Elvis' Guitarist James Burton: 'I Went Professional When I Was 14' | Connecticut Public Radio
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Elvis' Guitarist James Burton: 'I Went Professional When I Was 14'

Sep 3, 2019
Originally published on September 4, 2019 2:31 pm
Copyright 2019 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Fifty years ago, Elvis Presley started performing in concert live on stage for the first time in eight years - eight years of making movies and records. The 1969 concert comeback was staged in the biggest showroom in Vegas - 2,000 seats - at the Las Vegas International Hotel, where he played two sold-out shows a night seven nights a week for four weeks. He was accompanied by an orchestra as well as a five-piece band, which was assembled by my guest, James Burton, who also backed Elvis on guitar. A new 11-CD set called "Elvis Live 1969" collects recordings from 11 of those Vegas shows.

James Burton continued to play with Elvis until Elvis' death in 1977. James Burton is famous in the music world for his work as a sideman. He was the guitarist on Dale Hawkins' 1957 hit "Susie Q" and wrote the song's famous guitar lick. Then he played with Ricky Nelson on most of his hit records and in the TV series "Ozzie And Harriet." Burton has played with many performers, including Frank Sinatra, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, Buffalo Springfield, Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. He recorded sessions with Phil Spector and Brian Wilson.

Let's start with a track from the new "Elvis Live 1969" box set. This song, "Suspicious Minds," became a number-one hit - Elvis's first in seven years - but he performed this version in Vegas before the single was released.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUSPICIOUS MINDS")

ELVIS PRESLEY: (Singing) We're caught in a trap. I can't walk out because I love you too much, baby. Why can't you see what you're doing to me when you don't believe a word I'm saying? We can't go on together with suspicious minds, and we can't build our dreams on suspicious minds. So if an old friend I know stops by to say hello...

GROSS: James Burton, welcome to FRESH AIR.

JAMES BURTON: Thank you, Terry. I'm honored to be here.

GROSS: So these 1969 Vegas concerts were recorded a year after his TV comeback special, and - but this was - the Vegas concerts were the first time he was, like, back onstage in front of a lot of people live. And he was nervous about getting onstage. I think he told you that he was afraid that he wasn't going to be able to do it. Is that right?

BURTON: Yeah, he - backstage, just before we went out on stage, he was very nervous. He came up to me, and he said, James, I don't know if I can walk out there. And I said, Elvis, you'll have no problem. Just when you come out onstage, man, just sing maybe three or four songs just to the band, you know? We'll just key off each other and forget the audience. And after he did that, he just kind of relaxed and loosened up, and he started talking to the audience.

But he was very nervous. He actually hadn't been onstage in nine years. He just did movies for nine years. And when he called me and asked me to put the band together in '69, he said that his favorite thing was to be onstage and sing to his live audience. And that's what he really missed most of all - is singing to the fans.

GROSS: Was there ever a moment where you thought he's really not going to make it; he is not going to be able to go onstage?

BURTON: No, not really. He was always wound up and ready to go. I mean, all of his performances were fantastic. You know, that suit he wore weighed, like, 5,000 pounds. It was the heaviest suit I've ever seen. I don't have a clue how he could jump around onstage in that suit.

GROSS: Well, let me describe this. It's a white jumpsuit, but it had, like, a zillion really large rivets on it, like...

BURTON: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Going down the side - both sides of the jumpsuit. And, like, instead of buttons, there were rivets - like, rivet buttons in the center. And then it's, like, a heavy white material with a big collar - not the huge collar that he later wore, but a pretty big collar nevertheless.

BURTON: It was so heavy, Terry. I got to tell you. I picked it up one day to move it off the couch, and I couldn't pick it up. It was so heavy. I really don't know how he could jump around like a little kid on stage wearing that suit.

GROSS: I read that he rehearsed with weights on his hands and feet so that he'd be...

BURTON: He would.

GROSS: Yeah.

BURTON: He would do that because, I guess, wearing those suits and everything, he had to get ready for it - jumping around onstage.

