NEWPORT, Ark. (AP) - Bob King’s was packed, and the king himself was about to make his entrance.
The nightclub in Jackson County was filled with anticipation. Even a seasoned musician like Sonny Burgess knew the vibe in the club was different that night.
Elvis Presley stepped onto the stage. The band started to play. His hips began to move. He sang “Good Rocking Tonight” and before he was done the crowd was whirled into a frenzy.
Burgess has witnessed hundreds of musicians and bands and played before millions of fans throughout the United States and Europe during his long career that has spanned more than 50 years.
But the guitarist has never experienced the energy and emotion he felt the night he heard Elvis play that tune, he told The Sun.
“Boy, he was different,” Burgess told The Jonesboro Sun (https://bit.ly/1md3996 ). “As soon as he walked into the building you could feel his energy. He had the looks, the songs and the charisma. Whatever a star has, he had it - more than anyone else.”
Burgess, a Newport native, has been playing a mix of rock ‘n’ roll, rockabilly, country and other music genres for nearly seven decades. During his long career he’s played with Elvis, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Conway Twitty and others.
His first musical ventures came at an early age. When he was young, his family bought him a Gene Autry guitar. It was the Great Depression, and money was tight.
He soon learned to play rhythm and two uncles and a friend ferried him to local clubs, honky tonks and other social gatherings to play. He never did it for the money, he said.
“You never play for money … you play because you love it,” Burgess said.
After he graduated from high school in 1948, Burgess, along with friends Kern Kennedy, Johnny Ray Hubbard and Gerald Jackson, formed the Rocky Road Ramblers. His music career was derailed when he went into the Army in 1951.
By the time he got out of the Army in 1954 the rock ‘n’ roll era was dawning and Northeast Arkansas, especially Newport and Jackson County, served as the music movement’s cradle.
The best acts performed at the Bob Kings, The Silver Moon and Porky’s Roof Top Club. Law enforcement turned a blind eye to gambling in the clubs which allowed owners to pay the musicians more than they earned in Memphis or Little Rock.
Burgess and his bandmates formed the Moonlighters, and they opened for Elvis at least four times, according to The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture.
The band expanded and became The Pacers in 1955. At the behest of Elvis, the group went to Memphis and recorded several songs, including “Red Headed Woman,” for famed producer Sam Phillips.
The Pacers recorded several songs during that era, but the band never rose to the heights of Elvis and the others. Burgess said he made one mistake that affected his career.
“I should have left Newport,” he said. “I should have went to New York or Los Angeles. But I stayed in Newport.”
Burgess and the Pacers continued to open for several different acts, including Johnny Cash. Superstardom never found its way to the Burgess or the Pacers, but he has no regrets, he said.
Many musicians who were lumped into that group during that epoch were bitter that they never made it like Elvis and the others. Conway Twitty told Burgess once the best piece of advice he’s ever heard on the subject.
“He said ‘everybody can’t be a star,’” Burgess said.
The 1950s rolled into the early 1960s and the Pacers slowly lost popularity. The band, known for its energetic antics during its performances, disbanded in 1960, but Burgess continued his musical career. He worked with Twitty for a while and later formed another band, the King’s Four.
Burgess retired from music in 1974 and became a salesman. Little did he know his musical career would have a second act, one that was probably better than the first.
He continued to play music part time until 1986 when he was invited to play in a rockabilly concert in Washington, D.C. Burgess joined the Sun Rhythm Section, a collection of musicians who played during the rockabilly and rock ‘n’ roll era.
The group toured the country and the world. Rockabilly had become extremely popular in Europe, and the group often made its way there, he said.
A pinnacle moment in his stage career occurred in 1989. More than 95,000 screaming fans waited for them to perform in Chicago Blues Festival. The stage shook. The air was electric.
“There was a sea of people. I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said.
Through the years Burgess has been inducted into numerous musical hall of fames and played in venues all over the world. The Pacers re-formed and play together often.
In the last couple of years he was asked to give personal anecdotes for the Guitar Walk, a tribute dedicated to the stars of rockabilly in Walnut Ridge.
The monument has statues of Elvis, Cash and others set atop of a guitar-shaped walk for visitors. There’s also one statue commemorating Burgess himself. That tribute, along with the Beatles Monument in Walnut Ridge, are among the most unique tourist attractions he’s ever seen, Burgess said.
“I’ve been all over the world. I’ve seen them all. I’m telling you there’s nothing like that anywhere else in this world,” he said.
Burgess still plays to large crowds to this day. He recently returned from a gig in Las Vegas and will play at a number of festivals and events this summer, he said.
In the fall he’ll return to Europe, he said.
“I love to play,” he said. “I’m going to do it until I can’t.”
Information from: The Jonesboro Sun, https://www.jonesborosun.com
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