Interview with James Burton by Scott Jenkings

By: Scott Jenkins
Source: Elvis Australia
July 30, 2023

When you think of the TCB Band on stage with Elvis, it is probably James Burton's guitar that first springs to mind. It's difficult to imagine what Elvis concerts would have sounded like had Elvis not chosen James to help make his Las Vegas '69 comeback what it was. Along with rhythm guitarist John Wilkinson, James was the only band member never to miss even a single show from 1969 to 1977. I felt very privileged that James gave me over two hours of his time on his day off, the day after the recent Elvis Presley In Concert show in Sydney Australia. It was an honour - not to mention the fulfilment of a dream I've had for over 30 years - to sit down and chat with the softly-spoken Louisiana native, who has been a frequent visitor to Australia since 1959. I spoke to James over coffee at Sydney's Hotel InterContinental.

SJ: James, welcome back to Australia and thank you so much for your time.

I really enjoyed the show last night too.

JB: I wish I had my guitar, I didn't bring it over.

SJ: The pink paisley?

JB: Yeah. I don't play that any more. I still have it though. I do have out a new signature guitar with flames on it, so that's what I'm playing now.

SJ: So how did you get into music in the first place as a kid, and why did you choose the guitar?

JB: Well, I just always loved music. My mother said that when I was a little kid, I'd walk around the house beating on drumsticks and everything. A little like how Jimi Hendrix started. I just love music. I'm a self-taught musician.

SJ: So growing up, you were listening to rock and blues.

Do you remember where and when you first heard Elvis?

JB: I first heard Elvis on record in the 50s. I started playing guitar when I was 13, turned professional at 14 and I worked on the Louisiana Hayride. I played behind the talent. I played behind George Jones, and Floyd Cramer was playing piano. Jimmy Day, people like that. I was in the house band. I was also playing with a guy named Dale Hawkins, he had a blues band. He had this blues song, and we put some words to it, and that became Suzie Q. I recorded that when I was 15 years old. I worked with a guy named Bob Luman, a country singer. He did a lot of rockabilly, sort of in the Elvis style. And when I was 16, I did a movie called Carnival Rock. I met Ricky Nelson when I was 16, and he invited me to be his lead guitar.

SJ: There was never anything else you wanted to do, was there?

JB: I was just loving the guitar and playing my music, so no, I never thought of anything else. That was it. Of course, Elvis' music became very popular. Mystery Train, Blue Moon of Kentucky, things like that. I enjoyed the music.

SJ: How did it come about that Elvis called you for his concert comeback in '69?

JB: I was actually first called for the Comeback Special in '68, but I was doing an album with Frank Sinatra at the time. Anyway, Elvis called again in '69 and asked if I'd be interested in putting together a band for him. I was very, very busy in the studio at the time and it was kind of a tough decision. But it worked out. Our conversation started when he said he'd watched me on the Ozzie and Harriet Show (with Ricky Nelson). He said he really enjoyed watching me play guitar. I thought that was pretty cool.

SJ: So how was your first meeting with him?

JB: It was great. We had our first meeting when we put the band together. Elvis and I had the same roots in music, you know - country, gospel, blues. We just had great communication right from the start.

SJ: Let me ask you, as a musician, just how good was Elvis on stage?

JB: He was a natural entertainer and had so much charisma. Incredible vocalist too, he could sing anything. Just a great showman, great timing, great movement.

SJ: I've asked this question of a lot of people, but opening night '69: ...

... Can you try and sum that up in a few words?

JB: Fantastic. It was just one of those magic moments, you know. He was nervous, he hadn't been in front of an audience for over nine years (sic: it was actually eight years since Elvis had performed). So when he called me, he was nervous about opening his very first show. 'Are they gonna like me?' I said, 'No doubt'.

SJ: As the tours rolled on in the 70s, you were working with other people?

JB: Non-stop. Recording sessions five or six times a day, sometimes seven days a week.

SJ: Did Elvis ever seriously talk about a world tour?

JB: He talked to me a lot about it, especially the year before he passed away. The plan was for the Colonel to try and bring Elvis to Europe. But that was in the plans.

SJ: An Australian promoter offered Elvis one million dollars to come to Australia for two shows in '74. The Colonel supposedly said the price was right for him, 'but how about my boy?'

JB: Yeah, the Colonel turned down three million from London, and turned down a fortune for Japan. But a world tour was in the plans, Elvis wanted to come.

SJ: That's possibly why the Aloha Special came about, to try and take Elvis to the world?

JB: Well, I don't know if that's why it came about, but it was a great idea.

SJ: Through the tours in the 70s, and as Elvis' health declined, what were your thoughts as you saw him coming on stage each night?

JB: He was still the King of Rock 'n' Roll. To the last day, he was in strong voice. He was always great on stage. Even when he gained weight, he was still dynamite, you know.

