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Rockabilly Pioneer Sonny Burgess Dead at 88

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Guitarist Sonny Burgess, an early rockabilly player who rose to prominence through his work with Sun Records, has died at the age of 88.

The Memphis Commercial Appeal reports on Burgess’ death, which occurred Aug. 18 at Baptist Health Medical Center in Little Rock, Ark. Although a cause of death isn’t mentioned, the paper notes that he continued to maintain an active performance schedule until last month, when he was hospitalized after a fall in his home.

An Arkansas native, Burgess took to music at an early age, although he was also a talented athlete who dreamed of playing professional baseball. Both pursuits were temporarily sidelined during his stint in the Army during the Korean War, but by the mid-’50s, he was fronting a band called the Pacers — who opened for Elvis Presley, forging a connection that would lead to Burgess’ Sun Records association.

While widespread commercial success wasn’t in the cards for the Pacers, early Sun sides like their 1956 single “Red-Headed Woman” blazed a singular trail among early rockabilly artists. By the late ’60s, he’d temporarily retire from music, working as a traveling salesman for a period, but Burgess’ renown grew over time; during the ’80s, the efforts of musical disciples like Blasters co-founder Dave Alvin helped spark a comeback that led to new studio albums. Although he remained something of a cult favorite, Burgess worked steadily for most of the rest of his life; according to Arkansas Online, he was still booking 100 shows a year as recently as 2014.

“I always heard my dad say that Sonny was one of the outstanding guys he worked with,” said Jerry Phillips, son of Sun Records founder Sam Phillips. “Sonny had his own unique sound – which was the highest compliment Sam could give you. Sonny had a little bit of Howlin’ Wolf in his singing, and of course my dad really liked that. But Sonny was one of those guys who traveled the world, had a great long life, and had people who loved him all over the place. He’s going to be missed.”

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