Swampland: James Burton
James Burton Swampland Interview
Guitar Man: An Original Six-String Journeyman
by James Calemine
Born in Shreveport, Louisiana, on August 21, 1939, guitarist-extraordinaire James Burton began playing music professionally at 14. He recorded the inimitable solo on Dale Hawkins’ hit “Suzie Q” at 15. By the time he was 16, Burton operated as the guitarist in Ricky Nelson’s band. Burton played in Nelson’s band for eight years. In 1964, he started the Shindogs—the houseband on the TV show Shindig—with Delaney Bramlett.
To even seasoned guitar legends, James Burton’s sound remains unmistakable. Burton went on to record with over one thousand artists, some of which included, Herb Albert, Buffalo Springfield, Hoyt Axton, J.J. Cale, Johnny Cash, Judy Collins, Nat King Cole, Willie Nelson, Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, the Everly Brothers, Elvis Presley, Merle Haggard, Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, Waylon Jennings, Jerry Lee Lewis, Billy Joe Shaver, Bobby Darin, Joni Mitchell, Phil Ochs, Buck Owens, Glen Campbell, George Jones, Dean Martin, Randy Newman, Sammy Davis, Jr., Frankie Lane, Burl Ives, Charlie Rich, Duane Eddy, Townes Van Zandt, Henry Mancini, Leon Russell, Hank Williams, Jr., John Denver, Ronnie Hawkins, Ry Cooder, Ronnie Milsap, Del Shannon, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and many others.
The great southern music fan and Rolling Stones guitar legend Keith Richards inducted James Burton into the rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001. James Burton’s guitar style inspired the “chicken-pickin’” sound. Burton’s spirit and talent remains a graceful presence on any music scene.
From March 31 through April 2, 2007, James Burton will host the second annual James Burton International Guitar Festival in Shreveport, Louisiana. The purpose of this festival serves to provide local kids with musical instruments and opportunities. Some of this year’s guests include Dickey Betts, Ed King, Chris Isaak, Rick Derringer, Lee Roy Parnell, The Cox Family, Doyle Dykes and Rick Vito.
In this Swampland interview, Mr. Burton discusses his early musical aptitudes and various career moves leading all the way up to his latest Guitar festival. Swampland’s proud to present this insightful conversation with a living guitar god.
What was your first guitar?
Well, my first guitar was actually an acoustic guitar. I’m not even sure the name of it. Unfortunately, I don’t even have it. I didn’t keep my first guitar. It was something like a Regal. A Silvertone Regal. It was in that category. I’ve got some old pictures at home that I think I have with that guitar.
How old were you then?
Oh, I started playing when I was 12 or 13. I got my acoustic when I was 12.
At 15 you were already recording the solo on the Dale Hawkins hit, “Suzie Q”.
Yeah, I actually started playing when I was 13. My mother and dad bought me my first electric—Fender Telecaster—a blonde body, a beautiful, two-pick up, Telecaster.
Do you still have that one?
Oh yeah. They bought me my first guitar and I started playing. I went professional when I was 14.
How did you land the Dale Hawkins gig?
Well, it was just a blessing from God I guess. It was like he just put it in my hands and said ‘Here, play.’ It was just incredible. When I was in school, I won a couple of talent contests. Then I went out to one talent contest that they had in Bossier City at a night club. So my dad drove me over there and walked up to the guy and said ‘My son plays guitar and he’s 13 years old. Is it okay if he plays the talent show?’ The guy said sure. I won first place that night. I won first place in three talent contests and then I went to cutting records when I was 13 and 14. I think I played on Merle Kilgore’s first record. Then when I recorded “Suzie Q” I was 15—around 1953 or 1954.
I’m sure “Suzie Q” opened a lot of doors for you.
It did. Well, when I was working with Dale Hawkins in a blues band we cut “Suzie Q” and a few others with him.
What were your early musical influences?
Oh, you know—the old blues stuff like Chuck Berry, Lightnin’ Hopkins, B.B. King, Bo Diddley, Elmore James, John Lee Hooker…stuff like that. Country music was my first love. I learned from those old country albums.
I interviewed Charlie Louvin two weeks ago. Did you listen to the Louvin Brothers music?
