Rockabilly Legend Billy Burnette Talks New LP ‘Crazy Like Me’ & Fleetwood Mac Stint (INTERVIEW)

Rock & roll is part of my DNA. I don’t do it because I have to do it; I do it because I love this kind of music. I’ve never done anything but this.

For Billy Burnette, his brand of rock & roll, known commonly as Rockabilly, is very much a part of his DNA. His father Dorsey, his uncle Johnny and their friend Paul Burlison were a major component of making that swinging rock sound that influenced everyone from Elvis Presley to the Stray Cats to even the Beatles. And for the younger Burnette, who grew up right in the middle of all this, he wanted to make sure their story was preserved correctly.

For two years, Burnette worked on writing not only his family’s story but his story as well, putting down memories onto the printed page. “There are all of these stories about the Rock N Roll Trio that people just don’t know,” Burnette explained about his father and uncle’s rockabilly band upon the publication of Crazy Like Me. “I wanted the world to hear them.” At the same time, he’s put together an album of the same name which coincides with the music he writes about, with a couple of new originals to let people know he’s nowhere near ready to slow down at 64.

Burnette, who may be more known for his almost ten years in Fleetwood Mac after Lindsey Buckingham’s departure, has lots of stories to share, in his book and with us during our interview last week. He loves talking about his father and uncle’s musical legacy, how they started a trio with Burlison called the Rick N Roll Trio down in the laundry room of a housing project in Memphis, where Elvis would come watch them practice. He remembers fondly his time in Fleetwood Mac, working with Roy Orbison, having his own time in the spotlight as an up and coming new artist in the early 1980’s, writing songs with Delaney Bramlett, playing guitar in Bob Dylan’s band, touring with John Fogerty, acting in movies and hanging with the likes of Ringo Starr and River Phoenix; as well as the tragedies of a heart attack in 2009 and losing his father in 1979.

With his album coming out October 20th and the book currently on shelves, it’s a good time to reacquaint ourselves with the man who put the “billy” in Rockabilly.

You have been doing something since practically the day you were born. Now you’ve written a book and you have a CD coming out next month. That to me doesn’t sound like somebody who has any intention of slowing down anytime soon. So why do this all right now at the same time?

Well, when I was doing the book, my promotion men said, “Why don’t you do the book and record at the same time?” We released the book a little earlier cause it takes them a while to get their stuff in place. But I’d worked on the book for so long. I’d started it and then put it aside and then started back up on it again when I finished the record. And it’s just the story of my family and myself and how we came to move from Memphis to LA.

I learned a lot researching the book. I’ve got a picture of Elvis and my dad at the Lauderdale Courts in 1954. We lost my dad when I was real young but we didn’t talk about it a lot, but they, the Rock N Roll Trio, kind of influenced Elvis to do what he did. In fact, it was 1954 and they used to rehearse at the Lauderdale Courts laundry room, which is really funny cause my mom knew him really well then too. He was a couple of years younger than them so they knew him as this kid who hung out and wanted to be like them. He did everything they did, you know.

I also found out that the guy my Uncle Johnny was in the boating accident with in 1964 [which took his life] was the same guy, the guy driving the boat was a guy named Donald Turnipseed and he was driving the car that was in the wreck that killed James Dean like ten years earlier. I didn’t know that and in fact, I even called my cousin Rocky [Johnny’s son] and he hadn’t heard that name since then. He goes, “That’s right, that was the guy’s name.” We never knew that story so I learned a lot in writing the book and did a lot of research about dates and times when things happened. But it’s just a story of what I’ve been doing all my life, really.

You mentioned the Lauderdale Courts. What kind of place was that back then?

The Lauderdale Courts was a housing development for poor people after the war and that’s where all the kids hung out. It had a basketball court. It was really nicer than you’d think. When I say housing development, back then there were like racial boundaries. The white people had their housing developments and the black people had theirs so it was a lot different back then.

And that’s where your dad and uncle’s music was born

That’s where it was born. There was a kid there named Lee Denson who taught him a few chords on the guitar and they put together a band and I guess one of the first songs they’d written all together was “Rockabilly Boogie,” and that was about me and my cousin Rocky. And that’s where the name kind of started to become famous. They had that term rockabilly and that’s what made it stick, was that song, you know.

