got real good reviews with everything we put out at Sun, just about.”
But by the end of the 1950s, the Pacers were splintering. Drummer Russ Smith hooked up with Jerry Lee Lewis; Nance and guitarist Joe Lewis left to join Conway Twitty, who grew up in Phillips County. Nance would write Twitty’s million-selling breakthrough hit, “It’s Only Make Believe” in 1958. Later, Burgess himself joined Twitty’s band.
Burgess is philosophical about his time at Sun: “Simply nothing ever caught on like we thought it would. But we had a lot of fun.”
These days, Burgess and his band — now dubbed the Legendary Pacers — still have one of the most energetic shows around. The group performs at the free Choo Choo Ch’Boogie Delta Music Festival in Brinkley on June 25.
• “Red Headed Woman”
• “We Wanna Boogie”
• “Ain¹t Got Thing”
• “My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It”