Yeah. I loved the Louvin Brothers music…Charlie and Ira…
So, “Suzie Q” got your name around…
Yeah, and when I was 14 I played guitar on the Louisiana Hayride at the Municipal Auditorium in downtown Shreveport, Louisiana. I was playing with guys like Floyd Kramer and Jimmy Daze on steel guitar. I played behind guys like George Jones and Billy Walker—all the great music acts that came through there. Then I went to work with a guy named Bob Luman. He had a pretty hot band. I cut several records with him, and we played on the Hayride as well. But I didn’t play the Hayride the same time as Elvis. Elvis would come and play the Hayride and our manager—Horace Logan—would send us off on tour. When Elvis would go on tour we’d come back and play the Hayride. I knew all those guys. You know, D.J. Fontana—the drummer—is from here in Shreveport. I met Elvis in 1969 when I put his band together. But I knew Scotty Moore, D.J. Fontana, Bill Black and all those guys. They used to come and sit in with us. Bob Luman and I toured with Gene Vincent, Jerry Lee Lewis…ah, there’s so many…
You’ve played on, last I could check, at least 400 artists albums. Is that an accurate count?
Well, it’s a lot more than that. I’ve got a discography some place at home where the list goes forever. I’ve played with artists like Nat King Cole, Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Frankie Lane, Burl Ives…the list just goes on. That’s not counting the Monkees, Glen Campbell, Charlie Rich, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Elvis, Emmylou Harris, Hoyt Axton-I played on almost all of his albums…
Like the Louvin Brothers, I discovered your playing through the music of Gram Parsons. Could you talk about him a little bit?
Well, Gram…I played on a Byrds record. Gram was a singer in the Byrds. Gram and I were good friends. We used to go out to the Palomino Club in North Hollywood and jam. He’d always call, ‘Man, I’m going out tonight. I need you to come play guitar with me.’ We’d go out and play and he’d get up and sing. One day I got a phone call from Merle Haggard. Merle said, ‘Do you know this guy Gram Parsons?’ I said yeah I know Gram. He said, ‘Well, is he an okay country singer?’ I said yeah, he’s a good singer. Merle said would you be interested in co-producing a record with me on him? I said, Well, sure, I’ll do that. Then about two weeks go by and never heard back from Merle, so one day Gram called me and said ‘James’—he jumped through the phone man—‘I got a deal. My manager Ed Tickner got me a deal on Warner Brothers.’ He said, ‘We’re going in the studio.’ So, we went in the studio and started cutting. We cut a couple of albums real fast. That’s where I met Emmylou. Then when Gram passed away then Ed Tickner took over Emmylou and got her the same deal with Warner Brothers. So we went to the studio and started recording with her. It was a hot band. Did you see that Gram DVD?
Oh yeah. It was great to see you play that riff to “Ooh Las Vegas”. You covered some ground before meeting up with Gram. Nat King Cole and Ray Charles are heavy company…
Oh yeah. I did the Andy Williams show with Ray Charles. I’ve recorded with so many artists it’s frightening.
I’ll throw out a few names of other artists you’ve performed with such as Ricky Nelson. You were all over his music…
Yeah, I met Ricky when I was 16. When I went to work with him—I guess I was with him for about eight and a half years. I think I was with him up until about '64 or '65. Then we did a TV show called Shindig. That was me and Delaney Bramlett—we were the Shindogs—me, Delaney, Julie Cooper, Chuck Blackwell and Glen Hardin.
I’ll throw out another favorite of mine you played with, Townes Van Zandt.
Townes Van Zandt, yeah I cut records with him. I remember Townes Van Zandt real well. He was a good writer. I played a lot of Dobro stuff in his music. He was a sad writer. He kind of reminded me of Hank Williams.
They died the same day, January 1. Talk about working with Johnny Cash.
Well, Johnny called me to do a TV show and that’s when I made my exit from Ricky because that TV show happened to be Shindig. So, I went in and did the very first show with the pilot for Shindig and the producer Jack Goode was a huge fan and he said, ‘Man, I want you on the show every week.’ So, that’s when he said let’s put a band together. So we formed the Shindogs.
Another great guitar player you’ve worked with is J.J. Cale.
Oh yeah, J.J. is an old buddy of mine. He’s a good writer, a good friend of Leon Russell. I knew J.J. for a long time. I also recorded with him on some stuff. We did an album called Shades.
How about Leon Russell? I’ve always loved his music.
Oh man, Leon and I go way back when he was 18 years old—Russell Bridges. I met Leon when he first came to California. He was playing out in the valley at the Sun Valley Ranch with Sonny and Al Jones who is actually from Shreveport-Bossier City. Their sister is Billie Jean
Horton now who was married to Hank Williams and then when Hank died she married Johnny Horton.