Was that very important for you to tell these stories about your dad and uncle’s music?

Yeah, it seems to be getting more and more popular and the stories keep getting more and more different as I hear them. So I felt like I needed to write the book to get all the facts straight, because there are so many stories about so many different things that I’d heard over the years that I said to myself, this can’t be right. Years ago I worked with Roy Orbison on his last record, Mystery Girl. I wrote a song on there called “(All I Can Do Is) Dream You” that he did on the Black & White Special with Bruce Springsteen and Jackson Browne and all those guys. I played on the session and taught him the song and sang on it with him. In fact, it was the day I got the call to join Fleetwood Mac. I was in the studio with Roy Orbison and Roy had told me, “First time I met your dad and uncle, the elevator opened and we were at some radio station in Memphis and the door opened up and they were fighting each other.” (laughs) So I heard that and I said, I need to write a book about this stuff cause there’s just so many stories about them, these crazy things. At one time we found out they were on Sun Records for a minute and they’ve never been able to find the tracks that they did for Sun Records. But they were on a record company before that, in 1954 or 1955 or something. I can’t remember right now. I’ll have to go back to my book and read it because it’s more accurate than I am (laughs). I should probably start taking my book when I do these interviews.

You’ve been performing since you were a little kid, and you mentioned in your book that you don’t even remember some of that because you were so young.

You know, it was so crazy because I was doing records. I actually did a record for a major record company in 1960 when I was seven and I don’t remember anything about that hardly. I did a duet with my dad at that time and I don’t know why I don’t remember those. I remember being in the studio with him with like a hundred or so musicians to do a track called “Little Child” that me and my dad did together and it was on Dot Records and it was with a big orchestra at the time. I remember things like that but I don’t remember too much about anything else in that time frame. I remember going on tour with Brenda Lee cause I was a little older then and Herb Alpert’s stuff when I worked with him on A&M Records. It was such a little company that me and my brothers would lick the stamps to put on the records to send them out to radio.

I saw him the other night on Fallon. He’s such a great guy, Herbie. He’s a dear friend and it’s funny, I was on the label three different times in my life – when I was eleven, when I was seventeen and then when Bekka Bramlett and I got on a label after Fleetwood Mac. They had got out of the business and decided to go back in to it and they decided for us to kind of spearhead their move back into it. But we weren’t really a country act and they wanted to go in a country kind of direction and if you know anything about Bekka Bramlett, she’s about as country as Manhattan (laughs).

When you first started writing songs on your own, what were those songs like?

A lot of my early stuff I wrote with Delaney Bramlett, who was Bekka’s dad. A lot of my real early stuff, that’s when I really got serious about the music. When I was eighteen, I got out of high school, my dad put me with a guy named Chips Moman in LA and I went back to Memphis and Clive Davis had signed me to Columbia. They started an imprint label for Columbia Records, which was Entrance Records. I was a week out of high school and I had a record deal and that was my introduction. I moved back to Memphis, cause we had moved from Memphis to LA when I was a little kid. I basically grew up out in LA and moved back to Memphis when I was eighteen.

You have the new CD coming out. Did you go into it with a plan of what you wanted to do?

I kind of wanted to do something with the book so the first cut is “Tear It Up,” [the first single for the Rock & Roll Trio in 1956] and I’ve cut it actually before on my early Columbia record and we almost cut it with Fleetwood Mac. It was our encore with Fleetwood Mac. It was the encore for Rod Stewart’s show for years. It’s just a special song. The second song is a song that Roy Orbison cut that a friend of mine, David Malloy, and I wrote especially for him, which hardly ever happens in this business, where you write something for an artist and directly have him in mind. But we wrote it for him and he liked it. We were in Nashville, came to California, taught it to Roy and he cut it and I ended up playing on it and that’s the reason I joined Fleetwood Mac.

