Interview with James Burton
Source: Elvis Australia
January 1, 2016
Elvis Articles, Elvis Interviews, Elvis News
Part One: The James Burton Story
The first time I met James Burton was back in May 1990, when he played together with Glen Hardin and Jerry Scheff on the European tour of John Denver. I was really impressed by seeing him perform with his unmistakable guitarplayin' and hot licks. To me, James already was the number one guitar player in the world and seeing him live was just overwhelming. I thought I almost died when, after the show, he handed me the famous horseshoe ring which Elvis gave him once. It was sitting right there in my hand, the ring 'our El' once gave to him! What an experience! James explained that he sometimes took it off while playing because it would limit his playing. But he always carries the ring proudly with him, same thing with the TCB-necklace that's always decorating his neck. At the time it felt so good talking to James as well as Glen and Jerry that I totally forgot to say 'hi' to John as he was passing by!
James Burton was born in Dubberly, Louisiana, on August 21, 1939, but he grew up in Shreveport which he refers to as home. He never took any lessons in how to play the guitar. He picked it up from listening and sitting in. His first guitar was not a Fender (the one he is most associated with) but a Rex, and after that a Stella. In 1953, he walked into a Shreveport music store and fell in love with the '53 Telecaster.
The typical Burton style, a combination of finger-picking and flat-picking, evolved soon thereafter. The mix of country and blues was pretty new at the time. James was mainly working on his own style but had some idols - which he never copied though. He liked Chet Atkins, Les Paul, Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. He was into rhythm and blues a lot. What James used to do was listen to the radio or a record and then try to play it in his own style. He felt that a solo in a song had to be played just like a lyric, that it should be played in the same way, in keeping with the melody. James also loved the steel guitar; in his concept the sweet sustained sound of it had to be part of the way an electric guitar should sound.
In 1955, James became part of the staff band on The Louisiana Hayride. Elvis didn't play there anymore by the time he got the job, but James did play with names like Slim Whitman and Johnny Horton. When James wasn't playing the Hayride, he was performing in small bars like the 'It'll Do Club' with the Dale Hawkins band. A demo tape of a song called 'See You Soon, Baboon' was made. It was played over the air and heard by Stan Lewis, a record shop owner who signed Hawkins to a management deal and pitched it to Chess Records. In February 1957, the great 'Susie Q' was recorded, for which a 17-year old James Burton wrote the music. Contrary to popular belief, this was not James' first record, but 'Just For a While'/ 'You Never Mention My Name' by Carol Williams on the RAM-label was. RAM was a Shreveport-based label named after a local record store. James can be heard playing the solos and the fills on the record. He was still playing bars when Horace Logan, general manager of the Hayride, approached him. Logan was also Bob Luman's manager, and he knew that coupled with bass-player James Kirkland this could be a 'winning' team. A couple of weeks later, the three headed for California. Logan got Luman a deal on Imperial Records, and James can be heard on recordings like 'Red Cadillac And A Black Moustache' and 'Make Up Your Mind'. Logan also arranged for James and the band to appear in the Roger Corman-directed rock 'n roll-movie 'Carnival Rock'. Specifically made for American drive-ins, the film is a classic mainly because of the wild performances by Luman, (fellow Hayride star-) David Houston and 'the band' featuring James, which in the film was credited as The Shadows.
One day, Ricky Nelson was in the Imperial offices when he heard Luman rehearse 'Red Hot'. At that moment he realized that what he heard was just what he'd been looking for; a tremendous guitar-player and a 'slap-style' bass player. The next day Burton and Kirkland got an invitation to play on The Adventures Of Ozzie and Harriet show, the Nelson family's weekly TV show. Burton and Kirkland became regulars on the show, and also became Nelson's backing duo when they weren't playing for Luman. In December 1957 Luman, Kirkland and Burton played a short tour with Buddy Knox back in Shreveport, and in January 1958 Ozzie Nelson offered Burton and Kirkland a regular spot on Ricky's shows. James immediately signed the telegram and before he knew it he was living with the Nelsons, which he did for about two years during which he became good friends with Ricky. Kirkland toured about one year with Nelson before he decided to return to Jim Reeves.
