Train Kept A-Rollin’: Johnny Burnette; The Yardbirds; Aerosmith.

Hello there! This week our blog features a song with a most interesting history, Train Kept A-Rollin’. This song was covered several times, changing style dramatically over the years. We will first discuss the original by Tiny Bradshaw and a 50s cover by Johnny Burnette. Next, we will review a cover of this song by The Yardbirds, and we will finish with a cover by Aerosmith.

Tiny Bradshaw, Johnny Burnette and Train Kept A-Rollin’:

Myron Carlton “Tiny” Bradshaw was an American jazz musician in the first half of the 20th century. He was born in 1907 and was a sort of jack-of-all trades (bandleader, singer and composer and pianist). The photo below is a publicity still of Tiny Bradshaw.

Bandleader, composer and singer Tiny Bradshaw.

In 1932 he moved from his boyhood home in Youngstown, Ohio to New York City, where he worked as a drummer with various combos. In 1934, he formed his own swing orchestra and recorded songs on various labels.

Bradshaw then switched to rhythm and blues, and starting in 1949 he placed several songs on the Billboard R&B charts. However, he is best known today for a song that never made the charts at the time.

In 1951 Tiny Bradshaw wrote Train Kept A-Rollin’, a boogie-woogie jazz tune that featured a shuffle rhythm. The lyrics were delivered in a “hep-cat” jazz style, and they describe the singer’s infatuation with a lady he met on a train.

I caught a train, I met a dame
She was a hipster, and a real gone dame
She was pretty, from New York City
And we trucked on down that old fair lane
With a heave and a ho
Well, I just couldn’t let her go

Get along, creepy little woman
Get along, well, be on your way
Get along, creepy little woman
Get along, well, be on your way
With a heave and a ho
Well, I just couldn’t let her go

Well, the train kept a-rollin all night long
The train kept a-rollin all night long
The train kept me movin’ all night long
The train kept a-rollin all night long
With a heave and a ho
Well, I just couldn’t let her go

So here is the audio of Tiny Bradshaw’s 1951 release of The Train Kept A-Rollin’.

As you can see, this is a straightforward jump blues tune. Bradshaw has some call-and-response lines with his band members. The tune is highlighted by an impressive tenor sax solo from Red Prysock.

Bradshaw’s song was rescued from obscurity and catapulted into rock ‘n roll legend when it was covered by Johnny Burnette and the Rock and Roll Trio. Burnette was born in 1934 and raised in Memphis. In his youth he was a promising young boxer and Golden Gloves champion. Below is a photo of Johnny Burnette from the 1950s.

50s Rockabilly singer Johnny Burnette.

After getting his nose broken in his first professional fight, Burnette decided to try his hand at music instead. He formed a group with two other musicians, his older brother Dorsey Burnette (bass) and Paul Burlison (lead guitar). Johnny was lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist. All three band members had been Golden Gloves boxing champions.

The group moved to New York City in 1956 and had some success when they competed on Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour. Their exposure on that show gained them a recording contract, and they took the name The Rock and Roll Trio.

In 1956, Coral Records released a cover of The Train Kept A-Rollin’, credited to The Johnny Burnette Trio. Here is video of Johnny and Dorsey Burnette and Paul Burlison performing that song.

As you can see, they have converted Tiny Bradshaw’s jump jazz tune into a rockabilly song. In addition, their version is famous because Paul Burlison’s lead guitar is deliberately distorted. Apparently this is the first known example of guitar distortion in a rock ‘n roll tune.

The Rock and Roll Trio don’t actually seem to be performing Train Kept A-Rollin’ here, as the audio and video don’t match. However, this was the only video I could find of the Rock and Roll Trio performing. The clip does give you an accurate glimpse of Johnny Burnette and his mates at work (the drummer does not appear in this video).

To me, the Rock and Roll Trio closely resembles the early days of Elvis Presley, and for good reason. Both groups featured a quartet that included a lead singer, guitar, upright bass and drummer, and performed rockabilly versions of R&B songs.

Both Elvis and Johnny Burnette came out of Memphis and were friends in high school. As energetic young performers, both were extremely popular with local youth (though Elvis ignited a mania among teen girls that eclipsed Burnette’s fame).

Well, the Rock and Roll Trio quickly disintegrated. A primary reason was dissension among the band members when the group was renamed Johnny Burnette and the Rock and Roll Trio, or even The Johnny Burnette Trio.

Also, despite appearances on several nationally-syndicated TV variety shows (Dick Clark, Steve Allen, and Perry Como), none of the group’s records made it into the Billboard charts.  So Dorsey Burnette left the group in fall 1956, and one year later the remainder of the group disbanded.

