Legendary Guitarist James Burton Talks Elvis, Ricky Nelson and Guitars

By: Tim Cashmere
Source: www.elvis.com.au
August 18, 2006

I was recently offered the chance to have a half hour chat with one of the world's greatest guitarists, James Burton, who was calling from his home in Shreveport, LA.

He was speaking about the upcoming tour of Elvis' TCB band, where the band will play along to video footage of Elvis, 29 years after his death.

With fifty years of career to research, it's difficult to know where to start your questioning, and with fifty years of stories to tell, it's difficult, if not impossible, to decide where to begin writing this story you are now reading.

Instead of making these decisions, I've decided to transcribe the entire interview, word for word, at times a little quirky, at times a little off topic, but always interesting, so please enjoy.

Tim Cashmere: We're looking forward to having you here. It's been a while, hasn't it?

James Burton: It has been, but we're getting excited. We're ready.

TC: You're coming out here with the Elvis tour, which has been going for a little while now. I imagine it's kind of strange at first. How do you feel when you look up at the screen and you see Elvis there singing with you?

JB: Oh it's just like him being there! It's like us doing all the live shows all those years ago. It's wonderful, it's a great show and you can feel his presence on stage. It's really wonderful. He introduces us and we have to watch the video screen very close to... well we take our cues from him. It's a live show, it's incredible.

TC: Most of the footage comes from That's The Way It Is and Aloha From Hawaii.

JB: That's correct, and some of the songs might be from Elvis On Tour and so on.

TC: And I think there is also a couple from the 68 Comeback Special. Why was it these concerts that you chose to put together a show from?

JB: Well Graceland was sorta looking for something to do. You know, the Elvis fans were looking for something new, and that was a pretty interesting idea. They originally talked about doing a hologram, but the actual video thing won out. It's quite incredible - the technology today is just wonderful. You see it in the show and you see it on the screen from thirty years ago. It's just incredible and it's just amazing the excitement and the energy from the screen, plus the live band playing live, it's just incredible. The energy is great.

TC: Was it difficult to track down everyone in the band?

JB: Well not really, no. We've pretty much worked together a lot. Even though we live in different cities and different states, we still work together a lot with different artists. We do recording sessions with different artists and we also go out and do some live shows ourselves with some different singers. We still work together a lot.

TC: I was reading somewhere that when you're on stage with Elvis, back in the day, he might cut a solo short or he might just let a solo go on forever and the songs would be different every time.

JB: That's correct. That's why you have to watch him every minute because you didn't know which way he was gonna go. He might stop in the middle of a song or whatever, or he might do an intro and instead of 8 bars he'd do 4 bars or something. He would change things around and not necessarily follow the itinerary and he would skip around to a lot of different songs.

TC: I imagine this show coming up would be quite the opposite. Wouldn't it be the same thing every night?

JB: Um pretty much yeah. Once it's on video that's it. We have different shows, and they've added some new songs to this show and it's gonna be great.

TC: The TCB Band formed in 1969, which was of course just after Elvis' '68 Comeback Special. In that special he reunited with (original guitarist and drummer) Scotty Moore and DJ Fontana. Why did he want to get a new band in '69?

JB: Well I guess he was looking for some changes. He wanted to go out and do something a little different. He wanted to add a lot of new songs, like standards and so on. He wanted a bigger band and he also wanted an orchestra. He just wanted to make a lot of changes. I had a call for that comeback special in '68, but unfortunately I was doing an album at the time with Frank Sinatra and Jimmy Bowen, the producer, and Jimmy wouldn't let me off for that '68 Comeback Special. Then in '69, Elvis called me and we spoke for about three and a half hours on the phone. He asked me if I would be interested in playing some live shows with him. He wanted to open his next concert in Las Vegas at the International Hotel, which is now the Hilton and he asked me if I would be interested in putting a band together. I was very very busy at that time and it was quite a chore for me to come up with a plan to do it, because I was working with studio work and had recording sessions every day, like four or five sessions a day, seven days a week and I was very busy, so I had to make a decision and of course I did, I decided I would go for it and at least do the first months in Vegas and see how it worked out, and a lot of my clients I continued working with on studio work in between Elvis and in and out of town, so it worked out great for me, it was okay.

TC: I imagine if Elvis Presley is calling you saying 'Join my band' you don't really say no to that, do you?

