James Burton has literally avoided the spotlight for most of his life.
Although an iconic guitarist and lauded musician, James has fulfilled his role as professional sideman to perfection and happily let those centre stage steal the show. With a cast list that includes Elvis Presley, Gram Parsons, Johnny Cash and Frank Sinatra, his is a résumé of envious proportions. Deciding that it was about time he got the attention he so rightly deserves, Clash met with James as he arrived in Glasgow to perform once more alongside the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll.
As a child growing up in Shreveport, Louisiana, what are your earliest memories of being exposed to music?
I did grow up in Shreveport, Louisiana, and I was very interested in guitar at a young age. I actually started playing when I was 13 and I went professional when I was 14. When I started, I loved music and the guitar impressed me. I grew up on country music and rhythm ‘n’ blues and so on, but I always loved the guitar and it was very interesting, to me, the sounds and the things going on with the guitar. Anyway, I just pretty much went with the guitar and I remember playing a few talent shows at the age of 13. I won a couple of them and my career just started progressing. I didn’t know if it was going to be a business for me or whatever, but I loved it so much, you know? I HAD to play guitar. By the age of 14 I was working with a guy named Dale Hawkins who had a blues band and I wrote a little instrumental and it was called ‘Susie Q’. That became a pretty big record for Dale. Then I played at the Louisiana Hayride in my hometown at the Municipal Auditorium in Shreveport with some wonderful talent like Roy Acuff, Hank Williams Snr, then Elvis came there on October 16th 1954 and did his concert. The music was wonderful. When I first played there, I played in the staff band with guys like Floyd Cramer, Jimmy Day and just a lot of great players, playing behind George Jones and many great, wonderful country singers of that time. Then I went to work with a guy named Bob Luman who was a great country singer. Bob did the same type of music that Elvis did, and of course my style of playing was different; that little chicken-pickin’ thing that I do and finger picking style as well, a mixture of blues and country and a little bit of everything mixed together. It became pretty interesting; working with Bob was wonderful. I did my first movie when I was 16 called ‘Carnival Rock’ with Bob. We had another friend there who was David Houston, a wonderful singer from Shreveport, Louisiana. He was a great talent. It was like my career just kept going unbelievable. I met Ricky Nelson in California when I was 16 and joined him when I was 17, becoming his guitar player in January of 1958. The first record I played on was ‘Waitin’ In School’/‘Stood Up’, I played a rhythm guitar part and Joe Maphis played a lead guitar part. Then my first record that I played lead on was ‘Believe What You Say’ by Ricky Nelson. But staying in Shreveport when I was a little kid growing up, Mother said I would walk around the house beating on broomsticks, acting like I was playing guitar, singing and carrying on. I think she had a pretty good idea I was going to become some sort of a musician or something in the entertainment business.
You said you liked the sound of the guitars you heard. Were there any guitars in particular you liked?
Well, my first guitar, which was an acoustic guitar, and my second guitar, which was an electric, were made by Gretsch. I passed the music store in my hometown one day and I saw this beautiful Fender Telecaster hanging in the window, long and thin and beautiful. I went home and told my Mother about it, and it was pretty cool. I had to have that guitar. My Dad came home from work that night and Mother told him about the guitar and he said, “Well, go down and get it if that’s the one you want.” So I bought my first Fender Telecaster.
The South in America is known as a very religious area and in those days often rock ‘n’ roll was considered bad, the Devil’s music. What was the reaction to you wanting to do it for a living?
I would walk around the house beating on broomsticks, acting like I was playing guitar
It was no problem. There didn’t seem to be any problem with my growing up and being from that part of the country. I mean, I loved music and I knew once I started playing guitar that that was my life; that’s what I was going to do; what I WANTED to do. But I didn’t have any problem with it.
You began to develop your own style of playing - replacing the first four strings with banjo strings and moving the A & D up to D & E.
Yeah, the banjo string thing happened in the Fifties. It’s a pretty interesting thing because I’m hearing all these wonderful slide sounds and bends and on my guitar it was impossible with the strings too stiff.
