Posted June, 2011
Photo Courtesy of James-Burton.net
For many, if not most, Baby Boomers, the days of their youth are marked and heavily influenced by music. Some have even referred to the music of those days as the “soundtrack of our youth”.
I’ve said it before but I think that it’s worth repeating: Many of us are instantly transported back in time as we hear a few notes or words of a song. Music takes me back to my earliest memories. It reminds me of school days and old flames. It reminds me of dating and marrying my wife. It takes me back to my daughter being born and watching her grow up. It brings back memories of good times and not-so-good times. I’m sure that music does the same to many of you.
One man who has been an integral part of the “soundtrack of our youth” – or, at least min - is guitar legend, James Burton. Think back to the country music of the 50’s and the early days of rock and roll and some of the people, places and shows that fostered the genre’s birth and growth. In those memories, you’ll see James Burton. Don’t believe me? Then check this out:
Burton was there as part of the show’s staff band at the tender age of fourteen playing behind Johnny Horton, George Jones and other greats.
The teenaged James Burton wrote the famous guitar licks of the rock standard, Suzie Q, and recorded it with Hawkins. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame included this record on its list of 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.
Ricky Nelson/Ozzie and Harriet
Did you ever watch that show? Well, that’s James playing in Rick’s band. In fact, Burton lived with the Nelson’s for about two years. The June, 2011, edition of Guitar Player magazine listed James’ solo on Nelson’s Hello, Mary Lou as one of the 40 Most Influential Rock Guitar Solos.
Among the regulars on this popular hit TV show that aired on ABC was the house band that was ultimately called The Shindogs. The band consisted of James Burton, Delaney Bramlett, Leon Russell, Glen Campbell, Larry Knechtel, Glen D. Hardin, Chuck Blackwell and Joey Cooper. This show hosted some of the most legendary names in music – often with the Shindogs playing right behind them.
The Wrecking Crew
Burton and some of his Shindog band mates also became much sought after session musicians. Along with some of the other biggest names in the business like Carol Kaye, Tommy Tedesco and Hal Blaine (to name but just a few), this band of merry musical men (and woman – sorry, Carol!) became known as the Wreaking Crew. This group of highly talented musicians played on some of the biggest hits in music history.
Some of the artists and bands that Burton played on back in the Wreaking Crew days are Dean Martin, Jackie DeShannon, The Crickets, Dick Dale & His Del-Tones, The Everly Brothers, Bobby Vee, Buck Owens, Jan & Dean, Merle Haggard, Buffalo Springfield and the Monkees (and that doesn’t name anywhere near all of them).
However, it’s likely that you know James Burton more from his work as Elvis Presley’s lead guitarist from ’69 through his death. Or, perhaps you know him from his work as John Denver’s lead ax man for 15 years. Then again, you might remember him during his days of backing up Emmylou Harris or from playing lead guitar on Roy Orbison’s last recorded performance film, Black and White Night.
Regardless of where you might think you know Burton from, one thing is for certain: It’s no surprise that he’s a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer among many, many other honors bestowed on him. It’s also no wonder that many of his fellow – if not equally as prolific – musician friends and industry insiders selflessly heap accolades on the man. Here is a sampling of what some of them had to say to me about Burton:
Chuck Leavell – Keyboardist for the Rolling Stones
“While I've never had the honor of playing with James Burton, I did have the honor of meeting him backstage on a Stones tour in Keith Richards' dressing room. He is certainly an icon of rock 'n roll, and is revered by every guitar player I know. James is the Real Deal.”
Rick Derringer – Legendary Guitar Player and Producer
“James Burton is one of the true innovators on the electric guitar. As a kid, I always looked forward to the OZZIE & HARRIET SHOW. When he was in his late teens, Rick Nelson would always perform his new music each week, and of course his guitarist was James Burton. Rick Nelson's records were alright, but the high point for me was hearing the guitar solos performed by James Burton. It was a real thrill when I finally had the opportunity to perform along with him at one of his benefits several years ago. I pray that he lives for many, many more years and I'll still look forward to hearing him every opportunity that I get.”
