In rural Louisiana in the early 1950s, it was no small feat when a family scraping by to survive bought a new Fender Telecaster for their 13-year-old son, especially when that $280 had been set aside to buy a car so their father could stop thumbing a ride to work.
Guy and Lola Burton, however, recognized the genuine love and inherent appreciation for music exhibited by their son, James. So, they sacrificed. The fourth of their five children, it wasn’t long before James did right by them… and would continue to do so in a big, big way.
This year, the Burtons’ boy turns 75, and amongst guitar players, no name is more revered, no career so complete; his discography includes more than 350 albums, hundreds of singles, and a bevy of other recordings – live, video, etc. It rates as perhaps the most impressive in the industry when one considers quantity and quality.
He is also the proud that Fender has recognized him via a series of signature Telecasters first offered in 1991 and based on Burton’s workhorse ’53 Tele but with finishes that later paid homage to his ’68 Paisley Red model. First was the James Burton Standard Tele, with an alder body, six-saddle bridge and hot Texas Tele pickups, while the James Burton Telecaster (sometimes referenced as the Burton Upgrade) released in ’96 had a basswood body, ’60s U-shaped neck, three specially designed pickups, five-way Strat-o-Tele switching, gold-plated Fender/Schaller tuning machines with pearl or black-chrome buttons, gold hardware, and blue or red paisley flame finish on a black base. The Burton Artist Series Tele shared specs with the Upgrade, but had a gold-paisley finish on black. This summer, a version will launch with a finish that will represent the many gold and platinum records on which he has played.
Today, Burton is fantastically vital. He remains active, running a recording studio, lending guidance to the music-education-focused James Burton Foundation, and in his spare time he’s helping plan another guitar-festival fundraiser for the foundation while also developing plans to build a car museum in Shreveport, the town he has always called home.
“I can’t tell you what an honor and a pleasure and a blessing from God my career has been. He set me up with the right people,” Burton says, pondering it all. “I’m honored to have been with so many incredible entertainers.”
We recently caught up with him (no mean feat in itself!) to discuss some of the pivotal moments in his career.
How did music first hit your ears?
Well, my father played a little rhythm guitar and a little fiddle – nothing serious. I didn’t have a what you’d call a musical family; I always loved music, loved hearing the radio, and my mother said I’d run around the house with a broom, pretending I was playing guitar and singing.
Whose music first made you think, “Hey, I like that!”?
Hank Williams, George Jones, Ernest Tubbs – the early guys like that. I was raised on country, which back in the early days we called “hillbilly music.” Later, I got into rhythm and blues; I enjoyed both styles a lot.
Who were the first guitarists to catch your ear?
Chet Atkins, Les Paul, and Merle Travis were my guitar “bible.”
Your first guitars were acoustics, right?
My first was, yes. I believe it was a Gretsch, but I’m not really sure; it was very similar to a Stella. Those early brands didn’t offer a lot to choose from, but it was an off-brand acoustic. I probably got it as a Christmas gift.
How about your first electric?
My first electric was also a Gretsch, but, one day I walked past G&S Music and I saw this Fender Telecaster hanging in the window. Man, it really caught my eye! So, I went home and told my mother and dad about it. Dad said to mom, “Well, take him down and let him check it out.” And that was my first Telecaster, and it’s an amazing instrument.
Your parents bought it simply because they knew you’d appreciate it?
Yeah, because I loved music.
How long did it take before you were jamming with friends?
Well, I started playing professionally when I was 14, with Bob Luman in the staff band on “The Louisiana Hayride” with Floyd Cramer on piano and Jimmy Day, who played steel guitar. It was a great band and we backed a lot of great artists – George Jones, Johnny Horton, Billy Walker, Jimmy and Johnny, Johnny Mathis.
But you had also been playing in a local blues band, right?
I played in a R&B band that did the clubs in Shreveport with a guy named Dale Hawkins.
A name people may know for “Suzy Q.” How did that song come about?
In the clubs, I would play that melody lick quite a bit, and it became very popular – everybody loved to dance to it. Eventually, I got with Ronnie Lewis, who was playing drums, our stand-up bass player, and we worked it up, instrumentally – drums to start and set the tempo, then guitar with the pattern. When we decided to make a song out of it, we got with Dale, who wrote a lyric, and it became “Suzy Q.” We recorded it when I was 15 years old.
