Paul Burlison does not know how to make a long story short, but that’s just fine because his stories are such great ones. Like a slow-movin’ freight, a milk train, or the U.S. Mail, nothing stops him until he reaches his destination. His train keeps a-rollin’. He’s a Rockabilly pioneer, lead guitarist with brothers Johnny and Dorsey Burnette’s Rock and Roll Trio, which had a string of hit singles on Coral Records in 1956-’57 with songs like “Train Kept A-Rollin’,” “Honey Hush,” and “Rock Billy Boogie.” “Train…” has become a standard, reprised in subsequent decades by The Yardbirds (with Jeff Beck), Aerosmith and even Motorhead, and it was Burlison’s distorted, first-ever fuzztone guitar riffs that set it apart from other songs in the manic explosion of early rock and roll.
Aptly, Train Kept A Rollin’ is the title of Paul’s new solo album on Sweetfish Records. Produced by Jim Weider (Rockabilly-guitar authority and lead guitarist in The Band), Burlison’s comeback features performances with The Band, Los Lobos, Kim Wilson, Mavis Staples, Rocky and Billy Burnette, with plenty of assistance from the likes of Jimmy Griffin (remember Bread?), Harvey Brooks, Gary Tallent, D.J. Fontana, and more.
VG caught up with Burlison as he finished some guitar overdubs with Weider in Woodstock, New York. Over a leisurely breakfast, he answered questions and told stories, each going off on delightful tangents that illustrated and encompassed the early history of rock and roll in the Memphis area in the years following World War II.
Vintage Guitar: Let’s start with basic background. Where and when were you born?
Paul Burlison: I was born in Haywood County, Tennessee, in a little town called Brownsville, 59 miles east of Memphis, February 4, 1929. Now, I live one mile south of the Tennessee border, in Walls, Mississippi.
Have you been playing a lot over the years since you left The Rock and Roll Trio?
Well, not a lot. I played weekends with a group called The Sun Rhythm Section. We went to the Smithsonian in 1986 and played an hour a day for about two weeks. After that, people started hearing about us, and I was kind of booking us for three or four years.
We played about every other weekend someplace or other, all over the country: the jazz festival in New Orleans, blues festival in Chicago, the Rock-a-rama in Philadelphia. Then we went on one of those tours for the government; went to Khartoum, Sudan, Bangladesh, Tunisia, Jordan, Kuwait. Played Kuwait in ’89, just before the war. Sure did. We had a good time and took a lot of films. It was me and Sonny Burgess on guitars. He had a group called The Pacers; it was a hot band back in the ’50s, and he was on Sun records, put out “Red Headed Woman” and “We Wanna Boogie.” Some good stuff. We had Smooch Smith – he was one of the original Mar-Keys, on Stax, with Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn, and he also toured with George Jones in the ’70s, and a lot of different people through the years – and he was playin’ piano. Then we had Marcus Van Story on bass; he played slap bass, and he was with Morris Smith on Sun Records, had a song called “Rock and Roll Ruben.” Remember that one?
I was born in ’52.
Oh, before your time. Marcus played a lot of slap bass on Sun after Bill Black left and went out with Elvis. Sonny and Smoochie and Marcus did all the singing. Then we had Stan Kessler on electric bass. He wrote “I Forgot To Remember To Forget,” and he also discovered Sam the Sham and The Pharaohs. He produced ’em on “Wooly Bully” and “Little Red Riding Hood.” D.J. Fontana played drums with us. So that was from 1986 ’til about five years ago, when I quit. They still play a show every now and then. It was a good group and I enjoyed working with them – just pick your guitar up, no amplifiers to carry, and go off and play and enjoy it for the weekend. We’d drive down the highway in the van and nobody spoke, and nobody choked to death (laughs)!
I’m in the construction business, and I really didn’t have the time, but I had a very understanding wife and my children were all married, so it was nice to just go off on the weekend. But about five years ago, my wife got sick. I was married to her for 43 years, and she had pancreatic cancer, so I quit playin’ and stayed home with her. When she died, I still didn’t feel like playin’ for a couple years. Then Dan Griffin called me and asked if I would participate in a benefit for Danny Gatton’s family at Tramps, in New York City, and I said I’d be glad to. It was kind of like a reunion. James Burton was there, and I played with Sonny and D.J., and Jim Weider was there with some of the guys in The Band, and Arlen Roth. Some good guitar players, and just a lot of good people that I enjoyed listening to. Everybody playin’ Telecasters. I love Telecasters and Esquires – my favorites.
What are you using these days?