Was this a matter of improving your technique or sound or was it because you wanted people to identify a James Burton lick?
Well, it was a different sound, a completely different sound and I experimented. I put banjo strings on the guitar: first, second, third, fourth, and then I added, for the fifth string, I put a regular D string for a guitar. And then for the E string, for the big E, I put the A string on, which made it really nice and even. It was an incredible sound because I ended up with an unwound third, and it was a bit more twangy from the regular strings, but it was incredible, it was a great sound.
In ’65 you first played with Johnny Cash…
Would it be ’64 or ’65? We did a TV show called Shindig. He called me and I went and played the very first show, which was the pilot. It was wonderful. The producer, Jack Good, was very excited. He was a fan of the Ricky Nelson music and myself. He said, “Oh, I love your guitar work on the Ricky Nelson records,” and he said “You must be on the show every week.” So we put a band together, and in that band, the piano player was Glen Hardin, the two singers were Joey Cooper, who played rhythm guitar, Delaney Bramlett played bass, then Chuck Blackwell on drums and I played guitar. We became The Shindogs after that.
Cash and Elvis both came from the same Sun Records background, and both had addiction problems, yet Cash came to symbolise dignity in music in a way that Elvis probably never would have. What do you think was the secret to Johnny Cash?
Well Johnny, his type of music was great, you know, back in the Sixties and everything. But he added more of a new wave type thing. He went for the Bob Dylan thing. In other words, more of a “message” type song, and the young kids really went for that. I don’t know if Elvis would… It seemed like Elvis just went for that big band sound, but he could do anything. That’s what is the beauty of his music and him; he had such a wonderful, great voice that he could sing any style of songs or music, be it pop, the big band sound or small groups.
The Sixties was obviously a very fruitful period for music, but the arrival of The Beatles meant that the emphasis was on groups with original material. Did you ever think that perhaps your job would soon be extinct?
No. I gave myself a deal; whatever has to be done as far as a sideman playing on records, I played all different styles for different singers. My style would fit pretty much anything. Of course, you broaden your musical ability by playing with so many different singers and different styles of music, so I never had any problems with work.
What do you think you learnt from playing with so many people?
The experience of playing with so many different artists, it’s a great teacher because I think it gives you discipline. To be able to play with different entertainers, you have to pay attention, you have to have a good attitude and you have to communicate with the music that you’re doing and with the artist.
You were contacted in 1968 to play on Elvis’ Comeback Special, but you were unable to attend. Apparently you gave quite a good excuse?
Yeah. I was doing an album with Frank Sinatra; Jimmy Bowen was the producer. Then they called me to do the Elvis thing but I couldn’t do it because I’m already booked in the studios.
Was Elvis understanding?
Well, at that time, it was his Comeback Special and he was very excited about putting that together and doing it. I don’t really know. When he called me in ’69 to put a band together, we talked a long time. He asked me to put a band together because he wanted to open in Vegas. It was a tough call for me because I was really busy in the studios and I had to make a decision. But I did it, and I figured, you know, you can always do something once and if you like it, you can do it twice. If it’s REALLY good, then you can continue doing it. So it was wonderful.
When you eventually hooked up with Elvis, here is a man surrounded by a thousand myths - how did your first meeting compare to your expectations?
We had a lot in common because of our music. His background and my background in Gospel, country music, rhythm ‘n’ blues and everything was pretty much very similar.
So you were more likely to talk about someone else’s music than your own?
Yeah. See, he played on the Louisiana Hayride and when I was working with Bob Luman, when he would come and play, we would go off and tour, and when he would go on tour we would come back and play. So we did the same type of music.
How was Elvis’ proficiency on the guitar?
He was good. When he started out, he played really good rhythm and had really good time. He only had three pieces; it was only himself, stand-up bass and Scotty (Moore) on guitar. So it was a very small trio, then later on he added drums for a little heavier sound.
Did you teach him a few licks?
No. When I started playing with him, he didn’t actually play a lot of guitar, it was mostly singing.
You released your own album, ‘The Guitar Sounds of James Burton’ in 1971, but you were apparently unsatisfied with the circumstances and the outcome.