Later, Dorsey and Johnny Burnette went on to have some success as songwriters. They worked for Ricky Nelson and wrote four of his big hits (this was a natural choice as Nelson’s rockabilly style fit right in with the Burnettes).

In 1960, Johnny Burnette had one big hit with You’re Sixteen. This reached #8 on the Billboard Hot 100, and it was resuscitated in 1973 when the song was included in the American Graffiti soundtrack.  Later in that same year, Ringo Starr released a cover of that tune that hit #1 on the charts.

In August 1964 Johnny Burnette was shuttling between record companies, trying to score another pop hit. He was fishing in Clear Lake, California when his unlit boat was struck by a cabin cruiser. Burnette was thrown clear of his boat and he drowned.

Johnny Burnette was a young rock ‘n roll pioneer who came out of Memphis and specialized in rockabilly versions of blues songs. He had one big pop hit, although he is now best known for Train Kept A-Rollin’, a song that never dented the charts.

The Yardbirds and Train Kept A-Rollin’:

The Yardbirds were a British rock band. They had relatively few pop hits but were nevertheless an exceptionally influential group. In 1963, they began their career as leaders of an American blues revival scene in London.

The Yardbirds began amassing a devoted following when they took over as the house band at London’s Crawdaddy Club, where they replaced The Rolling Stones (who also began as a blues cover band). The Yardbirds played covers of music by artists such as Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson and Elmore James.

In October 1963 the Yardbirds added 18-year-old lead guitarist Eric Clapton. He joined lead vocalist Keith Relf, rhythm guitarist Chris Dreja, bassist Paul Samwell-Smith and drummer Jim McCarty. At this point, the group became cult favorites in Britain.

March 1965 became a turning point for this lineup. Their single For Your Love hit #1 on the UK pop charts and #8 on the Billboard Hot 100. Unfortunately, that soft-pop single created dissension among the band members. Eric Clapton, who felt the band should remain focused on the blues, left the group just before that song climbed up the charts.

After Clapton left the band, he was replaced with another guitar legend, Jeff Beck. With Beck as lead guitarist, the Yardbirds became known for inventive techniques. Beck was relentlessly innovative – he introduced distortion and feedback into his guitar solos, pioneered “fuzztone” sounds, and began forays into what is now known as heavy-metal and psychedelic music.

Beck was also an early adopter of Eastern-influenced music. In 1966, he was already releasing solos that were inspired by Indian ragas. Other songs clearly showed the influence of African tribal rhythms.

When bassist Paul Samwell-Smith quit the Yardbirds in June 1966, he was replaced by Jimmy Page. A short time later, Page began to perform on guitar for the band. This began a brief period where both Beck and Page were contributing guitar solos. Below is a photo of The Yardbirds with both Beck and Page.

The Yardbirds circa 1966.  From left: Jeff Beck; Jimmy Page; Chris Dreja; Keith Relf; Jim McCarty.

Unfortunately, Jeff Beck was volatile and unpredictable. In late 1966, Beck walked out on the band while the Yardbirds were touring with Dick Clark’s “Caravan of Stars.” After Beck left, Jimmy Page took over as the Yardbirds’ lead guitarist.

So here are The Yardbirds in a live performance of Train Kept A-Rollin’.

This took place in 1966 at a rock festival, “Music Hall de France.” In the hands of the Yardbirds, Train Kept A-Rollin’ has been re-purposed as a hard-rocking anthem.

Here, Keith Relf plays harmonica in an imitation of a train whistle, a style that he borrowed from bluesman Sonny Boy Williamson. Relf supplies the vocals, accompanied by a relentless beat supplied by Jeff Beck on lead guitar, Jimmy Page on bass, and Chris Dreja on rhythm guitar.

Two years later, The Yardbirds was on its last legs. In June 1968 the band played its final concert in Montgomery, Alabama. Page then departed and shortly assembled a new ensemble that was eventually named Led Zeppelin. This performance from The Yardbirds clearly demonstrates the transition to a blues-based heavy-metal style that would characterize Led Zeppelin’s music.

Jimmy Page initially recruited bassist John Paul Jones (a frequent collaborator on Page’s sessions as a studio guitarist), vocalist Robert Plant and drummer John Bonham to form The New Yardbirds. After being threatened with a lawsuit over the rights to the “Yardbirds” name, the band then took the name Led Zeppelin. This referred to a remark by The Who bassist John Entwistle after Page described his plan to create a band focusing on heavy-metal covers of American blues. Entwistle suggested “that will go over like a lead balloon.”

