50 Years of Rock ‘n Roll
Bobby Crafford talks about Arkansas rock pioneers The Pacers
by Bill Wright
When the Beatles first started creating a stir across America in 1964, Sonny Burgess and The Pacers – formed in Newport, Arkansas in 1955 – were already entertaining audiences on their own circuit ranging from the Ozark Mountains to the Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee Delta.
These Arkansas rock ‘n roll legends have not only outlasted the Beatles by almost 40 years, they’re still out there getting after it today and their average age is 70-something. The original Pacers were: Sonny Burgess, vocals and guitar; Kern Kennedy, piano; Johnny Ray Hubbard, bass; Russ Smith, drums; Joe Lewis, guitar; and Jack Nance, trumpet.
After a few years, Lewis, Smith and Nance left the band. Smith left to work with Jerry Lee Lewis and Lewis and Nance left to play with Conway Twitty. Bobby Crafford replaced Smith on drums and J.C. Caughron joined The Pacers on lead guitar. In the ‘60s, Jim Aldridge joined the band on sax and Fred
Douglas replaced Hubbard on bass.
The current lineup is: Burgess, Kennedy, Crafford, Aldridge and Douglas. Crafford provided some history about himself and The Pacers, now known as Sonny Burgess and The Legendary Pacers.
“I first played drums only,” Crafford said. “Singing came later, in about 1960. My first performance was about 1956 at age 20.” Crafford said he felt fortunate to get paid to perform. “I never thought that I had a special talent,” he said. “I just loved to play.”
Crafford acquired a taste for big band music by listening to his car radio late at night. His favorite drummers were Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa. He first played with a band called the Nite Owls, from his hometown of Cotton Plant. One of their first gigs was in nearby Brinkley.
“We played a drive-in cafe one night after it closed for business, and the tables were moved so people could dance,” Crafford said. “I made a big $20.” In August 1957, Crafford got the word that The Pacers needed a drummer. Crafford found a phone number for The Pacers’ manager and gave him a call. Following an audition at the Silver Moon club in Newport, Crafford landed the job.
The first time Crafford played with The Pacers was for a dance at the American Legion in Stuttgart.
“They came to my home town and picked me up in their big green Caddie limo,” Crafford said. During the early years, in addition to countless high school proms, The Pacers played clubs in Arkansas and college gigs in Mississippi, Arkansas and Tennessee. During the same time period, they also did a tour in Canada. On their circuit they shared venues and opened for other soon to be legendary entertainers including Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ace Cannon, Charlie Rich, Bill Riley, Conway Twitty and Elvis.
Crafford mentioned meeting Elvis and getting to know Roy Orbison as special memories of his career. The Pacers opened for Elvis five times before Crafford joined the band. Although Crafford enjoyed playing in the early years with all of the big stars, he maintains that the highlight of his career is the opportunity to still play at his age and tour with The Pacers like he is doing now.
“Playing in different countries is great,” Crafford said. “But playing in Washington, D.C. three years ago at the Kennedy Center and the Library of Congress, plus the National Folk Festival in Richmond, Virginia had to be some of the best of times.” The Pacers first recorded in Memphis for Sam Phillips at the famous Sun Studio.
Their five Sun singles are: ‘Red Headed Woman’/ ‘We Wanna Boogie’, ‘Ain’t Got A Thing’/'Restless’, ‘Buckets Got a Hole In It’/'Sweet Misery’ and ‘Thunderbird’/'Itchy.’
“Then on Phillips, Sonny did ‘Sadies Back In Town’/'Kiss Good Night’.
We recorded a lot at Sun and only had the five released, but a lot more have since been released on Bear Records in Germany.” One big hit for The Pacers in Europe that Crafford likes to talk about is ‘Find My Baby For Me.’ It was recorded one day as The Pacers were preparing to leave for a tour, and needed some background vocals. Roy Orbison happened to pop in during the recording session and ended up singing background. It is still a favorite request among European fans, along with ‘Prisoners Song’, ‘Fannie Brown’ and ‘Higher’. At one point in their career, The Pacers were shopping for a label to record and distribute some of their songs. As a result they started Razorback Records.
“We started the label in about 1960,” Crafford said. “In 1965, we did ‘Short Squashed Texan’, and I did the vocal.”
Bobby still gets a thrill when the band is in Europe and someone walks up with one of those records and asks him to autograph it. Incidentally, ‘Short Squashed Texan’ that was recorded on Razorback Records received heavy airplay throughout Arkansas during football season when Arkansas and Texas were big Southwest Conference rivals. The Pacers have been induction into the Arkansas Entertainers Hall of Fame, the Rockabilly Hall of Fame in Jackson, Tenn. and the Walk of Fame in Hot Springs.
Last year The Pacers played at the annual Buddy Holly tribute show at the Surfball Room in Clear Lake, Iowa where Holly gave his final performance in 1959 before dying in a plane crash. For that performance Yhe Pacers were joined by Arkansas rockabilly legend, Sleepy LaBeef, along with The Diamonds, Jay and the Americans, The Crickets, The Belmonts and The Chiffons. Today, The Pacers maintain a busy schedule appearing at festivals, casinos and other venues and do about four shows a year in Europe. This year, they played in the UK, Las Vegas and Japan.
For 2009, they have plans to appear at the Sam Phillips Music Celebration in Florence, Ala., as well at shows in Sweden, Spain, the UK and maybe France. In October, The Pacers performed at the Bella Vista Arts & Crafts Festival. The show was packed and the crowd was captivated. The Pacers were as full of energy as a band of youngsters just starting out. Toward the end of the performance, they called the ladies from the audience to participate in a dance contest. Between the dance contest, the phenomenal rock ‘n’ roll riffs and Crafford playing ‘Wipeout’ while blindfolded, the crowd went wild. Checkout The Pacers website at: www.legendarypacers.com