Bruce Kulick – Guitarist for Kiss and Grand Funk Railroad
“James Burton has always been a unique guitarist I think of whenever I hear Elvis Presley's name. His biting attack on the Fender Telecaster was an important part of Elvis's later years of his career. Although I am not the biggest fan of clean guitar tones, James made it magical working with The King and the other huge stars he recorded and performed with. Las Vegas era Elvis would not have been the same without his contribution. Burton is a legend.”
Terry Stewart – CEO, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum
“There are only a few guitarist that you hear across the breadth and the landscape in the history of rock and roll and, certainly, James Burton is one of them. Whether it’s that enormous, extraordinary riff on Suzie Q with Dale Hawkins to all the great Ricky Nelson records that we’ve heard like Hello, Mary Lou; the various sessions with Elvis Presley – how much better does it get. And, on top of that, he’s one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet.
Is it any wonder, then, that I would want to have a chat with this iconic man of the strings? It was a pleasant surprise that I received word that I would get to have a lengthy chat with Mr. Burton. He’s an incredibly youthful, vibrant and active 72 years young with a schedule that would exhaust many a teenager. He’s still in huge demand all over the world and counts many of the biggest names in the business as his friends.
I called up Mr. Burton at his offices in Shreveport, Louisiana, in the middle of a very busy, hectic morning there. Despite the flurry of activity, with laser-like focus, he blocked out that commotion and zeroed in on my questions.
Before I asked my first question, he apologetically told me, “It’s a mad house here right now. We’re changing things around. We already have ‘Studio A’ and we’re going to go for ‘Studio B’. There’s just a lot of stuff going on right now. People like to come in on tours and see things.”
I first asked James about his charity, The James Burton Foundation.
“Well, I’ve always wanted to do ‘my show’. All of my friends in the business that I’ve worked with, we’re like a big family. I’ve always wanted to do my own show and invite my friends. Well, in doing that, there was something missing – something that I really wanted to do. I discussed it with my family – my wife and I, my son and my daughter – and we decided that this would be a great opportune time to form a foundation.
“So, we formed The James Burton Foundation because I wanted to give something back to the kids and work with the kids to give them the challenge of music in their lives. In doing that, it was fantastic to be able to help the kids. We got music back in schools with teachers teaching kids how to play. It’s just unbelievable – and being able to go to places like St. Jude Children’s Hospital and furnish instruments to kids in Danny Thomas’s hospital there in Memphis is fantastic.
“Also, to do things for the Shriner’s – to give guitars to the Shriner’s because they have a wonderful hospital for the children and to go to the V.A. Hospital for the veterans – to do all those wonderful things like that and to get music back in schools is unbelievable! Fantastic!
“And the show (the James Burton International Guitar Show in Shreveport, Louisiana) – the thing that we do for the kids, is non-profit - all volunteer. Nobody gets paid. We don’t make a dime. The money goes strictly to the kids and music. That was a great thing about the studio – to get them in and do some recording and see how they’re progressing with their music and what they’re doing with their lives. It’s just a great thing to invite my friends – the artists that came and performed at my show and donated their time for the kids and the foundation – it’s just unbelievable.”
Quite the salesman, he got me so excited about the foundation, I asked when the next show was going to be.
“Hopefully, we’re looking at next year. This year is a very, very busy year. We’re going into (building) Studio B. We’re going to have two nice working rooms. We’re going for that – to get that happening. Hopefully, if everything comes together the way we’ve planned, we’ll be able to have a wonderful show next year.”
Burton excitedly shared the names of some of the artists who have performed in past shows.