Your solo on the song has a fairly straight rock-and-roll feel.
Yeah. When I’m playing a melody, a lick, or whatever, I’m just playing what comes to mind, you know? When I got into rhythm and blues, I listened to Chuck Berry records and anything else that would help me in my learning. I never had lessons; when I’d put a record on, I’d tune my guitar and play along to it, but I never would play exactly what they were playing. I’d always add something, and I think that helped me create my style.
It wasn’t long before you ended up in Hollywood.
No. Bob Luman took the band to California to do music for movie when I was 16; it was called Carnival Rock. We also played shows all over California, and worked with everybody. We did Cliffie Stone’s show, we did “Town Hall Party,” “Cal’s Corral” – just about every show going at the time. One day, we were at Lew Chudd’s office at Imperial Records; Bob was signed to Imperial, and so was a young boy named Ricky Nelson. Anyway, we were rehearsing “My Gal Is Red Hot” when Ricky came in to talk business with Lew. He asked who was playing in the back room, so they introduced him to us. The next day, we had a telegram at the house we rented in Canoga Park. It was from Ricky, inviting us to General Service Studios, where they did “Ozzie and Harriet.” Ricky wanted me and our bass player, James Kirkland, who played upright bass, to bring our instruments. So we went, and Ricky introduced us to Ozzie, his mother, Harriet, and David, and all the gang on the show. Ricky asked us to play a bit for Ozzie, and he loved it. He said, “Would you guys want to do a couple songs on the TV show?” I said “Sure, why not?” Ricky was excited about it. After that, James Kirkland and I went back to Louisiana for the holidays, and I’d guess I was home maybe two weeks when Ozzie called, saying Ricky wanted me to be his guitar player. That was my career starting with Ricky Nelson. I was still 16.
A few years later, Johnny Cash helped you take the next step in your career.
Well, Ricky really didn’t want me to work with other artists, and I didn’t, up to about 1964, when I had a call from Johnny to do a TV show. I met with Ozzie Nelson and Ricky’s manager, and since Ricky was changing record labels and we had time off, we worked it out. So, I did this show with Johnny, playing slide on a Dobro, and it became “Shindig.” Its producer, Jack Goode, was a big fan. He said “Man, you gotta be on the show every week.” So, we did the pilot, and I became a regular with the Shindogs – Delaney Bramlett was the singer/bass player, Joey Cooper played rhythm guitar, Chuck Blackwell was on drums, and Glen Hardin played piano. That was my exit from Ricky’s band.
And not long after, you started doing studio work, thanks in part to Tommy Tedesco, right?
Yes, Tommy and I became really close friends. He was like my godfather in the music world – an incredible guy who took me under his wing. He called me to play so much stuff, and I’d call him to play stuff, too. We worked real closely. He was a great guy, a great entertainer.
One of those calls was for the Elvis Presley film Viva Las Vegas.
That’s an interesting story . Tommy called one day and said, “I’m doing this movie score at MGM, and I’m a rhythm guitar player. I want you to play the lead.” It happened to be Viva Las Vegas, and they showed a scene where Ann Margaret was dancing while we worked on the score. I was playing guitar and the producer said, “Hey, throw away that score. Just watch Ann, and when she gets to dancing, you do some hot licks.” (laughs) I said, “You got it!”
Many years later, Ann called me when she was asked to sing the theme song to The Flintstones Viva Rock Vegas. They had already cut the tracks, but she told them, “You’ve got to call James Burton to play guitar on this.” So I flew to L.A. and did, I think, seven tracks on that score.
You once did a studio date with Jimi Hendrix, right?
Yeah, Jimi was a studio musician playing with different artists before he became a star, and we did some stuff at Capital Records. I forget who the artist was – when you’re doing five sessions a day, seven days a week, sometimes you lose track; I was going from a Frank Sinatra date to a Beach Boys date or Jerry Lee Lewis to Merle Haggard. It got kinda crazy. But it sure was interesting to play all those things and using one guitar – the Telecaster – to do all of it.