You played with Ronnie Hawkins…
Oh, Ronnie Hawkins. Crazy guy. He’s doing pretty good. He was really sick for a while, but I think he’s doing better. Ry Cooder and I overdubbed on an album for him in California—he came to California. He tried to get me to Canada several times to do some stuff with him but I was always so busy. He called me to ask if I could come in and overdub on an album because they already cut the tracks and everything and they just wanted me and Ry Cooder to overdub on it. Ry Cooder is another good buddy of mine.
Your playing fit in well with Buck Owens’ sound.
Well, pretty good. Don Rich was a good friend of mine. Of course, Buck and I played with a guy from North Hollywood—Jimmy Schneider—and the steel guitar player Tom Bromley. Tom Bromley went to work with Buck. Yeah, I did a few sessions with ol’ Buck. Actually I also did a production for him on his son Buddy Allen.
So, of course in 1969 you began playing guitar for Elvis Presley. How did that come together?
Well, in ‘68 Elvis called me for the comeback special. That’s the one where he wore the black leather suit. I couldn’t do it because I was doing an album with Frank Sinatra with Jimmy Boyd producing. So I couldn’t do the Elvis comeback special on NBC. It was 1969 and he called me and we talked about three hours on the phone. He asked me if I’d be interested in putting a band together for him because he wanted to go play Vegas. He got tired of doing movies. He wanted to do some live shows.
Was that when the one at the International Hotel was recorded?
Yeah. At the International Hotel, that was the very first show we did in the August of ‘69. The first guy I hired, the piano player in ‘69, was Larry Muhoberac. He knew Ronnie Tutt from Dallas, Texas; they worked together. Ronnie wanted to move to L.A. So, when I set up the rehearsals and when Elvis came in we actually had Larry on piano, Ronnie Tutt on the drums, and me. Glen Hardin couldn’t make that one, but Jerry Scheff was on bass. Jerry and I worked together on a lot of record dates together. I always loved his playing. He always stuck in my mind when bass players’ names came up.
You’ve been in the middle of some serious musical endeavors, playing with very well-known artists and you’ve always maintained a sense of professional and personal balance. Do you think being able to go out and do your own thing between other artists’ sessions kept you from getting bogged down. For instance, like a musician who has been in the same band for years and feels trapped?
Well, it was always smooth for me. Elvis and I became real good friends. His music was great. He was a great entertainer and it was like doing my show. When we would go play Vegas for a month, and after we played for a month, I’d go back to my home in L.A. in Burbank and record sessions with all my clients and different artists. When we’d get through recording, I’m back on the road with Elvis. Then, also, during that time with Elvis I was also working with Emmylou Harris. We started back in ‘74, I think. But from 1969 up to 1977, I played on everything Elvis put out. I was on everything. Nine years with Elvis. It was a cooking band…
At one point, I heard somewhere you were so busy you began giving people Glen Campbell’s number for work.
Here’s the deal. I met Glen Campbell when he first came to California. I was playing a club out there with a guy who was a stand-in for Elvis. He was actually a friend of Elvis’, named Lance Legall. We had a blues band. When I wasn’t out working with Ricky Nelson I’d go play the blues clubs. Glen came to town and one night he came to the club and sat in and played. He sounded real good and everybody really liked him. So, Glen and I became real good friends. I played on his first record for Capitol Records when he got his record deal. Ricky Nelson didn’t want me to play on other recording sessions back in the early days when I was with him because he always said my sound was his sound and he didn’t want me to go out and play with other artists. So when I went and did the TV show that was kind of an exit for me to go out and do a lot of studio work. I gave Glen my recording sessions. I would tell my clients who called me to call Glen. Of course, I always played on Johnny Burnett records and Roger Miller—my old buddies.
You played on various occasions with Hoyt Axton and Jerry Lee Lewis…
Oh yeah, a lot of Hoyt Axton records. God, you name it. Unbelievable. A lot of Jerry Lee Lewis… “Rockin’ My Life Away”…
You’ve played with Carl Perkins…
Yeah, he’s a good friend of mine, Carl.
Talk about playing with Merle Haggard.