GROSS: And describe your pink paisley guitar that you got for these concerts.

BURTON: Oh, wow. That guitar - this was amazing. My friend that was - he was actually the vice president of Fender - called me. He said, I have a guitar here with your name on it. And I said, really? Well, send it to me. And he said, no, no. You have to come down and check it out. So I went down and had lunch with him that day, and he said, there's the guitar in the corner. So I went over and opened the case, and I said, no, no, no. That's too flashy, too bright for me.

But anyway, I took the guitar to Vegas with me. The first two weeks, I decided to only play my Telecaster that my mother and dad bought me and I played on thousands of records. And two weeks later, we had two weeks left in Vegas. And I said - Red West came to me, the Memphis Mafia guy. He came to me and he said, James, you've got to play that new guitar, man. So I was a little nervous about playing it. I figured, you know, it's a little too flashy. Elvis might say something onstage and, you know, might embarrass me.

But anyway, I played the guitar that night. We did two shows, and he never said anything. And after the second show, Elvis said, hey, James. I noticed you were playing a different guitar tonight. Man, it sounds great, and it looks great. And I said, yeah. I told him a story. I said, yeah, I was a little nervous about bringing it out onstage. I don't know what you might think about it. And he said, no, it looks great and it sounds great, so play it all you want to. So I continued playing it. It was great.

GROSS: So what was it like standing behind Elvis or to the side of Elvis onstage facing the audience, watching the audience, watching him? Because, like, you're onstage, but, like, the eyes are mostly going to be, like, fixed on Elvis, and you're taking in the whole spectacle.

BURTON: Yeah. You know, he loved guitar. He always keyed off guitar, and he'd always give me looks onstage. He'd always kind of follow me on guitar, and we had to watch him every second because he would change in middle of a song or something. We never knew what he was going to do, so we had to watch him every second. But it was amazing. He was - we couldn't get too close because he was moving so fast and kicking and - a little bit of karate there. We didn't want to get our head chopped off.

GROSS: So you kept playing with Elvis from '69 until his death, so you weren't put in a position to watch his health deteriorate. Do you think he understood that the pills he was taking were addictive and were really harming his health?

BURTON: Well, you know, I never saw him do anything or take anything. I know that sometimes, he would he would gain a little weight, and then he would say, man, I got to go back on my diet. I got to slow down here and lose this weight. I've seen him gain quite a bit of weight and then lose it real fast, which is not good. But I never saw him do anything or take anything. And all the time I worked with him, I never saw any of that.

GROSS: Let's talk about you and how you got started in music. You got your first guitar at age 14. Describe that first guitar that you had.

BURTON: Well, my first guitar actually was when I was 13. My mother and dad bought my first guitar. And I just - I wanted to play so bad. I had a friend in Louisiana that we kind of grew up together in school. And he was left-handed - I couldn't play his guitar. But he played. And when I got my first guitar, we sat down. And I'm self-taught. I taught myself to play, and my teacher was God. He was the greatest teacher in the world. He taught me how to play guitar. He gave me my direction in music.

And I grew up on country music, rhythm and blues, gospel. And it was just - my favorite music, country music. My favorite guitar player - my hero was Chet Atkins, Merle Travis and Les Paul, and I wanted to play like them, which I could. I could play a little bit like them. But I woke up one day and said, there's only one Chet, one Merle Travis and one Les Paul, so I have to do my own thing. So that's when I started working on it. And actually, when I started playing, I came up with a little style called chicken pickin', and - which a lot of guitar players like to play that now.

But my first guitar at the age of 13 - I went professional when I was 14. I played on "Louisiana Hayride" when I was 14 in the staff band behind all the great, great entertainers, like George Jones and Johnnie and Jack and Billy Walker - a lot of the country entertainers. And that was pretty much how I got my start. When I was 14, I wrote a little instrumental. And that - I was working with a blues band and the singer, Dale Hawkins, actually we recorded his littlest instrumental. And it became "Susie Q."