James' first record with Ricky was 'Stood Up' / 'Waitin' in School', with Joe Maphis playing the lead licks. The first recording by Ricky to feature James on lead guitar was 'Believe What You Say'. As much as James liked the touring and recording with Ricky, he also enjoyed the experience of appearing on national TV every week via the family's popular show. The closing segment of it would always be Ricky and his band playing their latest recordings. The show was watched by millions, so it was a major boost sales-wise. For cosmetic reasons and endorsement deals James wasn't always seen with his Telecaster. When Ricky and James weren't working, they usually hung out with people like Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent and the Burnette Brothers.
In the mid-sixties, Ricky's popularity was declining due to the 'British invasion', and he slowed his schedule down a bit. James frequently got offers to do session work, but a very exciting offer came from producer Jack Good, who was putting together a new weekly TV rock show, SHINDIG. Good wanted a small group of first-class musicians to back all the guests, and to perform by themselves. James was asked to put this band together and he came up with Glen D. Hardin on piano, Joey Cooper on rhythm and vocals, and Chuck Blackwell on drums. The group was called The Shindogs and could be seen backing people like the Everly Brothers.
From the mid- to late sixties, James did tons of session work with a great variety of artists, from The Mama's & The Papa's to The Monkees to Merle Haggard. He figured that playing in so many different styles kept him fresh and the music exciting. James was the number one session-guitarist due to his diverse and unique style. He was so busy that he had to turn down many offers, for example a tour with Bob Dylan.
Then another call came... from the Presley camp. James was asked to play on the 1968 NBC TV Special, but prior commitments prevented him from doing it. A year later Elvis called him personally from Memphis, and they talked for about three hours. Elvis told James how much he loved his work and how he always used to watch the Ozzie & Harriet shows just to see James perform at the end. Throughout the conversation it became clear that Elvis had been following James throughout his career from the Hayride onwards and although they had never met, their paths had crossed many times. James agreed to put a band together to back Elvis for his opening in Vegas in the summer of 1969. 'It was a tough decision because I was so busy I was almost walking like a zombie. I thought about it, and I thought it would be interesting to go out and do some live gigs.'
For this 'come-back' there had been a lot of rehearsing, but somehow the atmosphere was always relaxed. 'Nobody ever doubted the fact that Elvis would again be the King when he would get on the stage again', James said. They rehearsed for several weeks, trying out dozens of songs for the spectacular opening. Elvis knew what he was doing when he hired James; his dynamic and tasteful fills and solos definitely contributed towards the excitement of Elvis' live shows.
Elvis' touring schedule worked out perfectly for James, as it was still possible for him to continue his session-commitments for various labels and artists, including Gram Parsons and his discovery Emmylou Harris. After Gram's death, James became a member of Emmylou's Hot Band and did some promotional concerts with her in England. But his commitments with Elvis forced him to leave the band, to be replaced by Albert Lee.
Being the cornerstone of Elvis' show he was, as we all know, well featured on all shows, records and films and he enjoyed it enormously. James and his wife bought a home in Las Vegas because of the many performances Elvis did there. Burton's session work followed him out to Vegas, occasionally people would fly in to work sessions with him before or after Elvis' shows! In 1971, Elvis' producer Felton Jarvis (see EU #1) had booked studio time, but Elvis was sick and not able to record. Jarvis told Burton that he'd contacted A&M records about doing an album with him, and as the studio was booked anyway, the project fell into place quickly. The record wasn't a huge succes, probably because there was no time for planning or picking good songs, and James ended up doing songs that were recorded too often like 'Mystery Train' and 'Fire and Rain'.
James worked with Elvis until the end. He was also there for the recording sessions held at Graceland in 1976. 'He'd call a session at six o' clock, and he'd show at two in the morning, and we were tired. The worst thing you can do to tire yourself out is do nothing. Someone would say: 'Let's go eat', then someone else would say, 'No, Elvis might come down early tonight'. And when Elvis showed up he didn't want to see nobody sitting over in the corner yawning. We'd been up since eight o' clock in the morning and he was just beginning'. After Elvis passed away, James continued to work on the road with John Denver whom he met shortly before Elvis' death, and with Jerry Lee Lewis, but also for artists like Elvis Costello. Even though his schedule is not as hectic these days, he recently played on albums by (country) artists like Marc Collie and Carlene Carter, and a blues album by Leon Russell. One of James' current projects is a blues album with actor Steven Seagal.