It was a very fast project for me. It happened very quick because Elvis’ producer, Felton Jarvis, we had talked about it and he wanted to produce the record. But what happened, we were booked in a studio in Nashville, Elvis was coming in to record and he had a cancellation and decided to wait to record. He had a little problem with his eye so he wanted to take off some time. Felton said “Well, let’s go in the studio. We got the musicians, we got the studio; we’re set!” But what do we do? I mean, we hadn’t had time to prepare for anything, so we picked out some great tunes for remake. I actually wrote a couple of tunes on the spot, like “Oh, how about this?” It was pretty cool, but it was a little bit too fast for me.
Have you any plans to release more of your own records?
I’m working on some new ideas and some new things now. Hopefully when I do my Guitar Festival in Shreveport, Louisiana, which is on August 19,20,21, hopefully I’ll have a great idea from that project and I’ll put some things together. I’d like to do an album ‘James And Friends’, get ’em in the studio or on stage in a live show or whatever.
In 1972, Gram Parsons contacted you to play on his solo album. Merle Haggard apparently turned down an offer to produce Gram because he thought he was “some damn hippie”. What did you think when you were approached to play on the record and what did you make of him?
They’re wonderful, aren’t they?
I thought it was great. I was real happy for him that he got his record deal because I had a phone call from Merle Haggard, who asked me about Gram Parsons, because I played on Merle Haggard records and Merle and I were friends. Merle called me and he said, “Hey, do you know Gram Parsons?” I said, “Yeah, I know Gram”, because we played together in The Byrds. Anyway, he said, “Would you be interested in producing the record with me for Gram?” I said, “Sure”. Then two weeks go by and I never heard from Merle. Gram called me one day and he said, “Hey man, I got a record deal with Warner Bros! My manager Ed Tickner got me a deal.” So we went in the studio and recorded and did some pretty good tunes. We had fun playing. It was a lot of fun.
Do you feel that Gram’s status as a legend is mostly due to his untimely death or do you think that the esteem in which he is held is completely justified?
I think it’s very unfortunate that he passed away at such a young age because he had a lot of great talent. I think if he had lived, his career would have just took off like crazy. The music and everything that we did with him on that record got across to the market, to the people that he was trying to do, what he wanted to do. And I think if he had lived, it would have carried on to a much bigger success.
After Gram, you took up Emmylou Harris’ offer to join her tour band. She wasn’t very well known when she asked you, so was it a bit of a risk going out on the road full time?
Well, yeah. Warner Bros agreed, because it’s quite expensive sometimes to put a group together and hit the road, but they agreed to come in and help with the expenses to get it started. We recorded the album [‘Pieces Of The Sky’ (1975)] and the band, The Hot Band, which she named us, went on the road and played shows and all of a sudden - wow. It went off. Everybody loved her and loved the music. We just did a thing with her in Nashville, the NASCAR Awards show, and all the guys got back together for a reunion.
The music industry in the 70s was rife with the ever-increasing drug use. Indeed Gram was one casualty to excess. Were you aware of that scene at all and what were your thoughts?
Not really but I saw a lot of stuff going on that was foul play. It’s really unfortunate because a lot of entertainers - and not just entertainers - but a lot of different people think that that’s what you need to get you going, and use things for a crutch. But that’s all it is, is a crutch, and it’s not good. Unfortunately, it was very, very bad for such a great talent to waste his life like that. Personally I stayed away from that. You could see different things going on, but it was not my thing. My thing was music and playing and getting hit records and playing with good people.
In the 80s you hooked up with Elvis Costello, eventually appearing on a number of his albums and touring with him. His work could be challenging and a bit leftfield, especially something like 'Mighty Like A Rose'. What was the other Elvis like to work with?
It was fun and very interesting. It was good music. He’s an incredible person; he’s brilliant and I love his music. I really like the idea that he just goes off the wall with some incredible stuff and you can’t predict what he’s gonna do next, what his project’s gonna be, because he’s such a brilliant musician and a great songwriter, he could go in any direction. He was wonderful to work with. I enjoyed it very much.
