He was a singer-songwriter born Dorsey Burnett (the extra “e” came later) in Memphis, Tennessee, to a family where his brother was the singer Johnny Burnett. They were both given guitars by their father when they were young and he encouraged them to play.
They lived in the housing project that would also become the home of Elvis Presley and his parents from 1948. He was known to have quite a temper as a child and regularly didn’t attend school where he got known for being violent and a truant. It has even been said that he had to stay in a reform school for a while in Nashville, Tennessee. He was good at sports though and he and his brother became amateur boxers and winners of the Golden Gloves locally. It was while he was boxing that he met Paul Burlison and before too long the Burnette brothers and Paul together to start singing and songwriting in the evenings.
He became a professional boxer when he left school and continued to perform at night along with working at various other jobs during the daytime. He went on and became an apprentice electrician and after Paul Burlison had served his time in the army in the early ’50s, Dorsey, Johnny and Paul became a trio called The Rhythm Rangers. In 1956 they went to New York where they won the competition three times on an Amateur Hour and this gained them a contract with Coral Records and led them to change their name to The Rock and Roll Trio.
They made appearances on several TV shows and toured with Gene Vincent and Carl Perkins but their singles did not make the charts. They went on the road and after several disagreements he left the trio a week before they were set to appear in the film Rock, Rock, Rock. He went back to Tennessee and put together his own ensemble and named them Dorsey Burnette and the Rock and Roll Trio but they disbanded after finding little success.
He recorded a demo at Sun Records late in 1956 and this led to him recording two singles in California. He was given a choice to go to Louisiana, but opted to stay in California and started song-writing and working as an electrician to help his income. He moved his family there and was joined by his brother Johnny in the autumn of 1957.
After an unsuccessful attempt to get the Rock and Roll Trio and together they began songwriting together and were invited by the songwriter John Marascolo to assist him in the studio. Dorsey sang lead with Johnny on backing vocals and the resultant single “Bertha Lou/Keep a Knockin'” went out, but due to contractual difficulties with Coral Records it was withdrawn. It was re-released later in 1965 and again in 1966. The brothers eventually achieved their first real success when they parked themselves outside the home of Rick Nelson and this resulted in him later recording several of their songs such as “Waitin’ in School” and “It’s Late”. This led to others in the same label as Rick Nelson recordings their songs such as Roy Brown and Donnie Brooks, and the brothers ended up with Imperial Records giving them a recording contract at the label themselves.
They released an unsuccessful single in 1958 as the Burnette Brothers and as a solo artist Dorsey released the solo singles “You Came As a Miracle” and “Lonely Train” in 1959. He signed to Era Records and recorded his first chart song, “The Tall Oak Tree”, which had been refused by Rick Nelson, and peaked at #23 in the Top 100 in January 1960. This resulted in Coral re-releasing “Blues Stay away From Me” by The Rock and Roll Trio using Dorsey’s name.
Later in 1960, Era Records released ” Hey Little One/Big Rock Candy Mountain” which went to No. 48 on the Hot 100. After two later unsuccessful singles his contract was sold to Dot Records and he released three singles during his 6-month contract with them in 1961/2. Also in 1961 there were two further instrumental singles released by he and his brother under the name The Texans with smaller record labels in 1961. 1962 saw them releasing yet another instrumental as The Shamrocks with Liberty Records and he had signed a solo contract with Reprise which was owned by Frank Sinatra .
Over the next year and a half or so he released several singles at that label but none entered the chart so he took the plunge and moved to the Motown subsidiary Mel-O-Dy in mid-1963. He released his first single with them, “Little Acorn”, but just three months into his contract his brother Johnny was drowned in a tragic boating accident, which devastated him. Paul Burlison immediately joined him to provide some comfort after hearing the news but he sank into depression and became dependent on drugs and alcohol.
Mel-O-Dy finished up in 1965 and all the singles he had recorded with them failed to reach the charts. Vee-Jay Records re-released The Texans’ “Green Grass of Texas” in 1965 but once again with no success. He moved between labels from then until 1970 releasing several more singles but without any success.
During the 1970s his life changed when he went back to singing and writing country songs and re-found his faith as a born-again Christian. He released several songs on various labels with 15 of them giving him country chart success, although never reaching the Top 20. Even though he had been in the music business for more than 15 years he was voted “The Most Promising Newcomer” by the Academy of Country Music in 1973 and in 1974 he took his first foray into writing songs for the movies. His songs have since been heard in the films Bootleggers, The Beatles Anthology, Dixie Dynamite, Kingdom of the Spiders, Pulp Fiction and Runaway Jury and he sang and co-wrote the theme for My Boys Are Good Boys.
He changed labels again 1979 to Elektra/Asylum and released a single that same year and appeared at a benefit concert before suffering a fatal heart attack at home in California. He was just 46 years old leaving behind a widow and his son Billy, who is now also a singer-songwriter. A benefit concert was put together by his friend Delaney Bramlett and included many artists such as Glen Campbell, Duane Eddy, Maureen McGovern , Roger Miller and Tanya Tucker. He is since been entered into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.
Here he is performing “Hey Little One”…