SONG: Honey Hush
ARTIST: The Johnny Burnette Trio
Listen to it here:
Honey Hush is another Big Joe Turner original, which he recorded and released in 1953. His recording was a bit of a slapdash affair as his record company was worried that they were getting low on Big Joe Turner originals to release while he was on the road touring, so Big Joe Turner recorded at a radio station in New Orleans with local musicians to get a few more singles out. Honey Hush was one of those singles. You can clearly hear from the lyrics Big Joe’s opinion on relationships and women, where he gets almost aggressive and hints at some abuse, but he sings with an upbeat, positive quality.
The version of the song we’ll be listening to today is by Johnny Burnette and his Rock and Roll Trio, and has been turned into something closer to rockabilly than the original blues rendition.
John Joseph Burnette was born in 1934 in Memphis, Tennessee. He grew up in a housing project which ironically was the same home as that of Gladys and Vernon Presley and their son, Elvis. Johnny and his brother Dorsey worked on barges on the Mississippi River after high school, and after work they would perform in local bars.
In 1952, the Burnette brothers and their friend Paul Burlison formed a group called the Rhythm Rangers. Johnny sang and played acoustic guitar, Dorsey played bass, and Paul played lead guitar. They travelled to New York in 1956 and landed an audition for Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour. They won the competition three times in a row, which got them a recording contract with Coral Records. This in turn prompted them to change their name to the Rock and Roll Trio, and to hire a drummer, manager, and a bandleader. They managed to gather a lot of local performance opportunities and won a few more music contests, but failed to make the charts with any of the three singles they released during that period.
Because of their lack of success, the band was forced to go on the road to do a huge long stream of one-night stands. This eventually frayed everyone’s patience and resulted in a fight, and in Dorsey leaving the group. Eventually, in 1957, the group disbanded.
Johnny Burnette eventually moved to California, cleared the air with his brother, and formed a new trio. This new trio worked hard to get noticed. They bought a “Map to the Stars” which showed Ricky Nelson’s house, and sat on his steps until they could get a meeting with him. This worked, and Ricky Nelson was impressed with their songwriting skills. Many artists of the time ended up recording Burnette brothers songs. But still, record success eluded them.
Johnny Burnette continued working as a solo artist, and jumped from label to label to label to label trying to find success. However, he, like many other artists of his day, came to an untimely end in 1964 when his unlit fishing boat was struck by a cabin cruiser on Clear Lake in California. The impact threw him off the boat and he drowned at age 30.
The list of artists who have covered Johnny Burnette songs is long, with his most famous piece being “You’re 16”
Where have I heard the name Johnny Burnette before? I feel like I should know him. Anyway, another rockabilly song! I guess we’re on a rockabilly kick right now. I haven’t heard this song before, so when I saw the song title “Honey Hush” I was expecting some Pat Boone-esque saccharine drippy love or heartbreak song – I was not expecting it to sound like this! I love how aggressive that low E string on the electric guitar sounds, as if the band was like “we don’t have a bass player. What are we gonna do?” and Johnny was like “Say no more”. From videos I’ve watched of The Johnny Burnette Trio, he’s playing a Fender Telecaster, which is part of the reason why it’s got that grittier tone than it’s slick Stratocaster cousin (I love a good Telecaster). I think the song sounds good, the band sounds good, but here are my two qualms – I’ve had about enough of that heavy rockabilly reverb. Yes it reminds me of surf and pin curling my hair and milkshakes and cool old cars, but do I wanna listen to someone’s washed out wobbly voice? Not all the time. And secondly, speaking of voice, I don’t love Johnny’s voice. I know you don’t have to have a strong voice to sing rockabilly, but I find his voice utterly forgettable.
I didn’t know anything about Johnny Burnette and I’m pretty sure I’d never heard him before listening to the recording. I really like the feel of the song, the sound and prominence of the guitar, and the several steps towards rock and roll this song takes, while still being firmly planted in blues territory. However, the lyrics from this 2021 vantage point are pretty gross and misogynist. Also, Johnny’s voice to my ear is just ok. It’s fairly forgettable, especially considering he was up against Elvis, Buddy Holly, and Gene Vincent, who I feel all had more colour to their singing. This was cool to get to hear, but I probably won’t be seeking out more Johnny Burnette.
Average mark out of 10:
Other notable versions of this song:
Big Joe Turner’s original version:
One of these weird Old Man Band reunions of…Paul McCartney and David Gilmour?????
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Link to 1,001 Songs to Hear Before You Die spotify playlist: