From Sun Records to Sporting Goods, Sonny Burgess Remembered in Newport

by Kyle Massey  on Monday, Mar. 12, 2018 12:00 am   2 min read

Sonny Burgess, Newport’s hometown hero of rockabilly, playing in his 80s at Depot Days.

Newport kids looking for a football or a catcher’s mitt back in the 1970s often wound up at Sam-Son Sporting Goods in the Village Mall Shopping Center.

And if they pressed the smiling man at the cash register a little, he’d tell them about his days as a rock ’n’ roll star.

Long before he was a hometown merchant, Sonny Burgess — who gave Sam-Son the second half of its name — led Sonny Burgess & the Pacers, rockabilly stars of the 1950s. He played in the same joints as Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis, trading licks, liquor and wild stage moves with his fellow Sun Records recording stars.

Sam-Son is no more, but long after his sporting goods days Burgess was rocking again with the renamed Legendary Pacers, playing to audiences of thousands at festivals across the nation and in Europe, and reaching a public radio audience of millions on “A Prairie Home Companion.” The comeback, powered by nostalgic fans and the insistent beat that electrified his youth, ended with a fall only months before Burgess’ death at 88 on Aug. 18.

Anthony Allen of Dillinger Funeral Home in Newport noted that the Pacers, hailed for their boisterous performances as young men, kept up the frenetic pace well into their 70s and 80s. “I saw the Pacers many, many times, and they were always energetic,” Allen told Arkansas Business. “You couldn’t even tell they were older.”

Burgess’ family requested that memorials be made to the Rock ’n’ Roll Highway Museum, the Newport attraction that hails the men (and women like Wanda Jackson) who electrified crowds up and down old U.S. 67 in northeast Arkansas.

Burgess belted out “Red Headed Woman” and “We Wanna Boogie” at the Silver Moon Club in Newport and Bob King’s club 30 miles up the highway in Swifton, among many others.

He originally named his band the Moonlighters after the Newport club. His drummer, Bobby Crafford, recalled those days in a talk last year with Kelly Kissel of The Associated Press.

“Back then it was crazy how people who worked every day went out and partied every night,” Crafford said, recalling that the band worked nightclubs on weeknights and played colleges on Friday and Saturday. “How many of those people went to work the next day, I don’t know.”

The Pacers played a tribute to Burgess at last September’s Depot Days Festival in downtown Newport, and photos and even some of their instruments are on display at the museum at 201 Hazel St. (see Annual Show Lets Newport Show Off Artists, and Itself.)

The museum, upstairs in the Newport Area Chamber of Commerce building but planning a move soon to its own space nearby, is open weekdays 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.



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