Once Page teamed up with Jones, Plant and Bonham, the first song that the group rehearsed was Train Kept A-Rollin’. Page recounts that this first song convinced him that Led Zeppelin would become a legitimate supergroup.

A couple of years earlier, the Yardbirds appeared in Michangelo Antonioni’s 1966 film Blowup. In that film, David Hemmings plays a fashion photographer who believes that he may have inadvertently filmed a murder. At one point, Hemmings is wandering around London when he enters a club where a group (The Yardbirds) is playing. Here is a video clip from that scene in Blowup.

Although the melody of this song is Train Kept A-Rollin’, the song is titled Stroll On, because Antonioni was unable to obtain permission to use Train Kept A-Rollin’. As a result, the lyrics to the song were altered to avoid copyright issues.

Note that the Yardbirds here include both Jeff Beck (playing the lead) and a very young Jimmy Page who appears to be playing rhythm guitar (actually, the rhythm guitar on this song was played by Chris Dreja – when this song was recorded, Page was still playing bass for the Yardbirds). After Beck launches into his guitar riff, his amplifier begins malfunctioning. An irritable Beck begins banging his guitar against the amp, and he eventually smashes his guitar on the ground.  Hemmings picks up the bridge of the broken guitar and runs out of the club.

Antonioni originally wanted The Who to perform in his film, but after they refused he used The Yardbirds instead. Jeff Beck was instructed to smash his guitar in the fashion made famous by Pete Townshend of The Who.

At the time of its initial release, Blowup was considered a very important movie, and it inspired several other films. Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 movie The Conversation also featured an investigator who may have stumbled onto a crime, while Brian de Palma’s 1981 film Blow Out was basically a re-staging of Blowup.  The film also inspired several parody movies, including Mel Brooks’ 1977 High Anxiety and Mike Myers’ Austin Powers spy movie series.

Now back to The Yardbirds. Although the group had relatively little in the way of pop hits, they were incredibly important in the development of the hard-rock genre. With Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, one band had arguably the three greatest British rock guitarists.

After their beginnings as a London blues revival band, the Yardbirds spearheaded
several electric guitar innovations of the mid-1960s, such as feedback, distortion and “fuzztone”. The band’s influence on both the music of the times and genres to come was great, and they inspired a host of imitators such as the Count Five and The Shadows of Knight. Some rock critics and historians credit the Yardbirds with heavily contributing to, if not inventing, “the birth of psychedelic music” and sowing the seeds of punk rock, progressive rock and heavy metal.

The Yardbirds were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992. Jeff Beck was also inducted in 2009 as a solo artist; Jimmy Page was inducted in 1995 as a member of Led Zeppelin; and Eric Clapton was inducted in 1993 as a member of Cream and in 2000 as a solo artist (Clapton is the only performer to be inducted three separate times).

So we salute The Yardbirds – what a group, populating the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame all on their own!

Aerosmith and Train Kept A-Rollin’:

Aerosmith is a hard-rock quintet from Boston. They formed in 1970 and consist of lead singer Steven Tyler, lead guitarist Joe Perry, bassist Tom Hamilton, drummer Joey Kramer and guitarist Brad Whitford.  That lineup has been remarkably stable over nearly 50 years.

The group specializes in heavy-metal renditions of R&B-inspired music. They gained fame in the mid-70s with a series of top-40 pop hits, beginning with the 1975 tune Sweet Emotion.

That song was followed up with a number of hit singles and albums, making the group into superstars. Below is a photo of Aerosmith from 1973.

Aerosmith in 1973. From L: Joe Perry; Brad Whitford; Tom Hamilton; Steven Tyler (front); Joey Kramer.

The song Train Kept A-Rollin’ was released by Aerosmith in 1974. Steven Tyler had performed the song before he joined Aerosmith; and Joe Perry and Tom Hamilton had played the song in their previous group, the Jam Band.

Train Kept A-Rollin’ was the only song that Tyler, Perry and Hamilton had each played before forming Aerosmith. Perry had been inspired by seeing the song Stroll On in the movie Blowup (a clip that appears in the preceding section of this post). And Tyler’s band had opened for The Yardbirds in 1966 – so all three had connections to the Yardbirds’ hard-rock version of the song.

Here is a live clip of Aerosmith performing Train Kept A-Rollin’.

This took place at the “Boston Strong” concert at TD Garden in 2013, a concert following the terrorist bombings at the Boston Marathon earlier that year.

The song begins with Joe Perry’s guitar, emulating a train whistle and heavy on the feedback. As is his custom, Steven Tyler has his mic covered with scarves. After Perry and Tom Hamilton propel the song forward on guitar and bass, Tyler begins his vocals. Later on, Brad Whitford also contributes a guitar solo. Steven Tyler has an amazing voice, although he must do incredible damage to his vocal cords.