“Oh, yeah! We’ve had some incredible talent. I mean, the list of talent we’ve had would just blow you away. You know, Steve Lukather and Eric Johnson, Brad Paisley, Steve Wariner, Dr. John, Steven Seagal – the list just goes on forever. The wonderful people that came and donated their time is just amazing. To continue what we’re doing to teach the kids through the foundation is just wonderful.”
“One of my long term goals is – I’ve bought a building around the corner so we have the whole corner there – I want to put in a car museum. It’s going to have cars, guitars and lots of memorabilia. It will be incredible. The kids love stuff like that. And then we have a lot of wonderful folks from around the world who come here – the tourists – they love it here. We just had a group of people from Canada – from Ontario – walking around, taking pictures.”
Putting on his Shreveport Chamber of Commerce hat, Burton plugs what the rest of the city has to offer. “We have a statue of Elvis and myself right in front of the municipal auditorium. I played there when I was 14 years old with all the top artists. Elvis came there – performed there. Hank Williams. You’re talking Jerry Lee Lewis. All the top artists. Roy Orbison. Everyone performed there. All the great country entertainers, a lot of rock and roll entertainers. Even Jimi Hendrix performed in that building. Oh yeah, it’s just incredible.”
Continuing his sharing of the foundations goals, Mr. Burton says, “You know, though, the great thing is working with the kids, teaching the kids. Another goal we have is we’re having volunteers come in and teach the children how to play. We have a gentleman who volunteers his time to work on the guitars for the kids. He works on professional people’s instruments, as well. That’s another part of the business . . . fix the instruments and put ‘em in top shape and to keep the ball rollin’. I’d like to record the kids and, hopefully, add a DVD to that, as well – of them sitting there playing so that they can see themselves doing what they’re doing and have a CD of what they played.
“When we opened on January 8th – on Elvis’ birthday – we had some young kids come and play – we recorded them in the studio. We had some of the young singers and some of the young players – it was fantastic!”
With such great work being accomplished by the foundation, I wondered if he is getting a lot of support from instrument manufacturers and artists.
“Yes, yes, we are. We certainly are. A lot of companies, they’re just so blown away with what we’re doing with the kids. They’ve offered their services in any way possible to make it happen. I think it’s wonderful along with the artists that come and do the shows and the manufacturers that furnish things that we need to make all of this possible.”
With these great, lofty goals in mind for the future, I asked James what is the most memorable thing that the foundation has accomplished so far.
“I think that working with the kids and bringing the studio into the function and getting the music in the schools, helping the kids – it’s truly an honor and blessing from God, to be able to pull this together and make it work. You know, getting music back in schools was a wonderful challenge, and we did it! That was a great thing. I think, just to remember what we’re doing for the kids is very important. It gives them a new life.
“It’s amazing the e-mails the letters and the phone calls that I get from all the kids, the parents and all the people that are involved in music, what it’s doing for the kids and what it’s doing for them in school. It’s just amazing. Teachers call and tell me what a wonderful thing it’s done for the kids. They want to go to school. They can’t wait to get there and play their instrument, do their homework and make good grades. It’s wonderful what’s happening.”
Knowing that many Boomerocity readers from around the world would want to be a part of what all the James Burton Foundation has going on, he shares, “We have the website, www.jamesburtonfoundation.org, that people can go to and make donations. People can also send checks to:
James Burton Foundation
714 Elvis Presley Avenue
Shreveport, LA 71101
In 2001, James Burton was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame along with such huge names as Aerosmith, Chris Blackwell, Solomon Burke, The Flamingos, Michael Jackson, Johnnie Johnson, Queen, Paul Simon, Steely Dan, Talking Heads and Richie Valens. To add to that honor, Burton’s induction was presented by none other than Keith Richards.
I asked Burton what were his thoughts when he learned that he was being inducted.
“It was incredible, man! The excitement and - I mean, what an honor! Truly an honor! I believe that any award that you accomplish in your career – music or whatever you’re doing – it’s truly an honor and it proves the hard work that you’ve done and the hard work that you’ve accomplished over the years and how it’s accepted and appreciated, you know? And, either way you look at it, it’s an honor. Incredible!”
