In the Driver's Seat at Last, Johnny Burnette's Son, Rocky, Is Through "Toein' the Line"
updated 09/29/1980 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 09/29/1980 AT 01:00 AM EDT
Rocky's music, despite its more driving, '80s sound, is reminiscent of Johnny's 1960 classics like "Dreamin'" and "You're Sixteen", but Dad's real legacy was exposing him to a new pop music demimonde. Johnny and his brother Dorsey grew up in the rock Eden of Memphis and performed in the early '50s, often relying on blue-collar jobs and local prizefights to survive. Along with Paul Burlison, they formed the classic Rock'n'Roll Trio and were pioneers of rockabilly. Rocky claims the name of the genre originated from the Burnettes' dedicating live shows to their newborn sons, leading to requests for "Rocky'n'Billy music."
The Burnettes were as rowdy as their music was raucous. "I was raised by musicians who not only sang rock'n'roll but lived it," says Rocky. "They were running-in-the-streets-naked, wild, crazy and demented." But, like so many forerockers, the Burnettes unwittingly fell prey to drugs (speed and Percodan, says Rocky), recording contract hassles and financial naiveté. As the Presley Dynasty developed, Johnny and Dorsey moved their families from Memphis to L.A. in 1957. There Johnny and Dorsey wrote million sellers like "Waitin' in School", "Believe What You Say" and "Just a Little Too Much" for teen dream Ricky Nelson. In 1960 Johnny became a solo star himself with his own two giant hits, while Dorsey scored with "Tall Oak Tree" and "Hey Little One".
Tragedy struck in 1964 when Johnny was killed in a freak boating accident. Rocky, then 11, was shattered. "When Dad died we lost our home, our car and all our Hollywood friends. All I had were his guitars and my dream to get a rock'n'roll record out. We saw some pretty hairy stuff go down," he recalls. The one friend who stuck by was Glen Campbell, who helped support them and hired Rocky's widowed mom, Thurley, as his personal secretary.
Success was a long time coming for Rockman (as he calls himself). The music came naturally to a kid who grew up in a household frequented by the legendary likes of Eddie ("Summertime Blues") Cochran, Gene ("Be-Bop-a-Lula") Vincent and Elvis ("My grandmother once chased Elvis out of the house 'cause two peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches weren't enough for him," he remembers). His first song, "Jimmy's Toy Horn", was covered by George Richey (Mr. Tammy Wynette) when he was 14, and his first royalty check totaled 54¢. Yet aside from toein' the defensive line as a footballer and a summer stock title role in Bye Bye Birdie, Rocky learned at school to move among greaser and surfer crowds.
He turned down scholarships to play ball at UCLA and to study acting at Juilliard, and enrolled instead at Life Bible College in L.A. At night he moonlighted as a rock'n'roller in coffeehouses and clubs. Leaving religious studies behind, Rocky spent six years as a staff composer of country and bubblegum rock for ATV music: "I was told, 'Think Jimmy Osmond.' Do you know what that does to the psyche?"
What it didn't do was satisfy him or pay his rent. "I lived in the back of a friend's '51 Mercury, mooched off everybody and couldn't even afford a tuna fish sandwich." His life reached a nadir in the late '70s. Rocky's longtime girlfriend, Carol Lee Trent, was killed in a 1977 car wreck; then last year five members of the Burnette family died—including Uncle Dorsey (of a heart attack at 46) and clan matriarch Mamma Willie Mae Burnette.
Still reeling, Rocky scrounged his way to London and guested with a band called the Pirates that specialized in old Burnette tunes. He then made a record deal, and "Toein'" became the first second-generation-Burnette pop hit. But Rocky's fortune has changed more than his living circumstances. He has yet to buy a home, preferring to hang out between tours with his current steady, 21-year-old Robin DeLillio, at manager Jim Seiter's place in Van Nuys.
"I've done what I dreamed of doing," says Rocky. "Get my family's name back on the charts." Other Burnettes may follow. Cousin Billy has a rock album out this month; Rocky's brother Randy, 25, and six cousins are all launching music careers. Clearly the threat of hitting rock bottom doesn't scare the Burnettes. "I've seen all the heartbreak that comes out of this industry," says Rocky, "but I'm not ever gonna let it get me down. If it all falls apart tomorrow, I'll be in some honky-tonk bar playing rock'n'roll."