The son of Dorsey Burnette tells Vintage Rock what it was like growing up as part of Rock’n’Roll royalty

Billy Burnette was born to Rock’n’Roll. His father Dorsey played bass in pioneering rockabilly combo Johnny Burnette and the Rock’n’Roll Trio, from which his uncle Johnny graduated to score pop hits with Dreamin’ and You’re Sixteen. Billy made his first record, a duet with Rick Nelson, when he was seven years old. He went on to enjoy a successful country music career, wrote songs for artists including Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and Ray Charles, and spent eight years in Fleetwood Mac, where he closed every show with his dad and uncle‘s Tear It Up. His stellar rockabilly albums include Memphis In Manhattan and Rock And Roll With It. His life is the subject of an autobiography, Crazy Like Me, released alongside an album of the same title.

Do you have any personal memories of the Rock’n’Roll Trio?
I sat in with them and sang Hound Dog when I was three-and-a-half-years-old and my uncle Johnny said, “Never again!” My mom said he was pissed off because you can’t follow a kid or an animal, you know?

Coming from your background did you always want to go into music?
Having spent so long talking about records over breakfast and going to school in Hollywood, I thought making music was what everybody did. I can hardly even remember singing with Rick Nelson when I was seven, but I did a song with my dad at that time called Little Child with a 50-piece orchestra. I had to stand on a box to reach the microphone.

Growing up, were you aware of the influence of the Rock’n’Roll Trio?
I didn’t hear my dad talk about it very much until he got a little older. He still did Tear It Up in the show. But then, towards the end of his life, I started getting calls from people like Led Zeppelin, who wanted him to play on their next album. Jimmy Page called the house. I cupped the phone and said, ‘Dad, it’s Led Zeppelin.’ He goes, ‘Are they a famous group?’ I go, ‘Yeah, very famous!’ Later on, I found out that Train Kept A-Rollin’ was the first song that Led Zeppelin ever rehearsed. Fleetwood Mac cut Honey Hush, The Yardbirds did Train Kept A-Rollin’ and The Beatles recorded Lonesome Tears Of My Eyes. Paul McCartney told me that he and John Lennon would get up every morning and the first record they’d put on was The Rock’n’Roll Trio, and that was their favourite record. My dad passed away in 1979 and if he’d hung on just a little bit longer I think he would have got the recognition he deserved.

“If you put on those records today there’s nothing that’s got the energy and the raucousness and the screaming”

How did Johnny and Dorsey get on?
They got on good. My dad actually quit the band because he wanted to keep calling it The Rock’n’Roll Trio, then somebody at the label said, ‘Let’s call it Johnny Burnette and the Rock’n’Roll Trio.’ That kinda pissed my dad off and he left the band. But then he got my uncle out to California to write songs – the Rick Nelson stuff like It’s Late and Waitin’ In School – and he brought Johnny into that. We moved out to LA, I think, in 1958 and Johnny didn’t come out till ’59 or ’60 or something like that.

Do you have a favourite story from your book?
My favourite thing was that I found a picture of my dad and Elvis standing out front of the Lauderdale Courts housing project in Memphis. It was taken with the Boys Club and it’s my dad standing right next to Elvis in a group shot in ’52 or ’53.

Where would you place the Rock’n’Roll Trio in the rockabilly hierarchy?
I would have to say they were the number one. I’m a little biased. But if you put on those records today there’s nothing else that’s got the energy and the raucousness and the screaming and yelling and all that stuff. A lot of people don’t realise that the reason they didn’t happen in the States was that they came out kinda before Elvis and all that stuff got going and their stuff was banned in a lot of places. They were banned everywhere. When you listen to Honey Hush: “Don’t make me nervous, I’m holding a baseball bat!” When I started doing that stuff again in 1980, everybody thought it was punk music. They said rockabilly would never happen, and then the Stray Cats came out about six months later and sold seven or eight million albums with my dad and uncle’s song on it: Baby Blue Eyes.