I was in the studio with Roy and Mick Fleetwood said, “You got that kid there with you that played guitar the other night on that session with Rick Vito?” Rick was in the studio with us that day and T Bone Burnett was producing it, so it was kind of like a lot of friends I knew already. So I said to him, “When do you want me to join?” And he said, “Tomorrow morning.” (laughs)

I had just been nominated for Best New Country Male Vocalist at MCA Curb so I had to call Mike Curb that night and talk to him. I talked to him about a half an hour about why I should stay and he talked to me about an hour about why I shouldn’t. You know, it’s still one of the biggest bands in the world but it was like a hard decision to make. Actually at the time it was really hard because I had just been nominated and my record started doing better at MCA but I ended up being with Fleetwood Mac for almost ten years. So it was lucrative and an important part of my life. It was like an overnight life-changer, you know.

You do “Oh Well” on here. Am I hearing it wrong or is it more rockabillied-up?

Yeah, I’ve rockabillied it up a little bit. You know, it was the B-side of “As Long As You Follow,” which was one of our singles. We had done it on our Showtime special and they put that on the B-side of the record at the time. Why, I don’t know but it was good and ended up being really good for me. But that lick used to drive me nuts. I was in high school when I first heard that lick and then I became a huge Fleetwood Mac fan and it’s so weird that I got to join the band. Actually, Lindsey Buckingham got me in to do “Trouble,” when he had that song out [on Buckingham’s first solo album Law & Order], so I went to do that song with him in 1985 or 1986 or something like that. I instantly became like part of the gang. I used to call it the bubble. It was like they kind of had their own bubble in LA where they had their friends and hung out, and I just became one of them and I started writing with Christine McVie and I did a duet with Stevie Nicks at the time and just kind of fell into it.

Since Mick Fleetwood and John McVie had been there from the beginning when it was an actual blues band, how did they feel when people wanted to do rearrangements on some of those old songs? Were they open to that?

Oh yeah, they were totally open to it. Mick and me had been together, with Lindsey, for about three or four years before I ever joined the band. We had toured all over and we were actually a signed act called the Zoo on RCA and we had some records out. We toured with the Beach Boys and toured all over Australia and took Jimmy Barnes with us and Colin Hay. It was kind of just a party band, really. It was like our party band and when Fleetwood Mac wasn’t working, we were. They had kind of slowed down on the working a lot then and everybody was into their solo thing and then it was time to get the group back together. I actually joined when they were in full production of Tango In The Night. That’s why when Mick asked me to join I said, “When?” and he said, “Tomorrow.” They were in full pre-production of their tour and they didn’t want to stop, you know. I think Stevie and Lindsey, well, I don’t think I know, they had got into it that day and he was thrown out of the band and I was in. It was that simple.

How was it when you played that first concert with them?

I remember it was in Kansas City and I had laid awake scared about what was going to happen because with a group that big you don’t know what is going to happen. But we got out there and I can remember Stevie walking up to our rehearsal and saying, “It still sounds like Fleetwood Mac to me.” They were such a great band, even with Rick and I not being there. Lindsey wouldn’t stick to the original tracks a lot so when they toured a lot of the fans didn’t get the real deal. It was a different version, his version of the way he thought things should go. But when me and Rick joined, we stuck to basically the records and did the parts and because there were two or three guitar parts on the record, we were able to cover those better. Vocally, Lindsey sings a little higher than I did and that was a little rough on me. I had to kind of stretch it a little bit to get up there but I made it. And on the first tour there was a big ole banner out there that said “Lindsey Who?” on it. So we were kind of happy about that and from that day on, everything was really smooth.

What can you tell us about the new song “Ghost Town” that you wrote?

I threw in a couple of new ones on there and that song when I started it, it sounded kind of Fleetwood Mac-y to me so it’s what rubbed off on me from Fleetwood Mac, I guess.

What’s another one that’s brand new?

“When I Remember You” and that’s just about me growing up in California because I kind of grew up cutting school a lot and going to the beach and taking my guitar down there. We’d take the Topanga Canyon over and go to the beach all the time. We’d cut school or go after school, whenever it was. But I spent a lot of time in Topanga Canyon and that area when I got older playing cause that was where a lot of the clubs were in LA, before the Hollywood scene, and then I got into the Hollywood scene and ended up making a really big deal with Columbia Records.