SJ: What did you think of Colonel Parker?

JB: Great guy. Good businessman. He knew what he was doing.

SJ: And the Memphis Mafia. You guys got along?

JB: Yeah, I knew all those guys for years. They were fine.

SJ: You were on the plane when you heard Elvis had passed away. It's hard to say, I'm sure, but what was that moment like? Could you comprehend it, or was it just a blur?

JB: We were on our way to Portland, Maine. It was a shock. It was kinda like, 'Is this for real?' I know you hear things like this - but sometimes you wonder, you know, is it real? You try to put it out of your mind, but then it hits you. It was unfortunate.

SJ: So what do you think Elvis would be doing now if he was alive at 71?

JB: He'd be doing a lot of gospel. He would probably still be on tour.

SJ: Do you think he'd be as big now if he was still alive?

JB: Oh, absolutely.

SJ: And what do you think he'd make of all this fuss now.

Thirty years alter, we're still talking about him, and he's still selling out around the world. Do you think he was aware of just how important he was in the scheme of things, musically?

JB: I think he'd be very thrilled. He'd be amazed. And I don't think he ever got a grip of how big he was musically. Because you're doing something you love, going here, going there - and doing all this stuff. To tell you the truth, I don't think he ever had time to stop and realise what was happening. He was an icon and left an incredible legacy for future artists.

SJ: Elvis Presley In Concert is billed as the closest thing you could ever get to seeing the real thing.

But I bet in some ways, it's still a long way from how it really was?

JB: Of course, nothing is like being close to the real thing when it's happening. But I promise you, for anyone who never got to see Elvis live in concert, it is definitely the very closest you could get.

SJ: Obviously, there's a bond between you and the other TCB Band members that can't be broken.

JB: Yeah, we were a family to Elvis; we became a very close part of his life.

SJ: What is your favourite Elvis song to play on stage?

JB: You know, I like 'em all. I really enjoy playing Trilogy. The mood is always exciting.

SJ: So what does the future hold for James Burton?

JB: Well, I'm very busy. I've started a wonderful James Burton Foundation. It's to help kids get access to music in schools, which is really very important, especially for some of the poorer kids out there. I've always wanted to do a show, James' Friends. I created the first one in 2005, the James Burton International Guitar Festival in my hometown of Shreveport, Louisiana. We did it at the Municipal Auditorium, where Elvis played. There's actually a statue of him outside the building. And last year, I'm very pleased to say, they unveiled a James Burton statue. I was very honoured, I'm still in shock. Anyway, the show was a great success.

SJ: So who's your favourite guitar player of all time?

JB: I've got many, many, many players that I love. Of course, I love my good friend (Australian guitar wizard) Tommy Emmanuel. But if you go back to the days where I was growing up, I liked Chet Atkins, Merle Travis, and Les Paul of course.

SJ: And you're still loving your life and the music?

JB: Oh, absolutely. With my foundation, I wanted to give something back to the kids, because one day they're going to take over our legacy. It's a great opportunity for the kids, it gives them a new addition to their lives. It's just a great thing, music is so wonderful. We've raised enough money so far to put 600 guitars in the hands of kids. But yeah, the music is still good and life is great.

SJ: James, is there any message to the Australian fans who'll be reading this?

JB: Yeah. Just keep up the good work. And remember, whatever you do in life comes from God (James touches his heart here). I think Elvis was a very wonderful Christian man, you could tell it in his music and in his feelings. And if anyone wants to get into music ... whatever instrument you play, work hard at it, practice a lot.

SJ: Do you think the band will be back down our way again?

JB: Oh, absolutely. I come over a lot, doing many different programs. I first came here in 1959 with Ricky Nelson. I've been here with John Denver, Elvis Costello, Emmylou Harris.

SJ: You've worked with so many brilliant people. Where does Elvis fit into that pantheon?

JB: (laughs) Somewhere in there! It's a great feeling to work with so many different artists, it broadens your music. I think Elvis was a great teacher to me and so many others as well. With Elvis, so many people love his music. It's one thing to want to perform his music, but those people out there who dress like him and try to live like him, I just don't get it.

SJ: Me either. Just like people who think Elvis is still alive or see him somewhere on the street.

JB: All I'll say is that, until you walk up to him on the street and look him right in the eye, it ain't Elvis! I had a dream one night, and it was very clear. The phone rang. I picked it up, and this voice said, 'James, I'm sorry I left like I did. I just felt like I needed a rest. And I needed to get away from it all. I feel great, and I'm ready to go back to work. So would you call the guys and set up a rehearsal?' It was like you could feel him on the phone, hearing his voice like that. It was pretty touching.

SJ: James, we'll leave it there. Thank you once again for your time.

JB: Thank you, Scott.

This Interview with James Burton Copyright - Scott Jenkings and Elvis Australia.

Interview conducted Sydney Australia 2006.

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