A native of Newport, Arkansas, Burgess formed his first dance band, the Rocky Road Ramblers in 1951 (Kern Kennedy, his original pianist, was still with him in 2017). After his return from Korean War service, he resumed playing, renaming the band the Moonlighters. They became the Pacers, in 1955. Burgess walked into
Sun Records in the spring of 1956 as Elvis, then on RCA, was exploding on the scene. Despite the fact Burgess's official 1956-60 Sun output consisted of just six singles, his wild stage shows with the Pacers became the stuff of legend.
When his career wound down in the 60's, he worked fulltime as a salesman from 1972-1997 though he still kept his hand in music. The 80's rockabilly revival and growing interest in Sun Records led him to reorganize his band as the Legendary Pacers. He began recording again, doing the acclaimed 1992 Tennessee Border (produced by Dave Alvin) and the album Sonny Burgess (1996), produced by Bruce Springsteen bassist Garry Talent which featured a Springsteen original: "Tiger Rose." Burgess worked steadily in the US and overseas, where rockabilly never died, until the end.
1956: "Red Headed Woman" and "We Wanna Boogie" with the Pacers—his biggest single. And yes, this rockabilly band had a trumpet player—and the trademark Sun records "slapback" echo.
1992: "Stuck Up" from his Tennessee Border album produced by Dave Alvin.
2001: "Tiger Rose" with Bruce Springsteen, the composer. Burgess recorded the song for a 1997 Springsteen Tribute album. They united onstage at a Springsteen show in Red Bank, New Jersey.
2016: The Arkansas Governor's Arts Award. Sonny and the Pacers on the occasion of receiving the Award, with commentary from Burgess and the band.
May 2017: Onstage at the Nashville Boogie Festival