GROSS: Which became a big hit - so why don't we hear "Susie Q"? And this features James Burton on guitar and Dale Hawkins singing. And he wrote the lyric to this, too, right? It was like your lick and his lyric.

BURTON: Correct.

GROSS: OK. And other people have recorded this, as well, after the Dale Hawkins recording, which was so popular and influential. So here is my guest James Burton on guitar. "Susie Q."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUSIE Q")

DALE HAWKINS: (Singing) Susie Q - oh, Susie Q. Oh, Susie Q, how I love you, my Susie Q. I like the way you walk. I like the way you talk. I like the way you walk. I like the way you talk, my Susie Q.

GROSS: So that was "Susie Q" - Dale Hawkins with my guest James Burton on guitar. And James Burton wrote that famous guitar lick that you heard there. So you mentioned that you developed this chicken pickin' style. Something else that you did to have your own distinct sound is you replaced some of your guitar strings with banjo strings. What gave you the idea to do that?

BURTON: Well, you know, when I got my first Fender Telecaster my mother and dad bought me, the strings were very stiff. And I wanted to bend the strings, but I realized that I couldn't actually do it with those strings. They're too stiff. So I decided to experiment, try the banjo strings because banjo strings are lighter. And I wanted to try it to see if it would work.

And I put the first four strings - the first, second, third and fourth banjo strings on. And for the fifth and sixth string, I used a - for the A string, I used a normal D string from the guitar. And on the E string, I used a A string. So I just went down one. And by doing that, the four strings on the banjo, I realized the third string was actually unwound, and I liked it. It was different. And the sound of the guitar was just incredible. It played so much easier. You could play any style - 'cause I have a light touch. And it was - for me, it was great.

GROSS: Was it easier to bend the notes - to bend the string to bend the note?

BURTON: Oh, you could bend the string clear across the neck, yeah (laughter).

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is guitarist James Burton. He played with Elvis during the last eight years of Elvis' life, starting with Elvis' stage comeback in 1969 in Vegas. Eleven shows from that engagement have been released in a new box set called "Elvis Live 1969." We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is James Burton, a guitarist who's influenced many rock and country musicians and who's played with many iconic performers, including Elvis Presley, Sinatra, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard. He was in Ricky Nelson's band on the TV series "Ozzie And Harriet." He played on many Phil Spector records. He played with Elvis Presley from '69 until his death in '77, starting with Elvis' stage comeback in 1969 in Vegas. Eleven shows from that Vegas engagement have now been released in a box set called "Elvis Live 1969."

So you played on "Ozzie And Harriet" with Ricky Nelson. And "Ozzie And Harriet" was a sitcom in the '50s and '60s that featured Ozzie and Harriet Nelson, who had been big band singers. I think she was a big band singer, too, wasn't she?

BURTON: Yeah. She was a singer. Actually, Ozzie hired her to sing in his band.

GROSS: OK. So they were married, and they played husband and wife. And their two sons, David and Ricky, played their two sons. And Ricky was an excellent singer. And so when he became a teenager, the show often ended with him and his band playing, like, for a school dance, or the prom, or some party or something. And so it would be very exciting 'cause there weren't a lot of shows, particularly, like, sitcoms, that had a rock 'n' roller on performing on the show. And you were in the band. You were in Ricky Nelson's band on the show and in real life.

How did that change your life to be on this really incredibly popular TV show back in the days when there were basically three TV stations? So if you were a teenager, you were watching that show.

BURTON: That's correct. Before I went to work with Ricky, I met him. I was working with a guy named Bob Luman. And Bob Luman was a great singer, and we were in LA doing some rehearsals on some songs to record. So we were rehearsing a song called "My Gal Is Red Hot." And Ricky came in one day on business while we were rehearsing, wanting to know who the band was in the next room playing. And the next day, we got a telegram from Ricky to go to the General Service Studios where they do the TV show "Ozzie And Harriet."