On this album, I played a ’53 Telecaster, white with a black pickguard, and a black ’73 Telecaster. It’s that Keith Richards-style one, with a humbucker. I played it at the Nashville sessions, but the rest of it, in L.A. with Los Lobos and the stuff I did here in Woodstock and up at Sweetfish (in Argyle, NY) was the white ’53. I’ve had it about 15 years. It’s not the one in all the pictures when I was playin’ with Johnny and Dorsey Burnette. That guitar, I backed over it one time in the car. We played a show in ’56, somewhere in Pennsylvania, outdoors on like a racetrack, with Carl Perkins. After, we’re loadin’ up our stuff and Carl was talkin’ ’bout a good place to eat somewhere down the road where we were all going to stop and talk. I had my guitar leanin’ up against the bumper in the back, and I was talkin’ to Carl and I’d forgotten about it. I was drivin’, so I just got in the car, backed up and bumped over it. It went “bump bump” and then I happened to think about the guitar and said “Oh, my God!” Opened up the case and there’s the guitar with the neck sticking up, just sprung up. We took it to this music store in the next town and the fella there put a rod in it, but it never was true. I had to push way up on the E to play in tune, and I just tolerated it ’til we got back to Memphis and I bought me another one. I bought the first one at O.K. Houck Music Store in Memphis, and that’s where I got another one just like it, right at the end of ’56, first part of ’57, and that’s what I played all during ’57.
I kept the broken one ’til August 1960, when I had a wreck. I had already quit playin’ music and was just opening up my electric company, and it was real tough gettin’ my company off the ground. ‘Course, Johnny and Dorsey was havin’ hits. Dorsey had a hit called “Tall Oak Tree” and “Hey, Little One” and Johnny came right back with another hit, “Dreamin'” and “You’re Sixteen” and they was callin’ me all the time. They’d say “Come on back out here, man, and we’ll cut you in just like we was.”
I was hurtin’, but I said “I can’t do that. That’d be like charity, ’cause I didn’t have anything to do with those records.” Every few weeks one of them would call me, and I just worked that much harder tryin’ to get my company off the ground. I started off with one truck and one helper and eventually got up to 18 men and eight trucks, six days a week, radios in all the trucks, three women in the office. Electrical contracting business.
But I did go with Johnny on a tour. When Jimmy Dean had “Big Bad John,” and Johnny had “You’re Sixteen,” right under it (on the charts, early ’61), they had a road tour and I did about two weeks with him. He would do his stuff with Johnny and the Hurricanes, then call me out to do some of the old stuff. Later, he tried to get me to go to England with him, but I didn’t. Johnny got killed (drowned in a boating accident, August 1, ’64) right after that. I never saw him again (pauses). Where was I? I got off the subject.
The subject is you, Paul, so we can’t get off the subject. How about your musical background, and how did you take up the electric guitar?
My grandmother was the only one in my family, besides me, I guess, that played music. From the time I was a little kid, she would play me these old, old folk songs, like “Go Tell Aunt Rhody.” She could play with a pick and her fingers, like Travis-style. I’d just sit there and listen to her – a little, bitty boy, and I just loved the guitar, loved to hear her play and sing. I told her “I want you to teach me how to do that.” Course, she had housework to do, had to cook and everything, but when she had a little time, she’d sit me down in a chair and she’d put her hands over my shoulders like this and place my fingers on the neck and teach me the chords. Man, tryin’ to make an F chord was the hardest thing in the world. I’d twist my mouth around and I’d sit up and stand up and try to hold those strings down and make it clear, y’know. She’d teach me three chords at a time – G to C to F to G. She wouldn’t teach me any more ’til I could change ’em, then she’d teach me G to D and A. She taught me maybe a dozen chords, and I could play rhythm on ’em pretty good, but I couldn’t play with my fingers, I played with a pick, a thumb pick.
My family moved to Memphis when I was eight years old, in 1937. I would just go up to my grandmother’s in the summer time, when I was ’bout 10, 11 years old, spend the summer and when I’d come back home to Memphis I didn’t have a guitar to play. So I kept tellin’ my mother, “Dad and you could buy me a guitar.” This was back during the floods in ’37 and comin’ out of the Depression and things was real tough and they didn’t have any money.
