Campus Community Mourns Death of Honorary Doctor Sonny Burgess
JONESBORO – The Arkansas State University community is mourning the death of rockabilly legend Sonny Burgess who had significant ties with the campus for many years. Burgess, a native of Newport, died Friday, Aug. 18, following a hospital stay since July. He was 88.
Visitation for Burgess, whose given name was Albert Austin Burgess, is Thursday, Aug. 24, from 5-7 p.m. at the Silver Moon, Rock ‘n’ Roll Highway 67, AR-367, Newport.
Burgess received an honorary doctorate in music from A-State in 2011, was heavily involved with the ASU Museum’s Rockabilly Boogiefest and hosted a Sunday night show with June Taylor on KASU-FM, the 100,000-watt on-campus radio station, called “We Wanna Boogie” named after his band’s first record in 1956. During the weekly program, Burgess played classic rock ‘n’ roll and shared anecdotes of performers he knew and worked with.
He and the Legendary Pacers were scheduled to perform at the Johnny Cash Heritage Festival in Dyess Thursday and Friday, Oct. 19 and 20, during KASU Music Nights. The Legendary Pacers will carry on with the appearance.
“All of us here at ASU Museum are mourning the loss of Sonny Burgess,” said Marti Allen, director of the museum. “He was not just regionally admired as a musician, but internationally famous as a master of rockabilly, an early, vibrant form of rock ‘n’ roll.
“He so successfully captured the raw energy of this musical style that many people would rate Sonny’s Sun Records numbers ‘Red-Headed Woman’ and ‘We Wanna Boogie’ as the global and defining pinnacle of the rockabilly genre. This is why, back in 2014 at ASU Museum’s Rockabilly Boogiefest concert, we awarded Sonny with a plaque naming him International Godfather of Rockabilly. He will be missed by tens of thousands around the world who sought and loved his music.”
According to his obituary written by author Marvin Schwartz who wrote the book, “We Wanna Boogie: The Rockabilly Roots of Sonny Burgess and the Pacers,” Burgess earned the reputation as “The Arkansas Wild Man,” based on his high-energy shows and stage antics in performances at numerous clubs in Northeast Arkansas.
Burgess and The Pacers frequently performed with the top entertainers in the genre, including Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Conway Twitty, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Charlie Rich. The band opened for and performed with Elvis Presley on five occasions.
As one of the last surviving members of the original Sun Artists from the 1950s, Burgess has been interviewed and filmed for music industry publications around the world. He has donated musical instruments to museums in Newport, Jonesboro and Pine Bluff, and was influential in obtaining state designation of “Arkansas Rock ‘n’ Roll Highway 67,” which recognizes the cultural heritage of musicians and venues in Northeast Arkansas.
Burgess is survived by a son, John; ex-wife, the former Jo Ann Adams; and a sister Ann Heath.