It’s tempting to wonder what would have become of Johnny Burnette if he hadn’t gone fishing that night in 1964. After all, by the time that speedboat came along, he was at a point in his career where he’d managed to pull off the transition from raw rockabilly singer to genuine teen idol, hitting the Top Ten with best-sellers like “You’re Sixteen” and “Dreamin’.”
It was the same process followed by many of his contemporaries, including Elvis Presley, and Burnette shared some other things with Presley too. For one thing, he’d grown up poor in Memphis, living in the same public development that housed Presley during his teen years, and both briefly worked for the Crown Electric Company. Also, Burnette — like Presley — made some early records that reflected the rich musical heritage of the area before later moving on to a style that the parents of teens probably found less threatening.
It all started around 1952, when teenager Johnny and his brother Dorsey — both of whom had tried their hand at boxing for a while — joined up with their friend, Paul Burlison, and formed a musical group they called the Rhythm Rangers. Over the next few years the guys found mixed success, but eventually moved to New York. By then they were calling themselves the Rock and Roll Trio, and they signed a deal with Coral Records that soon led to some marketing help via TV appearances and tour dates.
Unfortunately, disagreements led to a lot of turmoil and the breakup of the group the following year. Although the records made during this period were not big hits, and a few just featured Johnny backed by studio musicians, there were some jewels among them. Classics like “Train Kept a-Rollin’,” “Rock-a-billy Boogie,” and “Lonesome Train” (video below), were some of the best examples of the era’s rockabilly sound.
The Burnette brothers eventually reconciled in California, where they had some success writing songs for stars like Ricky Nelson, but by the close of the decade Johnny was ready for a solo career. The next few years would be his biggest as a performer, as he gradually built his name through a series of hit records. Unfortunately, his career would be cut short one night in 1964 when his small fishing boat was rammed and he drowned — just thirty years old.