It was amazing. We took our instruments, and we met Ozzie and Harriet, David, all the people on the TV show. And so Ozzie said, why don't you guys do a song for me? So we did. And Ricky got his guitar, and I had my guitar and the bass player. And we did "Mystery Train," some of the Elvis songs. Man, Ozzie said, wow, this is great. You guys want to do one on a TV show? And so that was the first introduction to doing the "Ozzie And Harriet" TV show. And...

GROSS: So it was Ozzie's idea? It was the father's idea for you to do that?

BURTON: Well, he wanted to put the song on the show. He said, this is great. Do you guys want to do this? But later on, we went back to Louisiana, my hometown, and Ozzie called me maybe two weeks later and asked me to come and join Ricky, be his lead guitar player. At my age, 16, I said, sure, I'd love to. I went out to California and joined Ricky, and they invited me to come stay in their home. So I became the third son.

GROSS: So I'm going to play the first song that you did with Ricky Nelson in which you played lead guitar. And this is "Believe What You Say." What are your memories of playing this for the first time?

BURTON: It was fun. I enjoyed the solo. I got a chance to stretch out a little bit and bend a lot of notes.

GROSS: Yeah. I enjoy the solo, too. So, (laughter), so let's hear "Believe What You Say." This is Ricky Nelson with my guest, James Burton, on guitar.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BELIEVE WHAT YOU SAY")

RICKY NELSON: (Singing) I believe what you say when you say you're going steady with nobody else but me. I believe what you say when you say you don't kiss nobody else but me. I believe, do believe, I believe, yeah, I believe, pretty baby, believe you're going steady with nobody else but me. Well, there's one thing, baby, that I want you to know. When you're rockin' with me, don't rock too slow. Move on in, get toe to toe. We're going to rock till we can't rock no more. I believe, do believe, I believe, yeah, I believe, pretty baby, believe you're going steady with nobody else but me.

Well, let's dig it, now.

BURTON: (Playing guitar).

NELSON: (Singing) Well, I believe what you say when you say you don't miss nobody else but me.

GROSS: You know, you've had such a big influence on guitar players. And I think part of that comes from being on "Ozzie And Harriet," which, like I said, like, all teenagers watched it at the time. Elvis watched it. Elvis told you he used to watch it. Were you aware of that at the time, that a lot of, like, up-and-coming guitar players, including Keith Richards, were watching "Ozzie And Harriet" and being influenced by what you were doing?

BURTON: Well, I found out later. But when Elvis called me and asked me to put the band together for a 1969 comeback and he said, you know, I watch the "Ozzie And Harriet" TV show, I watch Ricky sing and you play guitar - he said, it's my favorite show. I watch it every week. And I said, you got to be kidding. The king of rock 'n' roll watching me on TV, watching me play guitar? (Laughter). But he said he loved it. He watched it every week.

GROSS: My guest is guitarist James Burton. He's featured on the new 11-CD box set "Elvis Live 1969." After a break, we'll hear more of the interview. Ken Tucker will review the first solo album by Chuck Cleaver, one of the leaders of the band Wussy, and Justin Chang will review a new film comedy about a medical transport worker and his passengers. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELVIS PRESLEY SONG, "HEARTBREAK HOTEL")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with guitarist James Burton. He played with Elvis Presley from Elvis' 1969 comeback performances in Vegas until Elvis's death in 1977. Burton is featured on guitar on a new box set collecting performances from 11 of those 1969 shows in Vegas. It's called "Elvis Live 1969." Burton has played with many iconic performers, including Frank Sinatra, Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. Earlier, we were talking about how he played on most of Ricky Nelson's hits and was featured in Ricky Nelson's band on the TV series "The Adventures Of Ozzie And Harriet."

So I'm assuming that you left high school to become a professional musician because you moved to LA to be on "Ozzie And Harriet" when you were 16, but you were playing a teenager on this teenage show that revolved in part around Ricky being in high school. Was the kind of teenage life that was being depicted on "Ozzie And Harriet" really different from anything that you had experienced personally?