And you do “It’s Late”

I do, I do “It’s Late” and it’s one of my favorite Rick Nelson records. I got to know Rick in that era of music and I still work a lot in Europe with James Burton, the guitar player, who is one of my favorites. He played on that track and he played on my first record in 1960. He’s such an innovative guitar player that the guitar playing on that stuff is ridiculous. I’ve just always wanted to cut that. I did a live album a few years ago and I put that on there but I’ve never done it on a real record. It’s funny cause Stevie wanted to sing that with me and we never could get it together, get the times together, but her and I used to do that all the time together.

What about “Anywhere You Go”

That’s one of my favorite songs on the record and that I wrote with one of my favorite writers in life. His name is Will Jennings and he wrote “My Heart Will Go On” and he wrote “Up Where We Belong.” In fact, the day I was writing with him, Eric Clapton was coming over later that day to finish “Tears In Heaven” with him. He’s written so many great songs and it’s like a lot of my favorite songs. He’s kind of mainly a lyricist but he gets involved in the music as well and he’s one of them guys that was an English Lit professor in Texas and just became a great songwriter.

Who has surprised you the most saying that you influenced them?

There’s a lot of young rockabilly people out there that say that. Anybody really famous, I can’t think of. I know that my dad and uncle influenced everybody from the Beatles to Elvis Presley. In fact, the Beatles cut one of their songs and the record’s called “Lonesome Tears In My Eyes.” When I first met Paul McCartney, and he’s probably one of my favorite artists of all-time, and when I met him, he held my hand and I went to say to him, “My name is this,” and he goes, “I know who you are.” And he told me they used to get the songs off the docks from the sailors and from pirate radio cause a lot of people don’t realize that my dad and uncle’s stuff was banned in a lot of parts of the world. In fact, in parts of the United States they wouldn’t play them either. And Elvis kind of broke that barrier.

But for me influencing people, I was a huge Fleetwood Mac fan and to get to join them and just to be a part of that. That was a pretty democratic kind of organization and we all kind of created the music together. I mean, they would come in with just an idea, “What do you think of this or that?” and we’d all work on stuff together. I think coming into that band was major because it was such a big band and for them to let us be so open about our opinion about how things should go was pretty crazy.

Why was your dad’s music banned?

Well, they had lyrics in there, like if you listen to “Honey Hush,” they did these old blues songs that they turned into rock & roll songs, like “Train Kept A Rollin,” and one of the lyrics in “Honey Hush” was like, “Come on in this house and stop all that yakakty yak, Don’t make me nervous I’m holding a baseball bat.” (laughs) And those were songs that, they didn’t write them they were just doing them, you know, because that’s what some of the kids in their area were doing at the time, some of the old blues songs. But they put a harder edge on it. They did the version of “Train Kept A Rollin” that Aerosmith did. In fact, it was Led Zeppelin’s first song that they ever learned together. I know because I spent some time with Jimmy Page. He called the house one day and wanted my dad to play on a Led Zeppelin track and he really wasn’t sure who they were, you know. I kind of explained it to him. It was funny.

I can remember when we first went over to watch the Beatles. My uncle had met some of them in England and then Ringo had recorded my uncle’s earlier song, “You’re Sixteen, You’re Beautiful & You’re Mine,” which he didn’t write exactly, the Sherman Brothers wrote it, who wrote all the Mary Poppins stuff. I saw him a couple of years ago and I went back to see him and it was me and him, and I’ve hung out with him before, and the first thing he said was, “Yeah, I had to throw out that song from the set because people might think I’m a pedophile if I do that now.” (laughs)

How early did you really start playing guitar?

You know, I kind of started a little later on. I was just standing up and holding a mic and singing when I was with Brenda Lee and I’d never played guitar. I think I picked it up sometime after I got back off the road with Brenda. They were all over the house so I said, “I better pick up one of these things and learn how to play it.” (laughs) So I got into it and that’s when I started writing songs and kind of really learning what it was all about. I was probably fourteen or fifteen when I first started playing guitar and I had a lot of good teachers around. There was people like Delaney Bramlett and Glen Campbell and Roger Miller and all these people that were great musicians. And my dad was a great musician. I just kind of picked it up and watched them. James Burton was always over. I had a head start on a lot of people. Today you can go on the internet and be caught up in a few days if you know what you are doing.