JB: Well it was a very tough decision on my part. Yeah it was quite a busy time for me. I was very busy in the studios and I had to make a decision and it was a wonderful decision because he was such a great man, a great artist and just a wonderful person to work with. I really enjoyed my nine years working with him, it was just wonderful.

TC: You actually saw Elvis when he was starting out, ten or fifteen years before you joined him. Did you ever think 'Maybe one day I will play with him!'?

JB: Well no, I never thought of that. Actually I was asked by some people who were working very closely with Elvis back in the early sixties, asked me if I would be interested in working with Elvis and I was very happy working with Ricky Nelson... I went to work with Ricky when I was 17, so I was very happy being there, but in later years when I was doing a TV show called Shindig with Johnny Cash and then I was just recording with everybody in the business, it was just incredible, and then I had the phone call from Elvis. I played in Viva Las Vegas, I did the music and the soundtrack and you know, some of his movie stuff actually before I had met him. I didn't meet Elvis until 1969 when he called me.

TC: I saw a conversation on TV recently between Sam Phillips and Ike Turner, and they were talking about Elvis and they were arguing over whether Elvis had stolen black music or whether he just borrowed from it. Did you ever have any problems with being labeled as someone who stole black music?

JB: Well I don't think so. I didn't and I don't see how that could be... well Elvis loved Gospel music. He was a southern boy, a country boy, he grew up very poor and he just loved music. It didn't really matter what song he was singing or what it was, he got into it. He had the feeling, he had the soul, it was straight from the heart, man, and he got into it! It was his love and his feeling for music. Music is a feeling, you gotta have a feeling for it. It doesn't matter what music you're listening to. I was fourteen years old when I wrote a song called Suzie Q, I wrote the music and Dale Hawkins wrote the lyrics and I was working in this blues band with Dale Hawkins. I was raised on country music, I love gospel and rhythm and blues and it's just the kind of music that we love doing, you know? If you're playing music that you don't really get into and you don't feel it, then there is no doubt in my mind that it's the wrong music, you know?

TC: I was actually going to ask you about Suzie Q. You were 14 years old when you wrote that. Did you have any idea that fifty years later that people would still be listening to it? There are kids out there who are familiar with that song.

JB: Well, oh god yeah it was a big hit, even Elvis did it a few times and I played on it with him and of course John Fogerty had a huge hit with it you know? It's just an incredible song. As a matter of fact I used to get letters in from different black market radio stations. They would send letters in saying 'Who is the little black boy playing guitar?' That was pretty interesting, and of course you know Chess records and Phil Chess and Leonard Chess, they ran the label we were on and it was just kinda music that we loved. I was working with Dale - I was 14 years old working with Dale Hawkins who was 15 years old in a blues band. I played on Louisiana Hayride, a show in my hometown of Shreveport, Louisiana at the Municipal Auditorium when I was fourteen years old in the staff band with Floyd Kramer and Jimmy Davis and then I went to work with a country singer after I left Dale, Bob Luman. It's just amazing my career over all those years with the people I worked with. I did Suzie Q when I was 15!

TC: ... and you're 21 now, right?

JB: Ahh... yeah! No I was 15 when I cut Suzie Q. When I worked with Ricky Nelson, actually I met him in '57 and worked with him up until about '64. Johnny Cash called me to do a TV show and that show was Shindig. I became a regular on that show with a group called the Shindogs and Jack Good, the producer from England, was a big fan and he said 'Oh man you gotta be on the show every week'. So what do we do? Well we formed this band with Delaney Bramlett singing and playing bass and Julie Cooper playing rhythm guitar and singing and then we had Chuck Blackwell on drums and Glen Hardin on piano and I played guitar and we were the Shindogs.

TC: So basically your early bands just kind of happened by accident?

JB: Well I don't know. Would it be accident?

TC: Tell us about the James Burton signature series telecaster.