It's a little known fact that the TCB band, including James Burton, Glen D. Hardin, Jerry Scheff, Emory Gordy and Ronnie Tutt, recorded an album for Inergi Records shortly after Elvis' death. Unfortunately it never came out. The only thing we know about this session is that all songs were Elvis-songs, and that they were sung by the TCB-guys in their own style, shifting vocals. Back then Burton, Scheff and Hardin were thinking about putting the TCB band back together on the road. A dream that came true for the first time in Memphis, on August 16, 1997. Elvis starred in concert through the magic of an enormous videoscreen, accompanied by the TCB band and other bandmembers including J.D. Sumner (rest in peace, my friend) and the Stamps, the Sweet Inspirations, Joe Guercio and his orchestra, Millie Kirkham and the Jordanaires. It was a huge succes. The show has also toured the U.S.A. and Europe with great success. Part of its success is the unique chemistry between Elvis and James. More than twenty years after The King's death, the special chemistry between Elvis and his band-members has breathed new life into the legend of Elvis, enabling a whole new generation to explore its magic. Thank you James for your efforts and your incredible ability to bring back some of that old splendour that will never, ever, faint. Keep up the good work! - Susanne Vrenken.
Interview with James Burton
'When I first met him, it was like we'd known each other our whole lives'
During our latest Convention, it was my job to be a 'trouble-shooter' for James, Jerry and Glen D. So I got to spend much time with them the entire weekend. On Sunday March 21, I interviewed the great lead guitarist from Shreveport, Louisiana. My impressions of him were that he's very friendly, humorous and also a bit shy. He has a very good memory too - James told me some great stories about the performers he's worked with. It was interesting to see his reaction to the stuff that I played for him, things like 'Susie Q' (Norfolk, Va. 20/07/'75) and the July 24, 1970 rehearsal (The Brightest Star On Sunset Boulevard). What impressed him most were 'Stranger In My Own Hometown' ('Wow! Some hot stuff, man! Elvis really loved stuff like that') and 'Johnny B. Goode' ('Hey, that's the right tempo for Johnny B! Glen D., come here and listen to this'). And it was a sight to see him play 'air-guitar' with himself!
'Susie Q' is the song that put you on the map
Yeah, I guess so. I recorded 'Susie Q' when I was 15 years old. I wrote the music, and Dale Hawkins wrote the lyrics. We recorded it in my hometown Shreveport, Louisiana in a radiostation, KWKH. It was a good song. A little different for a white boy back in those days! It was a unique little sound, the combination of drums, the guitar-lick and everything. It was pretty interesting.
Can you remember playing it with Elvis in the 70's?
Yes, we were just sitting around jamming and he just jumped in and started singing it. That was probably in the studio in Nashville. Sometimes we'd be playing it on stage. I'd just be playing it a little bit, and he'd start singing. Just jamming.
The first Elvis-connection is that you started recording demos for him with P.J. Proby.
Yeah, I met P.J. back in the late 50's and we became real good friends. A lot of publishing companies would request P.J. to sing on the demos that they would send to Elvis. He was a very good singer. He used to go by the name of Jett Powers.
The first session work you did for Elvis were some overdubs for Viva Las Vegas.
Yes, Viva Las Vegas. I had a call from a good friend of mine, Tommy Tedesco, a guitarist. Tommy and I were talking and he said: 'I'd like for you to do this guitar work'. Tommy was a great player and a great person, but he enjoyed playing mostly rhythm guitar rather than lead work.Then I had a phone call from a contractor to confirm the date, so I went over to MGM and played on the soundtrack. It was great. Ann-Margret was a great dancer. You know, when you're playing you just watch the screen. She made some great moves, so we really went for it!
It must've been difficult to concentrate
Yeah, it was (laughs). But it was great, man. We had a great time doing that.
I've heard that you were asked to do the NBC Special in 1968.
Yes, the producer of the show, Steve Binder, the contractors and Elvis' people all tried to call and contact me to play on this thing, but I was in the studio doing a record with Frank Sinatra. So I was not available and I recommended a guy named Mike Deasy. Then later on, in 1969, Elvis called me. We talked for a long time. One of his opening lines was that he used to watch me play on Ricky's TV shows, and on Shindig. He said that he had followed my career for a long time. We talked about putting a band together. And when I first met him, it was like we had known eachother our whole lives, background, music and everything. It was great. We did a rehearsal, and there was a drummer that I really admired, Richie Cross. During the break he came over to me and said: 'I really appreciate your call, and keeping me in mind to do this. But I don't think I want to do this. I don't want to work too hard!'. So Larry Muhoberac got Ronnie Tutt to do the gig. Boy, he played so good.