I played on a lot of Merle Haggard records. The first one I played on with Merle was “The Bottle Let Me Down.” He wrote a song and he loved that style of playing’ I played on Ricky Nelson records, the name of that record was “You Just Can’t Quit”. I did a guitar lick on it and it blew him away. So, he called me and said, ‘Man, you got to play on my records.’ I did “Working Man Blues.” “Mama Tried”…
Since Macon, Georgia, is just south of here, did you ever get to play with Duane Allman?
I never met Duane. They got real hot there for a while. I invited Dickey Betts up to the show. I hung out with him on his bus one night. He’s a great guy.
You played on Everly Brothers records.
JB: Yeah man, two or three albums. They’re good friends of mine. Phil Everly lived a few blocks around the corner from me in Burbank, California.
How many albums would you say you’ve played on?
Oh, it’s up in the thousands. It’s unbelievable. I probably got a record of it all. I used to keep up with it pretty good in L.A. doing studio work, but I kind of got out of it when I started traveling a lot.
When did you move from Louisiana to California? Your home base is in Louisiana these days, right?
I still have my home in Toluca Lake in Burbank—we always rent it out to nice people. We actually moved back here in 1988 or 1989, maybe ‘90.
I know there are so many, but what are some of your most vivid moments in your career?
Oh, there’s so many. I don’t know. Of course, some of the moments we talked about, but I did an album with Mama Cass. I played on Mamas and Papas records. The Beach Boys--going up to Brian Wilson’s house up in Bel Air, California and playing all weekend. The Monkees’ Mike Nesmith did a three-day recording at RCA and he wanted us to come and stay the whole weekend. He didn’t want us to go home. He said, ‘Stay here. We’ve got catered food—we’ve got everything you need here.’ We recorded for three days straight. Many, many great moments—especially with Elvis—like the satellite show (Aloha from Hawaii); millions of people saw that one. I’ve done some great projects with Johnny Cash. I cut all Michael Parks’ records with him. I played with Judy Collins, Buddy Emmons, Henry Mancini…
Charlie Rich…Del Shannon…Jimmie Dale Gilmore…
I saw Del Shannon two weeks before he committed suicide. He was a good buddy of mine. Danny Gatton, he’s another old buddy.
Let’s talk about the James Burton International guitar Festival which takes place at the end of March.
It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I’ve always worked with so many great artists and I never really had time for myself. I was cutting records at Capitol Records with folks like Wanda Jackson, Wynn Stewart…you name it. It gets mind boggling to talk about it. I can’t remember all of what I’ve played on. There’s just so many sessions. Every now and then I’ll talk to someone and they’ll mention stuff I played on that I forgot about, but I’ve always wanted to do my own show. The first one was in 2005.
That was the year you began the Foundation?
Yes, in 2005 we started, and we called it the James Burton International Guitar Festival. I realized that calling and inviting my friends to come like its ‘James & Friends’. I invited all these wonderful people—they’re all friends of mine. This is a perfect opportunity—I wanted to give something back to the kids because they’re going to continue our music. I thought it would be great to donate money to the kids for musical instruments, music theory and do a scholarship. The first show was great, it worked out so well. We did it on my birthday weekend of August 20-21. My birthday is the 21st that’s why we did it that weekend. That’s when I displayed my new signature guitar. I’ll have to send you one of these books, you’re gonna want one. A good friend of mine, Steven Seagal, was invited and he said, ‘Don’t take my name off the list.’ He was in Romania and couldn’t make it. He was doing a movie. He did a great DVD for me to play at the show, which I did, and it was great. That year we had Johnny A, a great guitar player out of Boston—great friend of mine. Jeff “Skunk” Baxter with the Doobie Brothers, Matthew & Gunnar Nelson, Jeff Cook with Alabama, Johnny Rivers, Johnny Hiland—great guitar player—lives around the Nashville area—a knock-out player. Greg Koch came, he works for Fender, he’s a great guitar player. He brought some good guys to play with--Roscoe and Jerry Donahue. We had Seymour Duncan…Sonny Landreth. This was the first part of the show. After a 15-20 minute intermission, then Eric Johnson and his band played, Doyle Dykes, Dr. John, Steve Cropper, Steve Wariner, Brad Paisley—it was a great line-up.
You are a guitar player that even guitar legends look up to for your tone & style…
Well, I appreciate that. The great thing is this show is James & Friends. We all love each other. It’s just a blessing from God. We’re all so close, like a big family.
What are some your latest musical activities besides this benefit. Have you appeared on any recent records?