BURTON: It was different, all right. When I had to call to join Ricky, my plan was to maybe come back and finish school, except when I went out to work with Ricky, it got so busy for me. I didn't have a clue it was that much work in the world. I was so busy and doing everything with Ricky up till he - I don't know. He just - it was, like, eight and a half years. But I was doing what I wanted to do in life and play guitar, and to be able to make a living out of it was fantastic. But, you know, if you can do something you really love for a living, that's even better.

GROSS: I want to get to what you were doing in 1966. Among other things, you were featured playing guitar on a very famous, very wonderful record by Merle Haggard called "The Bottle Let Me Down." And, you know, Merle Haggard is one of the people who was considered to have originated the Bakersfield sound, a California country music sound that was influenced by rock as well as country. What do you think of as being your contribution to what's known as the Bakersfield sound? Or to put it another way, also, how would you describe the Bakersfield sound?

BURTON: Well, I played on probably almost all the artists in Bakersfield - Buck Owens to Merle Haggard to Bonnie Owens to Red Simpson. It was just a huge lineup of singers from that era. And Merle called me - I guess it was in '66 or '67 when we recorded. The first song I played on was "The Bottle Let Me Down." But the Merle Haggard thing, "The Bottle Let Me Down" - Merle was such a great singer, and I just loved playing on his records and playing on all his songs. I got a chance to play a little bit of chicken picking.

GROSS: Well, we're going to hear "The Bottle Let Me Down." And Ralph Mooney is featured on pedal steel, and there's some really nice interplay between you on guitar and him on pedal steel. Anything you want to say about that?

BURTON: I just love Ralph. I just love - I love the way he plays. He just - he's got it down. He's got that sound, and when he bends the notes, it's just perfect. What can I say? If I play steel guitar, it won't play just like him.

GROSS: OK, so here's Merle Haggard's "The Bottle Let Me Down," recorded in 1966 with my guest James Burton on guitar and Ralph Mooney on pedal steel guitar.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BOTTLE LET ME DOWN")

MERLE HAGGARD: (Singing) Each night I leave the bar room when it's over, not feeling any pain at closing time. But tonight, your memory found me much too sober; couldn't drink enough to keep you off my mind. Tonight, the bottle let me down and let your memory come around. The one true friend I thought I'd found - tonight, the bottle let me down. I've always had a bottle I could turn to.

GROSS: That was my guest James Burton on guitar with Ralph Mooney on pedal steel guitar and Merle Haggard singing Haggard's song "The Bottle Let Me Down." So you played in so many different worlds, and one of the worlds you played in was the world of Phil Spector, and everyone who has worked with Spector seems to have a story about how brilliant and how crazy he was. Do you have a story you can tell us?

BURTON: Well, you know, he was brilliant when it came to putting things together, but it was kind of crazy, too, because sometimes, we'd go into a session where he would have three organ players, maybe four piano players, two sets of drums, maybe three bass players and 15 guitar players. He was a little crazy, you know? And Sonny and Cher wanted to sing in the background, and Sonny wanted to play the tambourine. But he had some great ideas, and I couldn't imagine mixing a record with all that on it, you know?

GROSS: So what Phil Spector records do you remember playing on?

BURTON: Oh, boy. I don't have a clue right now. I don't have a clue. There's so much stuff. You know, I was doing, like, four sessions a day seven days a week, and it got pretty crazy because sometimes, you didn't even know who the artist was, you know? But I know I'd go from one session like The Monkees and, of course, The Beach Boys - Glen Campbell and I played on a lot of Beach Boys stuff. And I used to go up to Brian Wilson's house in Bel Air, and we would play all weekend. We cut a record, a whole album in one weekend, and he would have all the studio guys come up there and stay. He said, nobody goes home. Everybody stays up here. And we just played day and night, and it was crazy.

GROSS: Did you feel like a captive or did you enjoy that?

