Johnny Burnette was considered to be a contemporary of Elvis Presley and worked with Buddy Holly, Buddy Knox, Johnny Horton, Bill Haley and Eddie Cochran.
The musical career of Johnny Burnette started in 1952, when formed a group called The Rhythm Rangers with his brother Dorsey and Paul Burlison. Johnny sang and played acoustic guitar, Dorsey played bass and Paul Burlison played lead guitar. In 1956 the three moved to New York, managed to get an audition for Ted Mack's Original Amateur Hour. Winning the competition three times in a row gained them a place in the finals and a recording contract with Coral Records, and they renamed themselves The Rock and Roll Trio. Despite several promotional appearances, three singles released over this period failed to make the national charts.
In autumn 1956, as a result of a fight, Dorsey quit the group and was replaced by Johnny Black, the brother of Elvis's bassist Bill Black, a week before they were to appear in Alan Freed's film Rock, Rock, Rock. Despite the film appearance and three more single releases and one LP, “Johnny Burnette & The Rock ‘n’ Roll Trio”, release, the group failed to achieve any chart success. The Rock and Roll Trio disbanded in autumn 1957.
He moved to Los Angeles, California, with his brother Dorsey and after an initial success as songwriters he started as a solo artist. Among his several pop / rock recordings scoring hits in the early sixties were Dreamin’, Little Boy Sad and You’re Sixteen, released on October 5, 1960, reaching number eight on the US Hot 100 and number three in Britain. It earned Johnny a gold record.
Johnny Burnette’s success was tragically cut short, however, Though his career waned over the next few years, Johnny was plotting a comeback when he drowned while on vacation. After dark on August 14, 1964, Johnny's unlit fishing boat was struck by an unaware cabin cruiser of a local marina owner on Clearlake. The impact threw him off the boat and he drowned. He was 30 years old. Though blame is difficult to assign, Burnette's alcohol level was 0.13 and he had no lights on his boat, whereas the marina owner did. The cause of death was determined to be drowning and the incident an accident.
Quote from “Lake County News”, people in Clearlake are not particularly interested in Johnny Burnette, his life and death. The Historical Society in Lakeport claims to know nothing about him. The county tourism office could care less. And, told by Nice booking agent John Eckert, Dick Clark wanted to open one of his American Bandstand Clubs in Lake County in Burnette's honor a years ago and was turned down by the so-called county tourism office.
Even more glaringly, when contacted Bill Lewellyn, the owner of the Lamplighter Inn in Clearlake – then the Lamplighter Resort in Clearlake Highlands and the place where the vacationing rock star drowned – he said the Clearlake Chamber of Commerce had told him "not to talk to reporters."
Years later, in 1973 'You're Sixteen" became a hit for Ringo Starr. It’s not widely documented but Paul McCartney is making a duet, doing vocally the “kazoo-sound” solo. Harry Nilsson sang backing vocals.
Also in 1973 'You're Sixteen" was featured on the soundtrack of the film American Graffiti soundtrack and earned him more posthumous fame.
Legend has it that Johnny Burnette and Elvis went to school together and worked for the same trucking company. And further, that Elvis inspired Johnny to form his Rock 'N' Roll Trio, later the Johnny Burnette Trio. Wrong.
Johnny worked barges on the Mississippi, did not go to school with the King. It was his brother Doyle Burnette who worked for the same trucking firm as Elvis but, most importantly, the inspiration went the other way. The Rock 'N' Roll Trio, with the Burnette Brothers and alleged inventor of the fuzztone, Paul Burlison, had disbanded before Elvis even formed a group.
In life, had he been asked how he would be remembered, he would probably have said for his hits or for the songs he’d written for Ricky Nelson. And he would have been wrong. Today, Johnny Burnette is chiefly remembered for some sessions he cut in 1956 that resulted in no hits, but just about defined rockabilly as an art-form – in fact as a new musical life-form. His album is considered by rockabilly fans as one of the first-ever and the best rockabilly LPs. It was reissued by British Decca in 1966 and since the sixties collectors were paying big money for it. When musicologists and musicians deconstruct rockabilly and when revivalists reconstruct it, they’re trying to unravel the magic of Johnny Burnette and the Rock ‘n’ Roll Trio. Most of the Trio recordings have been in print since, and the list of covers grows year by year. Probably the most outstanding is the guitar solo on Train Kept A’Rollin’, considered one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll guitar solos ever! The afterlife of this music is astonishing. In 1965, was recorded by The Yardbirds. Aerosmith did The Train Kept A’Rolling, as did Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin, and many others.
It was used most famously, in the movie, "Blow Up," where it was rewritten as "Stroll On" due to copyright restrictions. This became one of two occasions where Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck played together and were seen playing on a Yardbirds recording.
Los Lobos revived Lonesome Tears in My Eyes. You can hear echoes of this LP in every rockabilly and roots revival band, and you can hear their indirect influence in the most unexpected places, like John Lennon’s little instrumental coda at the end of The Ballad of John and Yoko is adapted from Lonesome Tears in My Eyes.