One day, my mother gave me $2 to go uptown and buy a pair of shoes. It was walkin’ distance to downtown Memphis, and I walked all the way and went down on Beale Street and saw this little guitar hangin’ up in the window of a pawnshop. It had $5 on it. I went in there and said “Can I see that guitar up there? Can I play it a while?” The man said “Sure, go right back over there behind those boxes.” I sat down there and played it. I didn’t have what it takes to buy it, and if I did my Mother would kill me. But I liked it so good and was makin’ the chords and the changes and I got to thinkin’, “Well, it might be worth dyin’ for!” So I told the man, “Listen, I got $2 I can give you for this guitar.” He said, “Oh, no, no, no. I got more than that in it.” You know. So I said, “That’s all I got,” and gave it back and went out and started up the street. Then I hear, “Hey, kid!” “Yeah?” “You really want that guitar, don’t you?” I said, “I sure do, man, I want it bad.” He said, “Gimme the $2 and take this guitar.”
I took that thing home and my mother and daddy was both workin’ and my sister asked me where’d I get that guitar? “Well, I bought it with the $2. I put a piece of cardboard in my shoe, and don’t you tell mother.” She promised she wouldn’t. I used to keep it up behind the house and get it out in the day when they went to work and practice on it. My sister got mad at me for something about two weeks later, though, and she squealed on me. My mother whipped me and my daddy came home that night and said, “Did you really want that guitar that bad?” I said, “I sure did, Dad, I wanted it bad.” “Well, you’re gonna have to wear those same shoes then, you’ll have to wear them things for a while. And if you want that thing that bad, I want you to learn to play it.” So I said I would. It was an old Stella. Things was hard. Come out of the Depression and right into the War.
Were you in the Service?
Two years in the Navy, but the war was over when I joined. I was 17 and my mother had to sign the papers. Some of the guys had guitars and we could sit around the barracks and play on certain days of the week. On weekends, I’d go ashore on liberty and got to goin’ to this place called Hollywood On The Pike, in Long Beach, California, where I started sittin’ in some on Saturday nights. When I got out of the Navy, I came home and my sister had married. My brother-in-law played some music and he showed me some more chords and stuff. He played sax and I started playin’ some behind him. He had a band that was playin’ in different places, just on the weekends ’cause they all had jobs. This one boy got drafted, the one that played bass with them, so he left his big old upright at my brother-in-law’s place, and he let me borrow it.
Right down the street was these two girls that played on a radio show in Memphis with their father. He played a violin, one of the girls played guitar, and the other one played bass. Ophelia Dixon was her name. Her brother was Tiny Dixon, a good guitar player in Memphis, but later on though. He wasn’t born at that time, I don’t think. Anyway, she taught me to slap the bass a little bit.
One day my brother-in-law’s band was rehearsing over at his house, and they let me bring the bass over and sit in with ’em. They went into something in an A chord, and an A chord’s a good chord to slap a bass in. They said, “Sounds pretty good. You have been practicing on that thing, haven’t you?” They let me start playin’ bass with ’em, just a few shows, but that was the thrill of my life. They was just playin’ little Spokeville clubs on weekends. I wasn’t even old enough to get into the joints, but there I was, just a kid playin’ with these older guys, and just being a part of it was a big thrill for me. Then I just listened to different people, and jammed with different guys. Later, I started likin’ the blues, and got into learnin’ the blues on guitar.
That’s when I was playin’ with a guy named Shelby Follin in a country band over at KWM (radio) in West Memphis, Arkansas. That’s where I met Chester Burnett – Howlin’ Wolf. He was playin’ on the same station, late in the afternoon. One day, Wolf came in and was standin’ outside the glass window, lookin’ in while we were doin’ our show. Shelby was singin’ this country song that kind of had a little bluesy feel to it, so I put a couple of blues licks on it. Wolf nodded at me, gave me a thumbs-up sign. So when I came out the studio that day he says, “You want to play the blues with me today?” He came on right after us, and I’d been listening to him all the way home every evening. I said, “Yeah, I’d love to!”
So Spooky Joe Baugh was standing there. He had a song out on Sun Records called “Signifying Monkey.” Had a gravelly voice like Louis Armstrong and he says, “Well, then, you go back in there and play the guitar and I’m goin’ in there and play the piano,” and Wolf just says, “Well, c’mon, then.”
Spook would sit at that ol’ upright piano, and the Wolf would sit in a chair with a guitar and his harmonicas layin’ around and he’d pick one up and go “wah wah wah wah” and I’d just repeat it on the guitar. Sounded real funky, but I enjoyed it. Wolf would usually play his show by himself, with a guitar and a big ol’ round candy box full of harmonicas, and all he used the show for was to tell people where he was gonna be. He’d say, “Me and all the guys are gonna be at Club so-and-so this weekend,” and his band would play with him on the weekends. He couldn’t pay ’em to be with him every day for a 30-minute radio show, and I was already there, so I didn’t mind doin’ it.
That went on for about three months. Right after, he started recording with Sun, and after he left Memphis and went to Chicago, I never ever seen him again. He was a great big, burly guy, with gold teeth, and his feet was that long (holds hands about 18 inches apart). He always had on a pair of pressed khaki pants, a clean white T-shirt, and big, slick patent-leather shoes with holes cut in the sides for his corns to stick out. I went to a club one night over in West Memphis and he let me come on and play with him. He had a guitar player named Willy Johnson, and I wanted to play with him some, ’cause I just liked his style.
So you were playing electric guitar by then?
Yeah, I started playin’ electric after I got home from the Navy. Bought me one of the cheapest lil ol’ Gibsons they had (an ES-125). Bought it new; first good guitar I ever owned.
How did you and the Burnette brothers get together?
I met Dorsey at the boxing ring. The Commercial Appeal – the newspaper in Memphis – used to sponsor the Memphis Golden Gloves, and I was boxing for the city championship at the Memphis City Auditorium. Now it’s called the Cook Convention Center. I had already won a championship the year before – welterweight – so I was open division, and Dorsey was novice. He comes up and says “You’re Paul Burlison, aren’t you? I heard you playin’ on the radio with Shelby Follin. I like the way you play.” I said “Thanks a lot.” He said “I’m Dorsey Burnette and I play music and my brother plays and we ought to get together and play some time.”
We exchanged phone numbers and everything, but I never did call him.
So this guy who lived three doors down from me, he played steel guitar. I could only play by ear, but he could read music (a very long, circuitous story ensues concerning a young Albert Vescovo, who later played steel with Tex Williams on “Smoke, Smoke, Smoke (That Cigarette),” became a well-known jazz/session guitarist, and now teaches music at UCLA, leading eventually to a chance re-meeting of Paul and Dorsey, with his brother Johnny, at a jam session).
Johnny and Dorsey started playin’ with Doc McQueen, who played piano and had a saxophone player – they had a song called “Rock Billy Boogie” – playin’ at this place called The Hideaway, and they wanted me to leave Shelby Follin and start playin’ with them. So I did, first part of ’53.
Me and Johnny and Dorsey would do a portion of the show as a trio. Johnny would do some fast stuff, some honky-tonk songs, stuff like “Move It On Over,” and Dorsey would play slap bass and I’d put a boogie beat over it. Then Doc and the rest of the band would play the rest of the time. Eddie Bond was a Memphis disk jockey – he also had a song called “Rockin’ Daddy,” on Decca, in the ’50s – and his daddy heard us. He knew this guy in Booneville, Mississippi, who had a little label called Von Records, so he made a deal, got us down there, and we made our first record in ’53. We did “You’re Undecided” and “Go, Mule, Go.” It’s a very rare record, very expensive if you can find one. I think it sold about a dozen copies. It was just a thrill to have our own record; we didn’t care ’bout royalties or nothin’.
We kept playin’ with Doc McQueen ’til March of ’56. Elvis had recorded “That’s Alright, Mama” and he was gonna be on the Tommy Dorsey TV show in New York. So one day Johnny said, “Let’s go up there and get on one of those television shows, see if we can make it.” I was workin’ as an electrician during the day, so I called the union office and they gave me a referral, ’cause they needed some electricians at a steam plant they was building in New York City. Dorsey was an apprentice electrician, but they gave him a card so he could work and draw an electrician’s pay. So we had jobs when we got to New York. Johnny didn’t have one, ’cause he’d been workin’ as a repo man. We was all three married, so we talked our wives into lettin’ us go, and we packed up our clothes. We took our guitars, but didn’t take the bass. Dorsey had an old ’49 Ford with re-capped tires, and we loaded everything we had in it and took off up to New York City.
We didn’t know anybody up there, not a soul. We got so excited, we just took off, and when we got up to Brownsville, Tennessee I said, “Hey! We didn’t even tell Doc!” So we stopped and I went to a phone booth and called him. I says, “Doc, we’re not gonna be there this weekend.” This was like Wednesday. “We wanted to let you know so you could get someone else. We’re goin’ to New York City to try and get on one of those television shows.” He said “And do what?” I said, “Man, we’re gonna play!” He just says, “Oh. Well, if y’all make it big, let me know.”