JB: Oh man it's hot, it's hot! You know I started that program with a guy named Dan Smith from Fender. Just an incredible wonderful, wonderful guy and really great in building guitars and marketing and just a wonderful person in the Fender guitar company and he's retiring this month I believe and I hate to see him go, but he's been there for a long time. I've been talking to Fender for a long time about doing a signature guitar and, well I made the guitar sorta famous in a lot of ways, playing it with Elvis, the pink paisley. That was the guitar I played with Elvis from '69 up until he passed away in '77, and I also played with Emmylou Harris and I played it on many many records. My mum and dad bought me my first telecaster, which was a '52 tele and I played it on Suzie Q and I played it on tons of records. I first played it with Elvis when we opened at the international hotel for a couple of weeks, then I started playing the pink paisley. Dan and I started with program called the signature guitar and I did my first signature guitar, the three pickup tele with American standard bridge and a set in neck and a five way switch. It's a pretty cool guitar man, and then I did another one later on. Then my latest, I had a show here in Shreveport in 2005 in August on my birthday, and we did it on a weekend and we did the main show, where I had 18 artists, 18 of my friends came and donated their time for the James Burton foundation, and we raised money to put guitars in the hands of over 600 kids in schools, and also guitars to the teachers to teach them how to teach the students. We hired a guy, David Wish, who taught the teachers how to teach the kids. We made enough money off that first show, I had artists like Brad Paisley, Steve Warner, Dr. John, Johnny A, Johnny Highland, Johnny Rivers, Steve Cropper, The Nelson Twins - Gunner and Matthew Nelson, Seymour Duncan, Greg Koch who is one of the Fender employees, Eric Johnson and his band, oh man, we just had some killer artists, it was great. Jerry Donahue was on the show with us... we had eighteen artists and I went into Fender to design a guitar for that particular show, with flames on it. You know? A black body with the red flames, and I gave every artist on the show a new James Burton signature tele. It was just incredible. Tim I wish you could've been here for it. Maybe the next show, we're doing one in 2007, we're gonna do another show. The show we did in 2005, we had like a little three day trade show with it, all the guitar companies, Peavey, Fender, Gibson, so many wonderful different companies came and present their instruments and everything. It was just great with all the kids walking around. Hartley with Peavey said it was the greatest show he's been to in a long time, he said it's just great to see the little kids coming and walking around looking at all that instruments and checking 'em out, because if you go to a big guitar show like the NAMM show, they're great shows, but you have to be a member or a dealer to get there, you know? My show is open to the public. By the way my wife and I bought the building across the street from the Municipal Auditorium, where Elvis played, Hank Williams, and many many great artists started out there. I started playing there when I was 14 years old in the staff band, and they have a statue of Elvis out the front of it, and then they have a statue of me right next to it. The name of that street is Elvis Presley Avenue. So my wife and I bought the building across the street to put my James Burton foundation in to work the foundation and everything and it was just wonderful, people calling me up saying "Wow man, we want to rent an office from you so we can be on Elvis Presley Avenue", but it's just amazing all the wonderful things. It's a blessing from God, it's incredible.

TC: So what was it like when the built a statue of you?

JB: Oh man it was... what an honour huh? What do you say? I was beside myself, I was just so thrilled and it was just amazing. I'm still in shock you know? I could see Elvis and they're working on one now for Hank Williams Sr.

TC: So they're down the street of Elvis Presley Avenue?

JB: Well yeah, it's right out the front of the Municipal Auditorium where all these wonderful great artists got their start.

TC: You've played with Elvis, Frank Sinatra, Ricky Nelson, have you ever sometimes wished you were your own star?

JB: Well you know that's another thing. In all my career of music, I never really had a lot of time to do my thing you know? After always working with another artist... you know, I went to work with John Denver after Elvis passed away and I played with him for twenty years, and it was just amazing. Of course Jerry Lee Lewis, I did a lot of shows with him and I still do studio work and recording sessions and so on, you name it, there is always something going on.

TC: You did do your own album in 1970 didn't you? An instrumental one?

JB: I did that one album yeah, where I was standing on the train tracks? Well I did one on Capitol Records too, me and Ralph Mooney called "Corn Pickin' and Slick Slidin'" and recently back in 2005 when I did my show, and I also went in and did a gospel album which is just a wonderful album. I'm getting ready to release that now, so that's in the making.

TC: So that's coming out soon?

JB: Yeah, I'm gonna go ahead... well it could probably be e-mailed now, but I'm getting ready to go ahead and release it.

TC: What's it going to be called?

JB: It's called "God Loves You", that's the title of the album, "God Loves You". My son also sang on it and it's just a wonderful lineup. I had Marty Haggard, who is Merle Haggard's son come in and be a guest on it, singing. There's just some wonderful wonderful singers on it. It's an incredibly well done album. It was kind of a fast project for us because we wanted to get it out for the show that we did in August 2005, so we went in and just put it out and did it.

TC: Are you ever going to retire?

JB: I don't think so. I don't even like that word anymore. I love music, I love playing and I just want to do it until I can, you know? So I'm just going to continue doing it.

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