I asked if Burton and Richards were friends before that or if that was a relatively new friendship.
“Yeah, Keith and I go back to 1964 – Shindig! I had a group called the Shindogs. Keith and the Rolling Stones came and they brought a singer that was on the show – Howlin’ Wolf – and I was nominated to play guitar for Howlin’ Wolf on the show. It was great. Keith and I have been friends forever. He has been wonderful and has helped us with the foundation in all kinds of ways – like making donations. He’s a very busy person – one of his goals and one of my goals is to play together on my show – the show we do here – the guitar festival. Of course, Keith and I have worked together on the Gram Parson taping that we did up in Santa Barbara and in Universal City in California there. We’ve played together so it was an incredible honor to have him induct me into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I don’t know if you know some of the other people that were inducted at the same time: Michael Jackson, Aerosmith, Queen, Solomon Burke, Paul Simon and the list goes on from there.”
When I asked James if he and Keith were going to work on anything in the future like, say, at the guitar show, he gave me his signature “awe, shucks” tone as he said, “Ah, well, we hope so. I’m hoping to get him down here in my studio and do some recording together and have some fun. He’s always there with me in the foundation for the kids because he believes in the same thing that I believe in – in helping the kids and doing all of those good things like that. It’s all a blessing from God that we can do this. He (God) makes all of these wonderful, great things happen.”
In addition to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Burton was inducted into the Musician’s Hall of Fame in Nashville, the Rock Walk in Hollywood, the Fender Hall of Fame, countless Country Music Award nominations with 7 awarded, a statue the aforementioned statue in his honor in Shreveport, a Grammy for your work on “Cluster Pluck” with Brad Paisley, and ranked 20th on Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of top 100 guitarists of all time, among many other awards. I put James on the spot by asking him, out of all of those awards, is there one that makes him keep pinching yourself and say, ‘Look, Ma!’.
With what sounded to me as the utmost in humility and sincerity, he said, “You know, I pretty much look at all of my awards like that. To me, it’s an honor to accept any award. I do have one coming up here real soon, matter of fact. On September the 10th, they’re going to induct me into the Delta Music Museum Hall of Fame in Ferriday, Louisiana, with Jerry Lee Lewis, Mickey Gilley and I don’t know who all else is there. But I’ve had the call and they’re going to present me with the induction there.
“Again, all of these awards show the work that you’ve done through your career – all these awards to me are truly an honor and a blessing from God because it proves that you’re working towards some goal to do good things and you’ve given 120 percent. I believe that that’s what it’s all about.”
Despite the countless numbers of albums that he has played over his long career, Burton has come out with precious few of his own recordings. His first was recorded with Ralph Mooney in 1969 and is entitled, Corn Pickin’ and Slick Slidin’. His second album was a true solo effort in 1970 entitled, The Guitar Sounds of James Burton. Recently, though, he released a family gospel project entitled, The Spiritual Strings of James Burton. Since the interview took place before James sent me my own copy of the CD, I asked him to tell me about the album.
“Yeah, you know, I came home off of a tour. I love gospel music. Elvis, after every show, he loved singing gospel music. After performing two shows a night in Vegas, he would want to go upstairs to his suite and sing gospel music the rest of the night which would go on for hours and hours and hours.” Burton said with an effortless laugh that comes from obviously very pleasant memories. “I’ve always loved gospel. I like playing in church. I think it’s great. My wife had a great vision – God came to her in a vision of me doing a gospel album with family. My son plays and sings and she (Mrs. Burton) has two nieces that are really good singers.
“So we put this project together along with a friend, keyboard player and great singer and entertainer, Eddie Anders, a good friend who is up in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Eddie talked to my wife and they came up with an idea to do this project. We went into the studio and cut that record. It’s really great. I had some wonderful guests like Marty Haggard – Merle Haggard’s son and a great singer – he came on and performed a couple of songs with us. My son played and sang on it. It’s a great project. We had so much fun doing it. I want to do another one as soon as I can slow down enough to get back into the studio and do it.”
