The Blog Kept A-Rollin’ — Part 2: “Train Kept A-Rollin’” — The Rock and Roll Trio
About 5 years after Tiny Bradshaw started this train a-rollin’, the Rock and Roll Trio pulled it into Nashville, Tennessee. They were Johnny Burnette, who sang and played acoustic guitar, his brother Dorsey, who slapped the string bass, and Paul Burlison, who played lead guitar (more about that later).
They formed the group while working at the Crown Electric Company in Memphis—that same company had a delivery truck driver by the name of Elvis Presley. Despite making some classic rockabilly recordings, they never had commercial success outside of the South.
On July 2, 1956, the Rock and Roll Trio recorded “Train Kept A-Rollin’” at legendary country music producer Owen Bradley’s Quonset Hut studio.1 In the 50’s, it was common for white artists to release bland covers of songs that were hits by black performers (Exhibit A: Pat Boone’s version of Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti”). As mentioned before, Tiny Bradshaw didn’t actually have a hit with “Train Kept A-Rollin’” and—as you are about to hear—the Rock and Roll Trio’s version of it is anything but bland.
Wow… definitely a different energy than the original. Tiny Bradshaw’s vocal had a jovial bounce; Johnny Burnette sounds like he’s got ants in his pants… fire ants! His final “oh-oh-oh” is literally climactic.
And then there’s the guitar solo—almost jazzy-sounding octave runs on the high and low E strings and one of the earliest recorded uses of the kind of distortion that would eventually be known as “fuzz” or “fuzz tone.”
Regarding that solo, there’s the “legend”—as told by Paul Burlison in a May 30, 1978 interview in Guitar Player magazine:
“What happened was, we was playing a show someplace. I still didn’t have a big amplifier. Of course, I didn’t have reverb, and they didn’t have wow-wows [wah-wahs]. They didn’t have all this stuff then. They didn’t even have fuzz tones as all. So we was goin’ into Cleveland, Ohio, and someway or another, just before the show went on I dropped my amplifier. The strap broke, up there on the top, this old leather strap you carried it with. This was that little ol’ blonde Fender amplifier. Anyway, it dropped. So when I plugged my guitar in when we went onstage, it had a real fuzzy sound. So I looked back there in the back of the thing, and saw one of the tubes was just barely sticking in the prong. So it was acting as a rheostat, with the electricity jumping between the prongs. It sounded pretty good, so I just left it there. And from then on, when I wanted to get that’s sound, I just reached back there and loosened the tube. That little ol’ amplifier had half the back off of it, you know. It had cardboard halfway up, and you can reach the tube by reaching up under the cardboard. I’d just reach up there and grab that tube and just wiggle it, shake it a little bit. When you hit the strings, you could tell when you was getting’ it. You get it just right, and it just sound real funky.”2
However, while researching this post, I found an article by Vince Gordon and Peter Dijkema that questioned whether Burlison played on the track:
“Actually, at Quonset Hut it was more the rule than the exception that band musicians were replaced by studio musicians and only the singer was allowed to participate… The studio musicians used to replace band musicians have been named the “A-team.” The ones most frequently used to back-up rockabilly acts were: Grady Martin (Guitar), Bob Moore (bass), Buddy Harmann (drums) and Boots Randolph (saxophone)… For this article I had the luck of getting in contact with Bob Moore through his wife Kittra. He confirmed that Grady Martin played lead guitar for Johnny Burnette & The Rock’n'Roll Trio…”3
Gordon and Dijkema also offered an alternative explanation for how the fuzz tone effect was achieved:
“… (the distortion in the solo) had little to do with the amp, but a lot to do with the pick-up on the guitar. The explanation is simple: First you set your amp to have what would qualify as normal distortion for the time period, but with a lot of bass. Then you take a screw driver and raise the pole piece on the pickup under the deep E-string – and only that one. Raise it as much as possible without making the string unplayable and there’s your Train Kept A-Rollin’/Honey Hush distortion.”4
Hey… whether it was played by Paul Burlison or Grady Martin, it’s a classic!
When the single of “Train Kept Rollin’” was released on October 13, 1956, the group’s name was listed as Johnny Burnette and the Rock’n’Roll Trio.
It failed to make the national charts. Predictably, the group broke up soon afterwards. Later, Johnny transformed from rockabilly wildman to teen idol, achieving success with pop singles such as “You’re Sixteen (You’re Beautiful and You’re Mine)” and “Dreamin’.”
Next: The song crosses “the pond”—courtesy of two authentic British eccentrics.