According to all accounts Opening Night was very exciting.
Yes, it was. It was a very interesting night. Elvis was very nervous about the opening. Of course, he'd been doing movies for nine years, and he felt that he was out of touch with the public. He was scared to death. Every critic and celebrity in the world was in the audience that night. Just before we went onstage, Elvis walked up to me backstage, and he said: 'James, I'm so nervous. I don't know if I can do this'. I said: 'Elvis, don't worry about it. All you gotta do is walk out there'. And he said: 'I don't know, man. I'm so nervous I could climb the walls'. But I was right. When he walked out on that stage, it was just unbelievable. The audience was so loud, it sounded like a freight-train. People were screaming, hollering. I don't think we heard anything the whole first show! Since I'd last seen him at the Hayride he'd really matured into a great showman. He just had a way with the audience he had a great communication with them. It was a very interesting situation.
The shows at the Houston Astrodome in February 1970 must have been quite interesting as well.
Yeah, that was fantastic. It was really interesting how we were going to do this, because the place was so huge. God, there were so many people and they were so far away. And the sound. You'd hit a chord on the guitar, and four seconds later it would come back at you!
The first time you recorded with Elvis in a studio was in June 1970, at Studio B in Nashville.
Yeah, that little studio. Fender sent me a bunch of guitars, and there was one that was sort of special. It was solid rosewood. It was very heavy, and I didn't particularly care for the sound of it. But I played it, and Elvis said: 'Wow! That's a beautiful guitar'. I handed it to him, and he said: 'Whoa, this thing's heavy!'. Fender first wanted me to have it, but I said no. Then they offered it to Elvis, who said: 'No, I have no use for it'. Then they tried to give it to Chip, but he wasn't interested either. But it was a good session. We had David Briggs, Jerry Carrigan, Chip Young, Charlie McCoy. Yeah, that was a great band. We had a great time.
It's a shame that Elvis recorded some very substandard songs during that session. Was the publishing on songs discussed?
At one point he got a little disturbed I think. A couple of publishers were arguing about who was gonna get the next song played, and Elvis finally said: 'Hey you guys, just get outta here. I'm not recording any of your songs. Don't come back in here until I tell you to'. Then we got down to business. He picked the songs, told Felton which ones he liked.
Do you like the 1970 documentary That's The Way It Is?
They wanted to show the preparations for the show. You know, rehearsing and putting a song together. I enjoyed that film and thought that it was very interesting. It showed his joking side, kidding around and having fun, and being serious too.
That same year you recorded your solo-album The Guitar Sounds Of James Burton. What's the story behind that?
Elvis had an eye infection, so he had to cancel. Felton and I had been talking about doing a record together, and we had an offer from A&M Records. We already had the musicians booked, we already had the studio time, but we weren't prepared. Felton said: 'Let's just do your record', and I said: 'What??? What are we gonna do?'. I would have preferred to have had some more time to write some new material and doing it in a different way, but it's a good album.
In 1971 Elvis recorded Ricky Nelson's 'Fools Rush In'.
Was that your idea?
Chip and I were playing a little bit, and he wanted me to play the solo. So we started playing it, and Elvis walked back in the room and started humming it, and singing it. Then he said: 'Hey, get the guys in here. Let's cut this'. He wanted it the way we did it. It was very similar to the way I did it with Ricky. Another song I got him to record was Bob Dylan's 'Don't Think Twice, It's Alright'. We were just jamming it, and then Elvis told them to start rolling the tapes. And do you know what song I was responsible for in Aloha? 'I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry'. That was my fault. We were rehearsing, and I started playing it. Elvis said: 'What's that?', and I said: 'It's just an old Hank Williams tune'. So Elvis started singing it, and Marty Pasetta, the producer of the show said: 'I want that in the special!'.
Did you socialize with Elvis?
My main aim with Elvis was music, but we had a great communication. We did talk a lot. He would tell us different stories, things that happened when he was in the Army and stuff. If he wanted to talk to me, any given time, he'd just pick up the phone and call me. But my main thing with Elvis was the music.
There seemed to be a lot of eye contact between the two of you on stage.