As one might imagine, with countless Presley fans the world over, Burton’s time on the road is filled with Elvis related appearances and performances. I asked about the demands on his time.
“Sometimes I think that I’m busier now than when I started! It’s just amazing. Yeah, it’s non-stop. What little time that I have off I try to spend it with my family here in Shreveport. When I’m not travelling then I’m here working and helping with all of these projects going on for the foundation and in the studio. Also, I’m starting up work on the museum thing that we’re putting together. I travel a lot. As a matter of fact, I’ve got so much stuff coming up the rest of the year I couldn’t find the time to even do a foundation show this year because of my schedule. I know that next year is looking quite the same way but I’m going to try to fit it (a foundation show) in for next year if it works out.”
“I’m doing a show coming up with Gunner and Matthew – Rick Nelson’s boys – we’re doing that up in Wisconsin – way up in that area. I’ve got a couple of shows that I’m doing with them. The next day after that, I’m heading out to Vienna, Austria.”
When I commented about how wore out I got from reading his schedule when he’s hot and heavy on the road, he replied with a laugh, “Now you know how I feel! Ha! Ha! Nah, I’m just kidding. I really love it. Once you get busy, you’ll always be nineteen.”
Before the interview, I solicited some questions from Boomerocity readers for me to relay to Mr. Burton. One question that I shared was: Who inspired you to pick up the guitar?
“You know, my mother said that, ever since I was big enough to walk, I ran around the house singing, beating on stuff and pretending I was playing on a guitar. God blessed me with my talent. It’s pretty much born in me. I never had training or lessons or anything. I just picked it up ‘by ear’. The good Lord was my teacher. I don’t think that you can get any better than that.
“But being able to pick up an instrument and play by ear with whoever and any place and to love it and enjoy it and be right on, that’s truly a blessing. I played the radio a lot. I pretty much was raised on country music and got into rhythm and blues, bluegrass, gospel, which turned into rockabilly then rock and roll. I guess that I was pretty much born at the right time. I got into music when the music was really good, simplistic and great. You could understand the lyrics – good songs and good music. I was blessed with the right time – the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. It wound up changing quite a bit in the 80’s and 90’s.”
I asked James if my research was accurate in saying that his first electric guitar was a 1953 Fender Telecaster. He shared the story around the purchase of that guitar.
“My mother and dad bought me my first Telecaster – a ’53 Tele. Oh, yeah! I saw that guitar in a music store here – J&S Music here in Shreveport – I was walking down Milam Street and looked up and saw this guitar hanging in the showroom window there. Boy! That guitar really caught my eye so I went home and told my mother about it. So, my dad comes home from work and she says, ‘Well, I think he’s found a guitar that he’s pretty much set on – one he really likes.’ So, my dad said, ‘Well, take him down there and get it for him.’ We went down the next day and looked at it. I played it and, aw, man! That was me! It had my name all over it!
“So, mother and dad bought that for me. That was back in the 50’s – I guess around ’52, 3, something like that. Beautiful guitar, man! I still have that guitar. It’s been on thousands and thousands and thousands of records. It’s been with most of the top artists of the world. In ’68 – ’69, my ’68 paisley (Telecaster), I played with Elvis - it became very famous with Elvis, Emmylou Harris, the Hot Band and just a lot of great artists that I played that guitar with. Then, I did my signature guitar with Fender – the James Burton model – which everyone pretty much got what they call a “signature model” but I started that telecaster program with Fender – me and Dan Smith – the signature model, the JB model. Of course, other guitar players – Eric (Clapton), Jeff Beck, Yngwie Malmsteen – everybody got signature models. Fender started planning it out but I started that program – the signature model.”
Since he brought up his signature model, I asked how sales have been with the line.