When we got to Bristol, Tennessee, these big ol’ snowflakes start comin’ down, big as silver dollars hittin’ that windshield, and it got worse. Wasn’t expressways back then. We came over those mountains on old Highway 64, down through Bristol, came up through Virginia, went on into Washington, DC. Got to Baltimore and the heater went out on us. Then the windshield wipers quit workin’. That snow was stackin’ up, had to get out with our hands and wipe it off. No traction with those old recaps, so two of us was pushin’. Outside of Baltimore, this truck had got sideways up on a hill, and cars was backed up on the turnpike. We got out on the median, me and Dorsey was pushin’, Johnny was drivin’, and we’re gettin’ by all these cars. Everybody was laughing at these country boys, with our pants tucked into our boots, and they’re yellin’ out, “Ha ha! Hey, where you goin’, Tennessee?” So we wrote on the back, “New York or Bust!” When we got past that truck, the plows had cleared the road ahead. Everybody’s behind us and it was a straight shot to New York City!
We got through Philadelphia and rolled through New Jersey and get to the Holland Tunnel, and we get a flat tire right at the entrance to the tunnel! So we’re changin’ the tire, and a policeman pulls up, says, “Hey, you can’t stop here!” But we didn’t have no choice. He asked us where we were goin’ and where we were goin’ to stay, and we didn’t know, so he told us to try the YMCA hotel. It was real early in the morning when we got there, and they were gonna charge us for an extra day if we checked in then, so we just slept in the lobby ’til that evening. We checked in, went up to the room, and slept for two days. Then Dorsey and I went down to the Union Hall, and they gave us a referral to go out to this steam plant and go to work. Took Johnny about a week to get a job, runnin’ the elevator at the Edison Hotel, so Dorsey and I paid the bills and sent our families home some money. We’d sit and practice in the room and play all the time.
One day we went up to watch Bert Parks’ “Stop The Music” show. We decided this was not the type of thing we wanted to be on. The guy at the hotel told us to try the Ted Mack or the Arthur Godfrey Talent Scout show. So on Sunday, Johnny and I walked up to the Ted Mack Amateur hour and watched the show. Afterward, we walked around the back and asked an usher “How do you go about gettin’ on this show?” He pointed out a fellow with gray hair and said, “His name is Oscar Schoonmaker. Go ask him.” So we asked him, and he said, “What do you do?” Johnny said, “I play guitar and sing and Paul here plays guitar and my brother plays bass.” He says, “Are you good?” And Johnny says, “Yes, sir!” So he says, “Here’s a card. Come to this address here, on Thursday nights, for an audition, and if you pass it we’ll put you on.” So we went back to the Y and told Dorsey ’bout it.
We was down on 34th Street and the studio was up on, like, 69th and Broadway. We just had our guitars and my little old Deluxe amp, so on Thursday evening we took ’em and walked up Broadway. We stopped halfway there [on 48th Street] and Dorsey rented a bass, told the man we’d bring it back the next day. They’d told us to get to the studio at 7 p.m., but when we got there, there was a big lobby, long steps and a long hallway, and a line all the way up. We couldn’t even see the end of it. We signed in and got in line. Hadn’t even tuned our guitars or the bass together, so one of us would hold our place in line and the other two would go in the bathroom and tune together. People are comin’ out of the studio, shakin’ their heads and sayin’, “They’re filled up ’til October.” And this is in March! Oh, &#@*. Well, we come this far, we may as well just hang in there, wait and do the audition. So we finally get up there. We’re almost the last ones, and they’re just fixin’ to close the doors. Guy comes out and says, “OK, you got about eight minutes and that’s it!”
Soon as he opens the door, I run in there and plug my amplifier in. I look up and there’s a glassed-in balcony, and they talk to you from up there through these speakers. There’s a panel of judges up there, of older people. They’re all older women and men. I said to myself, “Uh oh, they ain’t gonna like this. Man, they ain’t gonna like this rockabilly stuff!”
In March, 1956, Paul and the Burnette brothers took a spur-of-the-moment trip to New York City to try and get themselves on TV. When we left off, the Trio had just hit the stage, preparing to audition for “Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour.” Paul and the boys, then in their early 20s, were justifiably trepidatious that their upstart rockabilly music wasn’t going to go over too well with the much-older men and women who made up the panel of judges. Before we discuss his discovery of distortion in the ’50s, and the making of his new record, let’s just jump back in time and let Paul continue his story, in his own words.