Some years ago, apparently you had a bad accident that left you in a coma for 10 days. Is that right?
Yeah. I actually broke my ankle on my left foot. I had a reaction to the medication. It was something that was very unexpected.
Four years ago you were finally inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame…
2001, yeah. That was an honour. I was really excited.
What did that honour mean to you?
Well, it meant that it’s really wonderful to have an accomplishment in your career that is so wonderful. To get to that peak, it’s a great feeling to know that you’ve reached that top step. There are many more to go, but it really is a good feeling and I’m honoured.
Keith Richards inducted you in the ceremony.
Yes, my buddy Keith. We played together on Shindig. The Stones were on Shindig back in the early Sxities, about ’64 or ’65 and Keith and I were playing all day. I couldn’t think of anybody better. I said, “Yeah, he’s the guy; he’s the one.”
At the end of last year you performed at the inaugural ceremony of the UK Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall Of Fame, celebrating the induction of Elvis. You played on the evening with The Thrills…
They’re wonderful, aren’t they? I did an interview because Elvis was being inducted and it was great. They called me and asked me if I’d come over and perform something, be there. So I did, and then they called me back and said, “This group, they’re doing ‘Viva Las Vegas’ and we very much think you’d fit right in with that too.” So I got there. During the show I played ‘Love Me Tender’, I was up in the high-rise, and then when I finished playing, the lights came on down there and the band was all set up and they went right in to ‘Viva Las Vegas’. I walked down to join them and play with them. That was wonderful. All those guys were wonderful. I really, really liked the group and the singer.
Would you work again with them?
Yeah, maybe. I hope so. Maybe down the road, that would be great.
You mentioned earlier on about the Guitar Festival you’re hosting in August. Can you tell us who’s lined up to appear?
I’ve invited everybody. At the moment I’ve been on tour and I’ve been out of contact with a lot of the things going on back at the office. But I’ve invited Brad Paisley, my buddy Keith Irvine, Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top, Keith Richards, Ron Wood… The list goes on forever. I just invited so many wonderful, great entertainers. I’m really excited about the festival.
What is the Guitar Festival in aid of?
What it is is we’re doing a benefit for young college kids, young kids that play music, and that’s gonna be like their scholarship. We’re gonna raise money for college scholarships for young kids into music.
The Elvis show tonight was fantastic. How are you enjoying this unique tour?
It’s really a fun show to play. There’s a lot of familiar faces and a lot of new faces. Did you see those crazy girls up the front? All night long they wouldn’t sit down! I put that band together in ‘69. Jerry (Scheff) and I had worked a lot in the studios with different artists. Elvis called to put the band together and it was quite interesting, I knew the players I wanted to bring into the band.
On ‘Cash On The Barrelhead’, Gram says “James Burton and his hot lickin’ guitar”. Was that the first full namecheck you got on record?
No. Actually many artists have. Elvis, Elvis Costello. Oh, not necessarily my full name. But I did this thing with The Mamas And Papas and John Philips sings “Pick it for me, James!” Jerry Lee Lewis too.
Is there anybody that you haven’t worked with that you’d eventually like to?
Boy, who would that be? Let’s see… There’s a lot of young groups out there I’d like to work with. You know, I haven’t actually played with Barbra Streisand. I had to call to play with her. There are a lot of groups. I’d be looking forward to playing with The Thrills, you know, doing some recording with them. I think it would be interesting. Bono and U2 as well. I think it would be great to do some stuff with Paul McCartney. I recorded with George Harrison; I played on his album, ‘Cloud Nine’. But I’d like to do something with Paul. You know they did a tribute to Sun Records and Sam Phillips? Elton John recorded ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ and I played the guitar solo on it.
How do you think your guitar playing has progressed over the years? Do you think you’re better now than ever?
Well, yeah. Just being here, there and everywhere is part of the game. I’ve worked with a lot of different artists, stretching out. We had the tribute to Gram Parsons thing we just did, with Keith Richards and Norah Jones, and it was quite interesting.