“Fantastic! I’ve done two or three different models – the black and gold paisley, the red and black paisley with some different colors – the solid pearl white, the solid red. Then, my latest one – the one with flames on it – they all sold really well and they’re still selling. It’s amazing. It’s a great guitar. I did a three pick up telecaster with a five-way switch. I put the flame paisley together for my show in 2005 – when I did my first show. I presented every artist on the show with a James Burton Signature Model – a flame guitar. Eric Johnson looked at his – he was standing there, holding it – and he told me, ‘Oh my god! I don’t even own a Telecaster! This is my first Telecaster!’ And then he told his tech guy, ‘Go set it up for me. I want to play it on the show!’ So, he played it on the show – as well as Brad Paisley and Dr. John.”
When James mentioned Brad Paisley, I couldn’t help but blurt out what a huge fan of his that I am. Burton conveyed the same kind of excitement when he commented about Paisley.
“Oh, he’s a sweet man. He’s just a wonderful talent. He did my very first show. Him, Eric Johnson, Dr. John, Steve Crawford, Gunner and Matthew (Nelson). The list goes on forever– even my old buddy, Seymour Duncan played. We just had a big line-up. Johnny Rivers – I think we had 18 or 19 on the line-up for the first show. “
I asked the Master of the Telecaster how he feels about how technology has impacted the construction of guitars today.
“Well, you know, Leo (Fender) and I were talking and I told Leo one day – Leo Fender never stopped experimenting. He felt like that if he handed a guitar to someone, that was the best guitar in their lives and they felt that there was nothing could be better on that guitar. I think they’ve made the best guitars. I think making something different is what the manufacturer’s are trying to do – the technology they’re trying to change – the pick-ups, the different knob controls – you know there’s a lot of technology stuff. The actual instrument is up to the individual. When you pick up an instrument, how does it feel for you? Another person might pick up that instrument and say, ‘Nah, this is not for me’, you know? The technology is one thing but the actual playing – when a guy’s fingers – hands – touch that instrument, that’s when it happens. The instruments are all different. There’s hardly no two guitars alike, even though they came out of the same mold and they have same equipment on them and everything, there’s a difference. Isn’t that amazing?
“The actual playing of the instrument is in your hands and your touch and your feel and things that come from the heart and the soul. I mean, just like two people can pick up the same instrument and what you hear is two different people. Some of these questions are very hard to answer but I just think that technology is one thing and the actual person playing the instrument is another thing, you know? Every person playing an instrument has their opinion of that instrument and the way they play.”
And just how many guitars does Burton own?
“Oh, my god, I have no idea. I’ve got a few guitars and I just want to play some of them. I don’t know. I couldn’t even put a figure on it. I know that it’s more than two or three because I like to play more than two or three different instruments” James said, laughing. “And I enjoy playing different instruments, you know? And the thing that you’ll know about a studio player is that they’re pretty much required to play different instruments. I like playing a dobro, banjo, mandolin, slide dobro, acoustic dobro – most all stringed instruments. Most guitar players sort of fall into that bag. But when you go into the studio to cut with an artist, the producer might say, ‘Hey, how about playing 12 string today? Or acoustic or, hey, put some dobro on this today?’ That’s the thing that we do.”
While even the casual observer can tell that Burton is just a tad partial to the Fender Telecaster, I wasn’t at all sure what his acoustic preferences were so I asked him.
“Well, I play a lot of different acoustics. I love a Taylor. Taylor Guitar is probably one of my most favorite guitars now. Bob Taylor and Kurt Listug, these guys are my friends. When these guys got started with their company, they were building , like, five guitars a day. They went from five guitars a day to, like, five thousand a day. Just unbelievable. And QUALITY ! First class quality instruments and they would not release an instrument unless it was inspected, perfected and ready to go. They were my friends and they gave me some Taylor guitars when they first got started that I played and I loved. I just think that it’s one of the finest guitars made today.”