I said to myself, “Man, they ain’t gonna like this rockabilly stuff!” We got ready, and they said, “Okay, fellas, let’s hear one.” And Johnny starts singing an Elvis song – “Tear It Up.” We’re playin’, and I look up and I see one of these little old women boppin’ her head and clapping to the beat. We finished, and the man on the speaker says, “That sounds pretty good, you guys. Can you do another one?” Johnny says, “Yes, sir!” Carl Perkins had just recorded “Blue Suede Shoes,” so we did that, and I look up at the booth and now three or four of the judges was kinda groovin’. After we finish the second song, we hear, “Okay, fellas, can you do one more?” We say, “Yes, sir! We’ll do ’em all night for you!” He says, “I think one more will be sufficient.” So we did one more song, and they kinda huddled around up there, and the guy came down and said, “I’ll tell you what, you guys. You got something that’s different than people have heard up here, and we’re gonna put you on in two weeks. But don’t tell any of the others out there who were auditioning. Keep it to yourselves.”
Man, we packed up our stuff, boy, and walked back down to the YMCA and called everybody back home and told ’em we was gonna be on in two weeks. Thirty minutes later the phone rings and Ted Mack’s office is calling, saying, “Hey, you guys, we’re movin’ you up to next week!” So we had to call back home again.
So we went on the Ted Mack show, went up in the afternoon for rehearsal. Ted Mack would talk to everyone, got us real relaxed. Then they sat us up in a barber chair and put that #7 pancake makeup all over us, painted that eyebrow makeup on. We’d never done that before. Johnny looked at me and said, “Paul, I never seen you look that good!” We had a good time. You couldn’t drink, ya’ know – couldn’t bring alcoholic beverages. So we took an old hair-oil bottle, like a fifth, and rinsed it out real good and put half Coke and half whiskey in it and put it in my guitar case. We went out wangin’ that first night, and man, that needle on the applause meter went over there and just snapped! We won that thing!
Ted Mack liked us so good he gave us $100 a week, just we could stay in New York. We had to sign a contract with ’em – if we won three times in a row, we’d have to go on a tour they’d do every year with all the three-time winners, which we did. Then we had five recording companies wanting us. I wanted to sign with Capitol ’cause they had distribution all over the world. We wound up signing with Coral. They just had distribution in the United States, which I didn’t know at the time, or I’d have still been hollerin’. Capitol offered us four percent and $150 a side when we cut, and they wanted to pick half our material. Coral offered us five percent of gross sales and $200 a side, and let us pick all our material. So we went with Coral.
We did our first session at the Pythian Temple, there in New York City. We didn’t like the sound we was gettin’, so we went to Nashville and did five singles. They didn’t do like they do now – put out an album and pull singles out of it. They just did singles. They compiled enough stuff, after I had quit, to put out the album. I did about 25 songs altogether, with Johnny and Dorsey, on Coral. We was gettin’ paid pretty good.
We were on the “Tonight Show” when Steve Allen had it. Then we were in a movie, Rock, Rock, Rock, with Tuesday Weld. Things was happening. We cut 16 records at one time in Nashville and we got $3,200 for that, in cash. And we were playin’ shows. We signed to the General Artists Corporation, a booking agency, and we played on shows with Frankie Lymon, Cathy Carter – she had out “Come Down From The Ivory Tower” – The Cleftones, The G-Clefs, The Drifters, The Coasters, Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins, Gene Vincent, Lonnie Donegan.
You said you used a thumbpick when you first started playing. Do you still use one?
No, I use a straight pick now. I can play faster lines and get a little more bite on the bottom strings when I play with a flat pick. On “Train Kept A-Rollin'” I just use my fingers – this finger here (displays middle) and my thumb, and I’m just playin’ octaves. Y’know, Jim Dickinson, the piano player who used to play with Ry Cooder, they did some dates together over there in England with Eric Clapton, way back. Jim said Eric had a little record player in his hotel room, and he was playin’ along with “Train Kept A-Rollin'” and he couldn’t figure it out! Threw his guitar down on the bed and said, “What the hell is he doin’ on that thing?” Jim said he’d ask me when he got back home, so he asked me and I showed him and Jim said, “I’ll show Eric next time I see him.” Eric sent word that he’d like to meet me, but he’s so busy, I don’t know if I’ll ever meet him or not.
Let’s talk about distortion, and how you got that sound on “Train Kept A-Rollin’.”
With a loose tube. That’s why it sounds buzzy. When “Train Kept A-Rollin'” came out, it jumped to number one in Boston in two weeks. It was jumpin’ all over the country, here and there, jumpin’ up the charts, and people would call me and ask, “Hey, what are you doin’ on that record?” I’d say, “Playin’ my ass off!” They’d say, “I don’t mean that, I mean how are you gettin’ that sound?” I’d just say, “Loose tube,” and they’d say, “Aw, c’mon man, you can tell me. I won’t tell anybody.”