Train Kept A-Rollin’ was included on Aerosmith’s album Get Your Wings in 1974. It was released as a single but never made the pop charts. However, over the years it has become one of Aerosmith’s signature tunes, and is frequently the closing number at their live concerts.

Think about it: Train Kept A-Rollin’ was released as a single at least four times, and never made the pop charts.  Nevertheless, the song became a “signature tune” for at least three guitarists (Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and Joe Perry), and has remained an iconic hard-rock classic for several decades.  By now the song has been covered by scores of hard-rock groups.  What staying power!

Train Kept A-Rollin’ is featured on three different live Aerosmith compilation albums. The tune
has become so identified with Aerosmith, that when Jeff Beck (whose 1965 and 1966 recordings with the Yardbirds inspired Tyler and Perry) occasionally performs it, he often hears comments like “Hey, I like your angle on the Aerosmith tune”.

Unfortunately, Aerosmith’s commercial success in the 70s was paired with considerable internal turmoil and rampant drug usage. In 1980, Steven Tyler collapsed onstage during a concert in Portland, Maine, and did not get up for the remainder of the concert.

As a result of these issues, Perry and Whitford left the group in the period 1979 – 1981. At that point, it looked like the classic lineup of Aerosmith was finished.

In 1984, Perry and Whitford re-joined the band. However, the legendary drug usage by Aerosmith band members continued until Steven Tyler completed a drug-rehab program in 1986. After that, the other band members gradually got clean and the band embarked on a new era.

Aerosmith then climbed back to the pinnacle of the rock ‘n roll world. Their albums were best-sellers, bolstered by mammoth single hits. Their music videos were blockbusters on MTV, and they were perennially ranked among the top-grossing touring acts.  This was arguably the greatest comeback experienced by any rock band.

Currently, Aerosmith is the best-selling hard-rock band of all time, with over 150 million records sold.
With 25 gold albums, 18 platinum albums, and 12 multi-platinum albums, they hold the record for the most total certifications by an American band and are tied for the most multi-platinum albums by an American band. The band has scored twenty-one Top 40 hits on the Billboard Hot 100, nine number-one Mainstream Rock hits, four Grammy Awards, six American Music Awards, and ten MTV Video Music Awards.
Aerosmith was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001.

Despite their amazing success, interactions between Steven Tyler and Joe Perry have been characterized by considerable friction.  Their personal relationship continues to be rocky. When Tyler estimated that he had spent $64 million on drugs during his career, Perry countered that
“There’s no f***ing way in the world you could spend that much money on drugs and still be alive.”

Steven Tyler has had a number of physical ailments in the past few decades, including throat surgery and injuries from several falls. Tyler and Perry have also experienced a number of onstage incidents, including
Tyler accidentally hitting Joe Perry in the head with his microphone stand at a show in Wantagh, New York and Perry bumping into Tyler at the Toronto show, which caused Tyler to tumble off the stage.

Aerosmith continues to perform, although they may have completed their final tour. In the meantime, the band is playing a residency in Las Vegas. The band has had not one but two distinct superstar careers. Inspired by groups like the Yardbirds, Aerosmith have themselves influenced a generation of hard-rock bands, including Van Halen, Guns ‘n Roses, Motley Crue and Metallica.

We salute the members of Aerosmith.  We are impressed that the “Boston Bad Boys” have been able to kick their drug habits and (we hope) maintain their sobriety.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Train Kept A-Rollin’
Wikipedia, Tiny Bradshaw
Wikipedia, Johnny Burnette
Wikipedia, The Yardbirds
Wikipedia, Jeff Beck
Wikipedia, Jimmy Page
Wikipedia, Blowup
Wikipedia, Aerosmith

About Tim Londergan

Tim Londergan is professor emeritus of theoretical physics at Indiana University-Bloomington. He studies the properties of the quarks and gluons that form the internal structure of protons and neutrons. He also writes a blog "Tim's Cover Story" that compares covers of important songs in rock music history. From 2002 to 2018, he and his wife shared their college-town experiences with two delightful cats, siblings Lewis and Clark, who enormously enriched their lives. Together with his colleague Steven Vigdor, Tim is co-author of a blog "Debunking Denial," that discusses the difference between skepticism and denial as manifested in various current issues. He is also co-founder of "Concerned Scientists of Indiana University," a group that supports evidence-based science, funding for science research, and policies based on the best available scientific information. His hobbies include tennis and ornithology, and he is a life-long fan of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team.
This entry was posted in Hard Rock, Heavy Metal, Jazz, Pop Music, Rock and roll and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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