BURTON: Yeah. I felt like I was, you know, kidnapped. No, it was great. We had fun doing it, you know? If we got tired, he said, you go and take a nap, and when I need you, I'll call you.

GROSS: Do you read music?

BURTON: Not well enough to hurt my playing, really. I'm a very slow reader. I did an album with Henry Mancini, and the first thing I asked him on the phone - I said, Henry, if you're looking for somebody to read note-for-note what you write out, you need to call one of my friends. And he said, no, no, no, no. It's not that at all. I want your thing. But they wanted my sound. They wanted me for what I do. We create. That's what we like to do. We come up with new ideas and different ideas, and that's the best part about training your ear to be, you know, self-taught, training your ear to hear everything, you know?

GROSS: So a few years ago - I'm not sure when it was exactly; you can let me know - you were in an accident, and you broke both your ankles, and they were really bad breaks. What happened?

BURTON: Well, actually, I only broke one ankle on my left foot. That was no problem. The only thing is, when I was in the hospital - I don't do any drugs. I don't do anything to harm my body. But evidently, I got a little bit too much of morphine when they put me to sleep, and I had a bad reaction to it, and it put me in a coma for 12 days. But the good Lord had me in a holding pattern and saved my life.

GROSS: What was it like to come out of the coma? Do you remember your first memory?

BURTON: I don't remember anything. My wife just told me a few days after we got home what happened, but when I actually came out of the coma, there were doctors in my room asking me all kinds of questions because they didn't know where I would be. Some of the doctors said that I'd probably be a vegetable or something if - you know? But the good Lord had me in a holding pattern and brought me back.

GROSS: Thank goodness. So one of the things you've been doing in the past few years - you started a foundation to get guitars to schools and maybe churches.

BURTON: Yeah. You know, I've always wanted to do my own show, which - in 2005, we actually came up with the idea to do the show, invite all of my friends that I worked with and all my guitar player friends and singers as well. And by doing that, I told my wife - I said, there's something - God came to me, and there's something I needed to do. I wanted to do something for the kids in music, and I got to thinking I would like to donate guitars to the kids in school - you know, get music back in schools. But the government took it out years ago, and I still get letters from teachers and young kids thanking me for this program that we do.

GROSS: Yeah, that's great because probably, a lot of the kids couldn't afford guitars, and like you said, a lot of school music programs have been cut out. Your parents brought you your first guitar. Was that a financial hardship for them, or were they able to easily afford it?

BURTON: Well, it was probably a little hardship because at that time, the guitar was, like, $350, and, you know, that was a little tight. That was a little tough for my folks to do that. But when I saw my first guitar, that Fender Telecaster I wanted, mother took me down there, and she told my dad that night that when he came home from work that I wanted the guitar. And he said, well, take him down and get that. I want him to have it.

GROSS: Well, it was a good investment. Are you still playing?

BURTON: Every day, every chance I get, every chance I walk by my guitar.

GROSS: Well, James Burton, thank you so much for talking with us.

BURTON: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: James Burton is featured on guitar on the new box set "Elvis Live 1969," featuring 11 concerts from his 1969 Vegas comeback. Here's Burton featured on guitar on a song about Vegas with Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OOH LAS VEGAS")

GRAM PARSONS AND EMMYLOU HARRIS: (Singing) Ooh, Las Vegas ain't no place for a poor boy like me. Ooh, Las Vegas ain't no place for a poor boy like me. Every time I hit your crystal city, you know you're going to make a wreck out of me.

GRAM PARSONS: (Singing) Well, I spend all night with a dealer trying to get ahead, spent all day at the Holiday Inn trying to get out of bed.

PARSONS AND HARRIS: (Singing) Ooh, Las Vegas.

GROSS: After we take a short break, Ken Tucker will review an album he likes a lot - the first solo album by Chuck Cleaver, one of the leaders of the band Wussy. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF GRAM PARSONS AND EMMYLOU HARRIS SONG, "OOH LAS VEGAS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.