Was it still the ’53?
Yes, sir, that’s what I played until we opened the Las Vegas show with Elvis.
And that was when Fender sent the ’68 Paisley Red Tele?
Yeah. Chuck Weiner called and said, “I have a guitar here with your name on it.” I said, “Can you send it to me at the studio,” and he said, “No, you gotta come have lunch with me and see this.” Chuck was vice president of Fender at that time, and when I walked into his office and opened the case, man, it jumped out at me! I said, “Wait a minute, that’s too fancy.” But he said, “You gotta check it out. It’s fantastic.”
You wanted to run it by Elvis, right?
Well, when we opened at the International Hotel, it took me two weeks to come up with a plan to play it onstage. I finally did, thinking, “I better be prepared, because there’s no telling what Elvis is going to say.” But, the guitar was incredible. Elvis didn’t say anything onstage, but between shows he sent one of the bodyguards down, and he had me go to Elvis’ dressing room. I thought, “Oh, no…” But I got to the dressing room and Elvis said, “Hey, I see you’re playing a different guitar.” I said, “Yeah, I was a little worried about that…” And he said, “No, man, it looks great and it sounds great.” He said, “Play it all you want.”
What’s the story behind Fender sending you one of the original rosewood-body Telecasters?
I was in Nashville, recording with Elvis, and Eddie Miller, who had started working as Fender’s rep in Nashville, sent over a bunch of guitars. So, I was switching from one to the next, and when I picked up the rosewood, boy it was heavy! Wow! I plugged it in and it was okay – it didn’t blow me away. I said, “Elvis, check this out.” And he picked it up and said the same thing. So, I called Eddie. He said, “Man, that guitar is yours.” It had a certificate that said, “Made especially for James Burton.” But, I didn’t take it. There were only three made – one for George Harrison, one for Eric Clapton, and one for me. When I recorded a part for [Harrison’s 1987 solo album] Cloud Nine at George’s house in Henry, England, his was hanging on the wall.
I love musical instruments, but if they don’t feel right, it doesn’t matter how much rosewood is in it, you know?
Being a studio player, you must have used other styles of electrics.
I’m a Tele guy, but if I need to play a Strat, that’s no problem – or a Gibson, a Yamaha, whatever. A studio player needs to play them all, but I like to stick to a Tele.
Its tone has usually worked for you?
Well, its tone has been a big part of what I’ve done. Early Teles, of course, had that thin, tinny sound like you hear on a lot of Buck Owens records. I played on a lot of Buck’s records and a lot of Merle Haggard records, and they had their own sound.
Speaking of that early country-guitar sound, you were also close friends with Jimmy Bryant…
Jimmy was a great friend and we worked together in studios, jammed, and played clubs. He was probably the first Tele player. Leo Fender was a great friend to both of us, and he would put guitars together, run out to the club where Jimmy and Speedy West were playing, run up to stage and say, “Jimmy! Try this! See what you think.” Leo was brilliant. He never stopped experimenting, and Jimmy helped him a lot.
You’re also credited with helping develop the “Bakersfield sound.” How did it happen?
That would go back to working with Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. Buck brought Merle to Capital Records, where he was signed by Ken Nelson. At the time, I was doing practically every session Ken recorded – a lot of stuff in the ’60s. I had trained my ear to play many styles, and had worked with so many artists that it was easy for me to go from one to the other and still be me, you know?
With Buck, I remember a session where we did “Open Up Your Heart.” Well, I got the call to play six-string bass, but after a couple of songs, Buck asked me, “Son, would you play guitar on this next song?” He wanted some chicken pickin’. I said, “If it’s okay with Don [Rich, Owens’ guitarist], I don’t mind.” So, I did the chicken pickin’ thing. Buck loved that stuff.
One record where you got to do some of that more recently was the Brad Paisley instrumental, “Cluster Pluck.” What’s your connection with him?