I had dropped my amplifier is all. We did a show in Philadelphia with the Four Aces, and we were walkin’ down this hall to go on stage, and the strap came loose and it just fell right to the floor. Had the guitar ’round my neck, so I picked the amp up and put it under my arm. Walked out on the stage, put it down and plugged it in. They had the curtain closed. Fella went and introduced us, they opened the curtain, I hit the standby switch and started playin’ and Johnny started singin’. It had that buzzy sound to it, and Johnny looked around, but kept on singin’, lookin’ around like, “What’s that?” Dorsey kept lookin’ at me, too, and I kept on playin’. I could hear the distortion, but wasn’t anything I could do about it at the time.
So we got through doin’ the show and I took it backstage, and they was yellin’ at me. “What the hell is goin’ on with that amp?” I thought one of the wires had come loose – ground wire – so I took the back off and checked all the wires and couldn’t find nothin’. Looked up at the power tubes and they’re just hangin’ in the sockets. I guess it was acting like a rheostat, the electricity jumpin’ to the prongs. That’s all I could figure out. I pushed the tubes back up and it worked fine.
I don’t know why, but there were several articles in magazines sayin’ “Paul Burlison must be some kind of an electronic genius to get that sound.” Some people said I ripped my speakers and all that kind of stuff, but it was just an accident. I told [producer] Owen Bradley about it when we got to Nashville and he said, “Let’s see if we can get that sound again.” I’d pull that sucker out so it was just barely hangin’ there, wiggle that blame thing and you could hear that buzzy sound. That ol’ buzzy sound. Owen said, “Let’s see what we can do with it.” We did “Train Kept A-Rollin'” and “Honey Hush,” only two we ever used it on. I don’t know what Owen did with the mics and such to get that sound on “Honey Hush.” It’s got a distinct sound, and you’ll never recapture it. I don’t know what all they used then. I wasn’t goin’ back there and lookin’ at things. In those days we’d sit in a circle and just listen to each other. Crank it up and go, get it and get it right quick, and if we made a little mistake, a little bobble somewhere, they didn’t care. Go on, it’s just rockabilly.
Now, with Jimmy [Weider, who produced Paul’s new record], it’s got to be perfect. He’ll say, “That’s a little slow there.” I’d go back and hit it again, and he’d say, “Now it’s a little fast,” or “You come in a little too soon.” Soon, it’s all runnin’ together in my head, but he’d play it back and show me. Man, he’s got a good ear. I’m really excited about this record. I’ll tell you, there’s some good guys on there and everybody played their heart out. Jimmy’s done a good job producing it and I thank [manager] Dan Griffin for puttin’ it all together.
Jim Weider showed me some snapshots of you, him, Scotty Moore, D.J. Fontana, and Keith Richards all playin’ together with The Band over at Levon Helm’s studio.
Yeah, it was a pleasure to meet Keith Richards, I’ll tell you. I’d always liked the Stones’ music, and I’d never met him before. He walked in and Levon came over and introduced us and Keith slapped himself on the forehead and said (doing a remarkable imitation of Keith), “Oh, me gosh! I been listening to your music all me life!” Keith played all night long. Eventually, me and Scotty and D.J. went back to our rooms. Jimmy told me they jammed all night, Levon and Keith and them, ’til daylight.
Who else is on your record?
Billy and Rocky Burnette (sons of Dorsey and Johnny, respectively), Jimmy Griffin, from Bread – he sang with Billy on a song – and my son, Skip Burlison. He’s a lawyer. He played harmonica – his first session – just on one song. I enjoyed havin’ him there and he had a good time doin’ it. Then there’s Los Lobos – David [Hidalgo], Cesar [Rojas], Conrad [Lozano], the whole gang – bunch of good guys. We met when I was with the Sun Rhythm Section and played together in Pennsylvania. We was stayin’ at the same hotel and we’d sit around at night and jam and I got to know ’em real well. When The Beatles did our “Lonesome Tears In My Eyes,” I always thought about them, ’cause they got that little Spanish flavor to it. So I told Los Lobos I wanted them on there, and they did a good job on it. God, it sounds great.
I didn’t know the Beatles had done one of your songs.
Yup. “Lonesome Tears In My Eyes.” It was on that live BBC album. I was glad to get my first check off of them! It was almost $11,000 and that was after I had split four ways with Henry Jerome, our old manager, and Johnny’s wife, and Dorsey’s wife, and myself. Still get checks off it.
