LAKE COUNTY – Rockabilly star Johnny Burnette drowned in a tragic boating accident on Clear Lake in Clearlake on August 14, 1964.
Details are sparse so you begin with the Lake County Record-Bee of Aug. 20 that year – "drowned on Aug. 14, body found on Aug. 16, by a Lake County Sheriff's Department diver."
Officer Roger Smith of the Marine Patrol and Kelly Greene of the coroner's office came up with a death certificate, an autopsy and a coroner's report. Without their able assistance this story could not have been written.
The Historical Society in Lakeport claims to know nothing. The county tourism office could care less.And, I'm told by Nice booking agent John Eckert, that Dick Clark wanted to open one of his American Bandstand Clubs in Lake County in Burnette's honor a few use ago and was turned down by the so-called county tourism office.
Even more glaringly, when I 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."
There is a long list of Burnette Web sites (for Johnny, his brother and songwriting partner, Doyle; Johnny's sons – Rusty and Randy – and Doyle's son, Billy, formerly with Fleetwood Mac).
This is one of America's great musical families and all, excepting Billy, were in the boat Johnny was piloting when it was hit. All survived save Johnny, a simple twist of fate, to borrow a line from Bob Dylan.
The Burnettes' 12-foot fishing boat was hit by the larger boat of a local marina owner whose name I won't use, lest he be accused of being the local Donald Turnipseed, the man who ran into James Dean back in 1955.
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.
In any case, friends and family searched for Johnny but he wasn't found until the sheriff's department brought up his body on Aug. 16. He was taken to the Jones Funeral Home in Lower Lake, where an autopsy was performed. The cause of death was determined to be drowning and the incident an accident.
When you know the details about Burnette's liver or the content of his stomach, you still don't know the man. 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 and did not go to school with the King. Doyle Burnette did work 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 any case, bands like the Yardbirds did pick up on the fuzztone effect from the brothers' "The Train Kept 'A Rolling," used it on record and, 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.)
After the Trio split up, Burlison retired and the Burnette brothers headed to California to write songs for Rick Nelson and others. A true legend has it that Johnny bought a map of the stars' homes, and located Rick Nelson's, where he met Rick's brother, David.
David decided the Burnettes were the real thing, they waited for Rick to come home and the rest is rock 'n' roll history. "Believe What You Say," "It's Too Late" and other Nelson hits followed.
Meanwhile Doyle took off into country music while Johnny was reinvented as a teen idol. The hits did flow for awhile peaking with "Dreamin'," his biggest in 1960 and "You're Sixteen," the product of two Disney songwriters, number 8 in 1961 and, 17 years later, a worldwide hit for Ringo Starr.
Though his career waned over the next few years, Johnny was plotting a comeback when he drowned while on vacation. Which leads to one to other fascinating story from John Eckert.
Producer Snuff Garrett was not only prolific – Gene McDaniels, Bobby Vee, Johnny Burnette and others – he used the same arrangements and musicians for all three. And there was one other hit with the same treatment, Walter Brennan, fluke chart topper, "That Mule, Old Rivers, And Me."
After listening repeatedly to "Burnette's Best" and its haunting radio interview with Johnny, visiting the pier at the Lamplighter Inn, looking out 300 yards and thinking about the luck of the draw was much more moving.
I'm old enough to remember Buddy Holly's death and "The Day The Music Died" in Clear Lake, Iowa. I recall dropping papers on doorsteps in 1960 when Johnny Horton ("Battle of New Orleans") died in a car crash, just as Don McLean did in his song about Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper.
But now I've got a more personal place to reflect, right here in California. Try it yourselves.
Johnny, we hardly knew ye.
Author's note: Amoeba Records on Haight Street has an excellent Burnette collection. It's under B, right next to the instore performance stage in the rockabilly-oldies section.