What is your #1 guitar today?

I play a Les Paul. It’s my favorite. I was with Gibson from the time I joined Fleetwood Mac until I wasn’t and I’ve stayed with them up till now. And I’ve played with everybody from John Fogerty to Bob Dylan, and that’s just people I’ve toured with. I’ve been fortunate enough to play with all kinds of people. In fact, I’m in a classic rock band now with like the drummer from Boston and there will be a guy in there from Aerosmith and we mostly do corporates with those things.

Who is from Aerosmith? Is it Jimmy Crespo?

It is Jimmy Crespo! He’s the nicest guy. Something happened with his playing a few years ago where he couldn’t play for a while so I need to see whether he’s playing again now. But he was one of our first members – him and myself and the second singer from Journey, Steve Augeri. It was that type of band and I handled the Fleetwood Mac stuff. When somebody needs somebody, I can do Fleetwood Mac or play some John Fogerty stuff. I was with John for like six years.

What was he like as a band leader?

He’s great. He still sings the songs in the same key, same arrangements. There again I was a fan of somebody that I really admired and couldn’t believe I was in the same band with him. Before that I was with Bob Dylan’s band and that was pretty wild because I had to learn so many songs.

What did you think when the Stray Cats came out and they were doing basically what you had been doing?

You know what was really strange was I had toured the country, I had a Top 10 record in New York and LA and it was really doing good. They kept me in New York for a while doing clubs and LA was where I made my record deal, which turned out to be one of the biggest record deals ever for a new artist at Columbia Records, and it was in LA that I kind of toured the clubs and made that big deal with them. But it was funny because the record was out and I remember getting a call from my manager and record company and they said, “You know this rockabilly thing don’t look like it’s going to catch on.” (laughs) Six months later, the Stray Cats come out and my dad’s got a song on it, so it was kind of weird. But those things happen. It’s all about timing. And I toured with them. Brian Setzer is a good friend of mine. He’s played on my records here in Nashville and we played on a record that Stevie and I did years ago. We’ve kind of kept in touch. I’ve done gigs with Slim Jim and the bass player, Lee Rocker. We just did one down in Cabo San Lucas where it was the three of us playing and that was a lot of fun.

So what are you planning for the rest of the year?

I just got back from Barcelona and that was a blast because I got to play there with Darrel Higham, who is married to Imelda May. I got to play with him and I played with him years and years ago and just some great guitar. We had a great band. I’ve spent a lot of time in Europe. I’m trying to get some more dates. I just played Nashville before I left at a big club here called Third & Lindsley. The record comes out October 20th, so I’m trying to put a few more dates by it. But I spend a lot of time in Germany. I have a band that I pick up in Spain and I have a band in England, which is Darrel and them, which are great guys. I have two different bands in Sweden. I do a lot of the rockabilly festivals now. A lot of the blues festivals have a rockabilly night now to fill it up so I kind of come in on that deal. But it’s a lot of fun. I’m working more than ever and I stay pretty booked up. It’s almost too much traveling because I go back and forth.

But people still want to hear your music

It’s great. In Barcelona, I think we had like 5000 people at the gig and for parts of Sweden we did a gig where there was like 4000 people and it was up so high it never got dark. There are a lot of fans up there. They still like the rock & roll/rockabilly kind of music. They seem to appreciate it more. There’re pockets in the US and these festivals are starting to get bigger and bigger every year and I’m noticing on my royalties that they get bigger every year (laughs). What’s good about the Fleetwood Mac stuff is I managed to make it on all the greatest hits packages and the best of and this and that and their records are selling more than ever. The last two years the #1 selling product at Christmas has been the turntable. So people have gone back to the wax to buy their original copies of their favorite classic rock bands and I kind of fall into that area with my rockabilly music too. They’re pressing those again. Things are kind of up right now and vinyl is back stronger than ever. But you don’t sell as many as you used to. I think I had a song on the last Willie Nelson record and normally they’d be #1 pop and country and normally a record that would debut pop and country would be in the numbers of 800,000 to a million first week. Now it’s down to like 60,000. It’s a whole different ballgame so we’ve all had to kind of reinvent ourselves

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