Rod Stewart did one of our songs. He did “Tear It Up,” and I got a nice check, and Fleetwood Mac did it, too. Billy Burnette sings it, it’s on that Mick Fleetwood’s Zoo album. Billy and Beka Bramlett got cut out of Fleetwood Mac when Warner Brothers offered ’em all that money to get back together with Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham, but Beka and Billy just got a deal with Jerry Moss, from A&M Records, who’s got a new label now.
Anyway, I got Kim Wilson, from the Fabulous Thunderbirds, on my record. We got Mavis Staples singin’ “Hound Dog” with Levon Helm. We got most of The Band, Levon playin’ drums and singin’, Jim Weider, of course, Rick Danko’s singin’, Richard Bell on piano. I really had a good time up in Woodstock doin’ it with them. I been a fan of theirs ever since they played with Ronnie Hawkins. Jeff Beck was gonna play guitar. We did “Train Kept A Rollin'” our style, then another version their style, like he did with the Yardbirds, and we were just gonna send the tracks over to him and he’d put a track on there and send it back. He’d agreed to do it, but there were details they couldn’t work out with his record company. It would have been nice.
What amplifiers are you using these days?
One of my old favorites has always been a Deluxe, like that little old tweed. I’ve got a blackface [Deluxe] with reverb on it. I love that reverb. I love the sound of the tweeds – I’m so used to playin’ one of those, I couldn’t play without one hardly – but the old ones don’t have the reverb. I’ve got a ’59 Bassman reissue I like, but it ain’t got reverb, so I’m gonna order that Fender reverb unit. I’ve got a Twin Reverb at home, but it’s heavy as… it’ll give you a rupture if you carry it wrong. I got a little Princeton. My two favorites are that blackface Princeton and Deluxe.
I got a ’52 Esquire at home, which I love, and I’ve got this ’53 Telecaster, but it needs a little work. I’m gonna refret it and set the intonation and then it’s good for another 50 years. Y’know, that ’52 Esquire is the one Stevie Ray used on “The House Is Rockin’.” He tried to buy it from me, but I wouldn’t sell it. He wanted it bad; he’d follow me around like a little puppy dog, goin’, “C’mon, man, won’t you sell it to me?”
Are you familiar with Vintage Guitar magazine?
Oh, yeah, I subscribe and I love it. And I go to guitar shows, but I want to take ’em all home with me! I got 40 old guitars I’ve bought over the years. I don’t know why, but I just ordered a new one from Fender. It’s a Telecaster, but with three pickups and a five-way switch and a back-cut, like a Stratocaster – sunburst with white binding. Real cool guitar, but I just got it and they used big frets. I forgot to tell ’em I wanted wire. I don’t like big frets; lotta people do ’cause they bend the strings. Jimmy Weider’s got some good guitars, but he’s got the big frets so he can “dig in.” I can’t stand ’em, they hurt my fingers. That’s why I like that ’53 Tele so good. It’s got the little wires on it, you can slide all over. I like the “fretless wonder” Les Pauls, but they’re so heavy, I can’t play ’em ‘cept ’round the house. I had a ’53 goldtop back then – trapeze tailpiece – but doin’ the radio program it got bad feedback out of that little Deluxe amp. I took it back to the store – only had it three months – and traded it in on the Esquire when it first came out. Cheapest Fender they put out back then, and I got the first one came into the store. Everybody laughed at me. They called it a biscuit board! Everybody else was playin’ big hollowbody guitars, and they thought the Les Paul was wild ’cause it was a solidbody. Then I got that plank and they’d say, “Why don’t you just get a 2 X 4 and put some strings on it, Paul?” But I liked that sound it got, that treble. Throw that switch back and get that high stuff on there. I fell in love with it and that’s what I’ve played ever since – Esquires and Telecasters. I have a Gibson Les Paul I like to sit around the house and jam with, and an ES-335 that you can do some good blues stuff on.
You can be down, or out, or loused up worryin’, and you can get your guitar and go in your room and work on songs and stuff, and when you come out you’re in a different frame of mind. It relaxes you. Lot of kids go into a shell when they got trouble, but what I would do when I was a kid and my mom and dad would argue and stuff, I’d go in my room and play guitar. Helps to take your mind off a lot of stuff. It’s an outlet. It’s good therapy. I think it’s real good therapy for anybody to play some kind of an instrument. And it’s rewarding. If I hadn’t been playing the guitar, I never would have got to see those places I’ve been to – Kuwait, Jordan – and do the things I’ve done, and still raise a family, too. It’s been real good for me. It’s been real good.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s March ’98 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.