I had played on one of Brad’s early albums, then got a call that he was having all these guys play on that track (from the 2008 album, Play). He called and said, “James, you gotta come and play on this.” I had just got back from Europe, but I went to Nashville, walked in the studio, and his producer, Frank Rodgers, said, “Brad’s on his way. Let me play the track for you.” I heard all these guitar players and told Frank, “Man, you don’t have room for me on here!” There was so much stuff going on, you couldn’t imagine. Frank said, “No, no. We can’t mix it until you play!” And he put me in the first four bars – the opening. I asked him why, and he said, “Because you’re Brad’s biggest influence.”
Brad is an incredible player and a great guy. In 2005, he played our guitar festival here in Shreveport; we had a lot of great people here – Brad and his band, Johnny Rivers and Ricky Nelson’s boys, Gunnar and Matthew, Steve Cropper.
Before guitar strings were sold in lighter-gauge sets, you were experimenting with them.
Yeah, because the strings on a regular guitar back then were so stiff, so I used banjo strings; I used the first four from a guitar set, stepped down to use the fifth string for my D, and the sixth – the big E – for my A. The other two were banjo strings. It was a beautiful match, and boy, I could bend strings all over – and they stayed in tune! I could play any style of music and still get my tone. When I put those strings on, I had an unwound third and I said, “Wow, that’s different. That’s really a cool sound.” There was a little twang on it, and you could hear a lot of that on the early Ricky Nelson records.
Also, in the ’50s, I could get that out-of-phase sound on my Tele, which was different. When the Strat came out, they wound the pickups to get that sound, but the pickups are too close on the Strat; I like to use finger picks, and they always hit the pickup, which drives me crazy.
You’ve done many noteworthy sessions on resonator guitar, including with Elvis, the Beach Boys, Emmylou Harris, Merle Haggard… What attracted you to the instrument?
I’ve always loved playing slide and fingerstyle on a resonator, like I did on Merle Haggard’s records. I’ve used Dobros on so many records with different artists. As a matter of fact, when Johnny Cash called me to do “Shindig,” he wanted me to play slide Dobro. Mine were all in storage at the time – I had just come back from Europe – so Johnny came walking into the TV station dragging a 1948 Dobro on the concrete (laughs)! I said, “Oh, Johnny! Don’t do that, man.”
On Glen Campbell’s first album, Kentucky Means Paradise, I used a big-body Stella I’d bought from a steel-guitar player named Red Rhodes. I put a new nut on it to raise the strings. Glen liked it.
How did you begin working with John Denver?
John called me to do a TV show, and he had great artists lined up for it – Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell, Roger Miller, Mary Kaye – it was big. So I did it, and afterward, John thanked me for playing, shook my hand, and asked if I’d do an album with him, then a tour of Australia. I told him, “Well, if it’s okay with Elvis…” Unfortunately, Elvis passed away two months later and after I returned from his funeral, John called. The first album we did together was I Want to Live, and I worked with him almost 20 years before I got the tragic phone call from his family saying he had an accident in a plane. It was a terrible.
Did you play mostly electric guitar backing him?
I played everything – electric, acoustic, Dobro. John loved all of it.
What keeps you busy these days?
I’ve been so busy playing in Europe – 300 days out of the year. We do a lot of stuff. And, I have a studio here where I’m working on five albums. There’s just so much, and every day is different. It’s crazy. I think I’m busier now than when Elvis was kicking around the country!
And despite all you already have going on, you’ve started planning a museum?
Yeah, I love cars – all guitar players love cars! Me and Billy Gibbons! And we’re gonna have many guitars, all my friends are putting stuff in the museum. It’s gonna be different cars from different friends and I’ll put some of my cars in it.
What is the mission of the James Burton Foundation?
After the first guitar festival in 2005, we were able to get music back in schools with the kids. We went to different areas, like the Shriner’s Hospital and gave guitars to the young kids, to veterans, and on and on. We’re doing great work for the kids.
We purchased the building right across the street from the Municipal Auditorium, where I played when I was 14 years old, on one of only two streets in the world named after Elvis – there’s Elvis Presley Boulevard in Memphis and Elvis Presley Avenue here in Shreveport.
What’s the word on this year’s Guitar Festival?
Well, we’re still putting together the performances, and we’ll keep the event’s page updated on our website, james-burton.net.
This article originally appeared in VG September 2014 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.