You had to watch him because he was a very good director. He might just decide to stop the song or something like that. The eye contact was very good. He sort of keyed off the guitar. He loved certain licks that I would play. If I would leave them out he'd miss it. Musically you had to know where he was at. You had to pay attention at all times. If you'd look away, you might lose your place in the show. It was interesting, because he never did the same thing twice.
I've read that the first Stax session in July 1973 was marred by problems.
There were some technical problems in the studio, and there was something with the sound in the studio that was bothering him. But I believe he had a difficult time.
Two months later there was a session at his house in Palm Springs.
Were you basically there to overdub?
Well, for some reason Elvis decided he wanted to record some songs. It was a bit strange. He had the Gospel group out there, Voice. And I was there. He called me and wanted me to be there. They called RCA, and they came with a truck. So we recorded at the house. At that time, my brother from Shreveport was in L.A. to visit me. So my brother and I drove down to Palm Springs to spend the week. We'd just hang out for hours, and recorded whenever he felt like singing. We just had a great time, it was fun. It was a little strange way of doing it, but that's what he wanted to do. Kinda laid back. Elvis stayed in his pyjamas all day, all night every day. We would eat at the house. It seems like we stayed there for days.
It's been rumoured that there was a jam-session of several Chuck Berry songs at the second Stax session in December 1973.
Yeah, we did a lot of tunes like that to warm up. And then we'd record. That was a good session. I played two wah-wah solos on that little Waylon Jennings country song, 'You Asked Me To'. That was pretty interesting. Also played some wah-wah on that song that Red West wrote, 'If You Talk In Your Sleep'. That's a very unusual song.
During the opening show in August 1974 Elvis did a very interesting set, opening with 'Big Boss Man', and performing songs like 'Down In The Alley', 'Promised Land', 'My Baby Left Me'.
Yeah, he was just throwing in a lot of the jam tunes. Fun tunes that he enjoyed doing. But he went into an extreme musical change at that time. He wasn't really into any particular direction, so he was doing a lot of different stuff. Probably searching for something that he liked, fall into a different groove. He'd gotten to a point where he wanted to go back to small rhythm section stuff, rather than having a lot of strings and a lot of horns. He really wanted to make a change. At one time he would actually be into doing, like you say, a lot of blues. 'Big Boss Man' and 'Steamroller Blues', which he really loved. But sometimes he was also into Gospel and country.
Looking at photos from his last year, the deterioration is obvious.
Was it clear to you at the time?
It wasn't very clear to us actually. Elvis gained weight, but he loved food and he had that little Southern boy habit of eating Southern fried food. And he loved ice cream. Big balls of ice cream. Something I noticed is that he'd gain a lot of weight, and then he'd go on an extreme diet and lose a lot of weight real fast. But his death came as a great shock. I had no idea.
How did you hear the news?
We were in a plane flying to Portland, Maine to play a show on August 17th. The band was flying down on the 16th, and during the flight we were asked to return to Las Vegas. We all wondered why we were going back. I knew that his dad Vernon had had some heart problems, and I wondered if something had happened to Vernon. We had no idea why Elvis would cancel the tour. We landed in Pablo, Colorado to refuel. Marty Harrel, the trombone player, said he'd call Vegas to hear what was going on. Marty was coming back, came up to me and put his arm around me, and said: 'Elvis has passed away'. Cold chills went over me, I just couldn't believe it. I said: 'Is this a joke?'. 'No, it's for real', he said. We had to walk back and tell the other members. Boy, it was a long flight back to Vegas. It was just an incredibly sad time. An incredible loss for the entire world and the music industry.
How do you look back on your years with him?
Oh, I miss him. I love his music, I loved him as a person. I will always think of him as one of the greatest entertainers of all time. He'll be terribly missed.
It must be great doing Elvis The Concert.
Yes, it really is. The beauty of it is that it's very very high class. If Elvis was here I don't think he would make any changes. He would love it, and I think he would be very honoured that we're doing it for him and his wonderful fans around the world. As long as the fans want it, and it's financially able to take care of itself, I think it would be very good to continue.
James, I want to thank you for the interview.
Thank you. I enjoyed it very much.
This interview was conducted in Denmark by Arjan Deelen. © Arjan Deelen 2001. Arjan has kindly given Elvis Australia exclusive rights to publish this interview on the Internet.
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