Rich Wilhelm

Happy Birthday Mr. Burlison (My Greatest Rock’n’Roll Moment)

In Uncategorized on February 4, 2016 at 5:37 pm


My greatest rock’n’roll moment–greater than when I walked Debbie Harry to her car and greater than when I told Robert Hazard how much his song “Escalator of Life” meant to me when I was in high school–happened when I met Paul Burlison on a train bound from Philadelphia to New Carrollton, Maryland. My good friend Ed Whitelock once requested that I tell this story and, like an aspiring lounge singer hoping to make it to one of the “big rooms” in Vegas, I take requests. Here’s my story.

First of all, Paul Burlison is the man who played guitar on the early rock’n’roll masterpiece, “Train Kept A-Rollin'” by the Johnny Burnette Trio (I believe they were originally called the Rock’n’Roll Trio, but the compilation that I have is credited to the Johnny Burnette Trio). This song is frequently cited as the first song in which feedback is intentionally used as part of the sound of the song.

It was a Saturday morning, March 26, 1988. It was my last semester of college at Temple University. I was pretty burned out on college at the time, in part because I had been robbed at gunpoint just before Christmas but also because I just wanted the whole education thing to be done at that point, even though I didn’t exactly have a clear idea what I was going to do once I graduated.

Probably because of the frame of mind I was in at the time, I was enjoying my Saturday morning acting class that semester far more than the class I was taking in my major, a magazine editing class. On that particular Saturday, I had headed from Temple’s Center City campus to the train station, where I boarded the 1:47 Amtrak headed south to go to my friend Greg’s parents’ house, where a bunch of us were headed for his 21st birthday. Everyone else was already there, but because of my class, I was taking the train trip on my own.

As I walked through the crowded train cars, I was wearing a t-shirt that featured the cover of Elvis Presley’s first album. This is the iconic image of Elvis with an accoustic guitar and the words “Elvis Presley” in pink and green. If you don’t know it, maybe you know the cover of the Clash’s London Calling, which replicates the look of the Elvis album. The t-shirt attracted the notice of a middle-aged man sitting in an aisle seat who called out to me as I passed by him, “You know, this is the man who drummed for Elvis.”

I’m not sure if I realized at first that he was talking to me, but within a second or two I did and swung around to see who was speaking to me. It was Paul Burlison, who was soon introducing me to D.J. Fontana, the drummer who played on nearly all of Elvis Presley’s recordings once he left Sun for RCA. As other travelers squeezed by me, Burlison offered me the unoccupied seat next to him and I immediately accepted.

Once I sat down, Burlison told me that he was now playing in a band called the Sun Rhythm Section. The band was made up of Burlison and Fontana, along with Sonny Burgess, Jerry Lee “Smoochy” Smith, Marcus Van Story and Stan Kessler. Collectively these six guys were a living, breathing textbook of the thriving rock’n’roll scene happening in Memphis in the 1950s and early ’60s. Sonny Burgess and Marcus Van Story both recorded at Sun. Stan Kessler wrote “I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone,” and “I Forgot to Remember to Forget,” both of which were recorded by Elvis at Sun; Kessler later went on to produce “Wooly Bully” by Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs. Smoochy Smith, in addtion to having rockabilly roots and an amusing nickname, played keyboards on the Mar-Keys’ classic instrumental, “Last Night,” which was one of the first big hits for Stax Records.

(Oddly enough, this might very well have been my second encounter with D.J. Fontana that month. I had been in Memphis on spring break just two weeks before and when I was crossing the street in front of Graceland, a car drove by with a license plate that read DJFONTAN.)

The Sun Rhythm Section had played in New York City the night before and was headed to Richmond for a gig. And, for a little while, I was riding along with them, as the Amtrak train kept a-rollin’ through Pennsylvania, Delaware and into Maryland. Burlison was happy to talk about his experiences playing rock’n’roll in the ’50s, though, to be honest, while I was familiar with “Train Kept a-Rollin’,” I didn’t know that the name of the guy who played guitar on it was Paul Burlison until I found myself sitting on a train with him.

The band had an album out at the time called Old Time Rock’n’Roll (see photo above) and they sold me a copy at the Poor College Student discount and then they passed it from seat to seat so that each of them could sign it. At some point Burlison, Fontana and Kessler went to the diner car to get a drink and they invited me along. I probably asked Fontana about Presley, but I don’t remember him saying much. All of them were very nice to me though and seemed to appreciate that a younger person was taking an interest in their music.


Eventually, I reached New Carrollton and had to say goodbye to the Sun Rhythm Section. I was bursting to tell my friends about the amazing train ride I had just taken, but when I got to Greg’s mom and dad’s house, it was to find a gloomy group of friends who had just watched Temple’s basketball team lose a tough March Madness game to Duke (probably the most heartbreaking game of that era in Temple basketball). My babbling about Paul Burlison, D.J. Fontana and company was greeted with somewhat muted enthusiasm.

No matter though. I had met legends of rock’n’roll and I had the autographed album to prove it.

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Patrick F. O'Donnell

writer, editor, general wordsmith and scribe

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