I try to remember to ask all guitar players if they have a guitar that they consider the “holy grail” that they either own or want to own. I happened to remember to ask James. His answer was almost like peering into guitar history.
“You know, I can’t think of what that would be. What would that be? Hmmm. You know, I can’t think of anything – you know, there’s a lot of old guitars that you want to get a hold of – that Jimmie Rodgers played or something that’s, like, Marty Stuart playing the Clarence White B Bender. Clarence White and I were friends. He brought me this guitar and said, ‘Tell me what you think about this.’ He started building the B Bender, right? He did – and I took him to Fender to see if they might be interested. Of course, at that time, they weren’t ready for the B Bender but Marty Stuart’s playing Clarence White’s B Bender which is, I thought, a pretty interesting deal. And there’s some other guys – Gene Parsons and a lot of different people that had put some of those together – the B Benders. But I can’t really think of anything unless I could come up with an old Martin that is too good to be true or an old, old, old Gibson, something like that.
“You know, acoustic instruments are very, very fragile instruments and they’re very popular with the collectors to get, really, a good one, you know. Like, if you can get the Stradivarius violin, that’s the one to have, you know what I mean? (Laughs) Of course, if you’re looking for a guitar or something like that, call George Gruhn, he knows guitars in and out. He knows the real collector ones. I have several collector guitars and, you know, the pink paisley that I played with Elvis became very popular, you know, famous with a lot of the guitar players out there because they all wanted one. They didn’t make a lot – a lot of the originals. The pink paisley – the one I played with Elvis – is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame up in Cleveland, along with one of my jump suits and some other stuff.”
As often happens when I interview people, an off-the-wall question comes to my mind that I feel compelled to ask. Such was the case when I asked Mr. Burton whatever happened to the famous black Gibson Dove acoustic guitar that Elvis was seen with on stage in the early 70’s.
“Well, you know, I really don’t know but he went through a lot of different guitars. He played the Jumbo 200 – the blonde ones. He threw two of those away one night, uh, in one show – the two blonde ones. But then he played the Gibson guitar with the insignia – the karate insignia on it. I don’t know what happened to all of those guitars. I’m sure they’re probably someplace in the collection at Graceland – I don’t know.
“I tell ya, Elvis did not care about material things, you know? He would give you the shirt off his back. He enjoyed giving stuff away to people – cars and all that stuff. He enjoyed it. That was one of the things that made him real happy, doing that.”
When I commented that there wasn’t enough people at that level who have a philanthropic heart like Presley’s, James is quick to add another icon to that list.
“John Denver was a wonderful, generous man, too. A great guy to work with and a great talent. But, you’re right. Elvis, he loved his fans. He loved his God. He always took his Bible with him every place he went. He really enjoyed reading it. Once in awhile, we’d all sit down and he would quote scriptures out of the Bible. Everybody’s looking around and he would say, ‘Let me go to my room and get my Bible and check this.’ I mean, he could not even open a Bible and quote all these scriptures, man, almost word-for-word, man. Unbelievable! He loved it. He was just a great guy, man. Put aside being a great entertainer, singer. He was a natural talent. He was another ‘God’s Gift’ to the music world – the industry. He became THE icon.”
I mentioned to Mr. Burton that I’ve often wondered what would have happened if Elvis hadn’t gone into rock and roll and, instead, followed his passion for Southern Gospel music. Mr. Burton shares a story that Elvis shared with him that took place before Presley broke into the music business.
“Oh, absolutely! Absolutely! Can you imagine what he could do for the young folks today – bringing them into the love of God, being a Christian and all of the wonderful things goes with it? Elvis told me stories about when the (southern gospel quartet) Blackwood Brothers would do shows and J.D. (Sumner) was singing bass for them. Elvis loved bass. He loved gospel. He would go to the back door and try to sneak in to see the show because he loved gospel and he wanted to be there. So, J.D. let him come in and be there. It was great. Of course, he loved J.D. and all the gospel groups and quartets around the world. He talked about it a lot and he always wanted to sing gospel after the shows. As I said earlier, we would go up for hours and hours and sing and play gospel music.”