I’ve been traveling over in Europe a lot. We do this ‘Elvis on the Big Screen’ show. It’s all Elvis live with the original band—singers, everything. We go to Europe a lot. We just did a tour in Australia. We all got monitors—Ronnie, our drummer, wears earphones. We all have count-offs for the intros. It’s a great show. It’s just like Elvis being there. I just got a call from a friend of mine who wants me to go back over there in November and December—my wife said no, but he already booked the shows. Man, I need a vacation (laughs)!
So, with the festival coming at the end of March, I’m sure you’re gearing up for that in a big way.
We’re very fortunate. We have some wonderful people on board and it’s a lot of work putting a show like this together. We have so many wonderful volunteers and we still get calls from people who want to do everything they can. We don’t make a dime from this. All the money goes to buy instruments for the kids. We just went to Shriner’s Hospital and put over twenty guitars in that hospital. My first show that we did in ‘05 we made enough money to furnish over 600 guitars to the schools for the kids and actually buy a music program. We’re looking to go to Saint Jude’s and now there’s a lot more—the other Shriner’s Hospital wants to talk about us doing some stuff with them.
Talk about the movie filmed at your bar.
Yeah, we gotta talk about that. We did a movie with Kevin Costner. Kevin came here to film The Guardian. After he filmed The Guardian, he stayed over in Shreveport and did another movie called Mr. Brooks. In The Guardian we actually used my club—The James Burton Rock & Roll Café—downtown. In the movie they called our place Maggie’s Hanger. When you see the movie and you see the front of Maggie’s Hanger—that’s my club. They covered up Elvis, Ricky and Roy Orbison, and made it into a Coast Guard looking place—with the ropes and helicopters…anything that had to do with the coast guard. It’s a great movie. You’ll see me onstage with Bonnie Bramlett—she’s such a great singer—and she played Maggie in the movie; she did some acting and sang a couple of songs and I played guitar with this band from Chicago.
Talk about your signature guitar series.
I’ve been with Fender since the ‘50s—we go back to ‘56-‘57. Leo Fender had been giving me guitars since then. Leo and I were real good friends. Me and Jimmy Bryant—a great guitar player—we’re probably the first two guys to play the Fender Telecaster. Jimmy was the first and I was the second. After CBS bought Fender and then it went back to the Fenders, when CBS got out of it, I had a great idea—I thought it would be great to have a signature guitar. I wanted to have my own James Burton telecaster, so I did, and I was playing a Paisley Pink one with Elvis—but I’d been talking to Fender for 20 years about doing a signature model. Well, when Dan Smith came to Fender when he left Yamaha, him and a guy named Roger Baumer, we started putting it together. We came up with the idea of what I wanted which was to do a three pick up telecaster with a paisley pattern. Not the pink paisley, but do my own design like the black & gold paisley design. We did a black and red paisley, and then I did one with a solid red and solid white pearl. Now, my newest guitar has flames on it with the paisley pattern—it’s a pretty hot one. So, anyway that was my idea to do the signature models. They make and sell them everyday. I did one in blue, kinda like a blue flame. The pink one, even though it wasn’t my signature guitar, became famous because I played it with Elvis. I played it with a lot of different artists. I’m really glad we did that.
How many guitars do you own?
Oh, god. I don’t know. I guess I should get a count. It’s a lot. I don’t really keep them at home. I keep them in music storage places. I only travel with one guitar and the most is two for a backup. I’m playing my black and red paisley now—the one with the flames—I’m playing that. It’s a three-pick up, five-way switch with an overdrive.
What’s been the main thread of solace throughout your career?
I think the interesting thing is being active. Just staying busy, working with so many different artists is great. It’s good for you.
What are your plans after this Foundation show?
I’m going to Sweden and Copenhagen to do some shows with a band over there, the Cadillac band and some friends of mine. We’ll do a few shows and I’ll come back and do some shows. The rest of the year is unbelievable—back and forth to Europe.
When will you announce this year’s line-up for the foundation show?
Probably in the next two weeks we’re going to make some announcements of all the artists coming. The dates are March 30, 31, and April 1. When you see the line-up, you’ll have to get down here for the show. Keep your fingers crossed, and say a prayer.
Thanks for taking the time to talk with us…
Hey, you’re welcome. It was my pleasure. You’ll enjoy all the talent coming to the show. Look everything over, and if you need anything just give me a call. When you come, bring your camera because you’ll want to get a picture of my statue and Elvis’ statue right next to one another…