When I asked James if the gospel singing was his most poignant memories of Elvis, he was quick with his answer.
“No, no. Just memories of being with him in general. It was a wonderful nine years – just what a great man he was. He touched many people around the world and did so much to help people. I just remember what an incredible, great person he was other than being an incredible entertainer, actor, singer, even just a wonderful, fantastic person. He loved his family and all of his cousins, ‘brothers’, uncles and aunts. When he called me and asked me to put a band together for him in ’69 – he called me in ’68 but I was doing an album with Frank Sinatra – but, when he called me in ’69, we talked for three hours on the phone. He wanted me to put a band together for him and open Las Vegas at the International Hotel, which is now the Hilton.
“Incredible things happened through all of that. First off, it was a very hard decision I had to make because I had so many clients that I worked with in the studios, recording and that field. It was a very tough decision on my part to say, ‘Okay, I’ll do this and I’ll go.’ But, I did do it and it worked out wonderful because I didn’t lose anything. I continued my career because I had a career before Elvis and a career after Elvis and this is all a blessing from God on me, you know what I’m saying? To be able to work with so many great entertainers in the world – and I love it.”
Since Burton has seen and done it all, I asked him if there was any new talent that has commanded his attention.
“Well, you know, I think a lot of them sound alike, look alike. I think that they’re all great. I still miss some of the old ones that aren’t being played on the radio. I think the radio has changed an awful lot in this business. I miss a lot of them. I miss Hank, Jr. I miss Merle Haggard. I miss a lot of the old Hank Williams. I miss some of the people that really made the music world opened up the lives of a lot of people. Of course, I appreciate a lot of the new talent, too. There’s a lot of great ones out there like the Keith Urban’s and the Brad Paisley’s – oh, wow! These guys – they’re all fantastic.
“They’re just a whole bunch of them out there that’s just fantastic. I like them all. Of course, I don’t get a chance to listen to a lot of radio because, when you’re in the studio creating music, you don’t get a chance to go back and listen to a lot of stuff. But I like a lot of stuff out there.
“There’s a little girl out there, Christina Aguilera, she is fantastic! I’m tellin’ ya, it’s unbelievable the things that she can do. My wife and I watched her movie that’s out with Cher (“Burlesque”). Oh! You gotta see it, oh man! That little girl – she can perform. She can get up there with the best and top of the line. She can lead the show. She’s just an AMAZING singer! I won’t say much about that (the movie) but you DO need to see that, if you can!”
“I’m doing a book – my life story. There’s so many things that I could write about. I could do a whole book on Elvis and a whole book on Ricky. But I’m going to get my story out there and I think everyone is going to enjoy it.”
Any idea when it will be released? “Not at the moment. I’m ready to get rolling!”
After the call, I was struck by something Mr. Burton said during our chat. He said, “I’ve been wonderfully blessed and I have a wonderful family and all of the wonderful support from my family and my mother and father. My father has passed away and my mother is 96 years old and she’s a wonderful lady, hanging in there. I go visit her every chance I get and we spend as much time together as we can. She’s here in Shreveport so we’re truly blessed.”
On May 23rd, just a couple of weeks after our chat, James mother, Mrs. Lola Poland Burton, passed away at the age of 96 years young. Among all the treasured memories that James and his family must have of Mrs. Burton, the world owes her a debt of gratitude for her fostering little James talent and making the sacrifice in purchasing that ’53 Telecaster.
You can keep up with James Burton’s incredibly busy world and the tremendous work his foundation is doing by checking out his website, www.james-burton.net. While you’re at it, why don’t you drop by his foundation’s website and make a donation to the worthy cause that James is pursuing? You can make your donation by visiting www.jamesburtonfoundation.org/supportus/.