The Telecaster master

By Sergio Ariza

James Burton only needed three guitars and less than 18 years to have his name engraved in gold letters in the history of rock and roll. By that time, he had already written one of the most popular riffs of all time and had become the man who completed the poker of the great rockabilly guitarists along with Scotty Moore, Carl Perkins and Cliff Gallup. But that was just the beginning of a career that made him master of the Telecaster where he would leave his mark with his unique style on legendary recording with people like Ricky Nelson, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Costello, Roy Orbison and, of course, the King himself Elvis.    

James Burton was born August 21, 1939 in Shreveport, Louisiana, along the Texas border. A Southern town lost in the middle of nothing where a young fellow began to fall in love with the guitar by listening to the radio. His first heroes were the ones who left their mark on him, the blues of Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, and the country of Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell and his idle Chet Atkins. While still a teenager in a Memphis studio, a group of young white boys were going to mix the music of their heroes to give life to a new style of music, rock and roll. This was at Sun Studios, and those young boys were led by a young truck driver from Tupelo called Elvis Presley. That first style was known as rockabilly and among those who would perfect it were Elvis himself,  Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash. They would all end up calling Burton at some point in their career. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, back to Shreveport, Burton’s love for music led to his parents buying him his first guitar al 13, an acoustic Silvertone, and were soon impressed by his ability, so the Burton’s got him his first electric, a Rex, imitation of a Gretsch, but that would only last a few months. That was enough time for young James to fall in love with a guitar which he would remain faithful to his whole life, a Fender Telecaster. It was love at first sight.  He saw it hanging in a shop window, the only music shop in his town and decided ‘she’ had to be his, she was long and thin, red and from 1953. He went home and didn’t stop until he got his parents to buy it for him.  Now that he had found his guitar, that same year he would find his sound.


On October 16th 1954, Elvis Presley, along with Scotty Moore and Bill Black, played a fiery performance on the Louisiana Hayride, the most important radio and later TV show in Louisiana, which coincidentally was recorded in Shreveport. Burton was there, and it was a revelation to him, just as it would shortly after be for most youngsters in USA and later all over the world, which was seduced by rock and roll fever. One of those young fellows was Bob Luman, a country singer who turned to rockabilly and made Burton his righthand man, another was Dale Hawkins who together with Burton would record one of the most important songs in rock history. Despite not getting any type of credit for their work the trademark riff of Suzie Q was Burton’s doing on his ‘53 Telecaster. It came out as a combination of Atkins’ style and a more blues flavour. Later Hawkins would write the lyrics and melody and they recorded it at the beginning of 1957, some time later the Stones and the Creedence would fall under their spell. But it would be his singles, together with Luman that would turn him into a star. Behind the magnificent Red Cadillac And A Black Moustache they would offer Luman a part in a movie called Carnival rock. Burton went to California with him and there they took the opportunity to record My gal is red hot. While they were doing that, another young fellow in love with rock and roll was listening and became fascinated with the guitarist. That young man was Ricky Nelson, a teenage star with three top ten hits under his belt who was looking for young players to modernise his sound. Lumen couldn’t match Nelson’s offer and Burton’s became his right hand man. So much so that after accepting  the job, Burton moved in with Ricky and his parents for two years.  Ricky’s parents had a television show at the time and Ricky and James used to end it with a musical performance.

However, in the studio Burton had to fight against the prejudices of the old school. Up until then, Nelson’s lead guitarist had been the renowned country guitarist Joe Maphis, so in his first session in December ‘57, which produced Waitin’ In School and Stood Up, Burton was only in charge of the rhythm guitar. But that was about to change quickly, Burton kept improving his technique and came up with an innovation that would greatly affect his style, replacing the first four strings with banjo strings and tuning the other two differently, which made it easier to bend the strings that way.  The result would come soon enough, at the beginning of 1958 Nelson recorded Believe What You Say, with Burton as the lead guitarist for the first time. That song was all they needed to show that rockabilly had found its third great singer guitar duo, behind those of Elvis and Scotty Moore, and Gene Vincent and Cliff Gallup.  His next recording, Poor Little Fool, was Nelson’s first number one hit, with Elvis in the army he was the new face of rock and roll, though for many his main weapon was his guitarist. No wonder Keith Richards would later admit “I didn’t buy Ricky Nelson’s records, I bought James Burton’s records”.

Among  the most outstanding songs of their collaboration are Lonesome Town (with Burton on acoustic), Travelin' Man, Hello, Mary Lou, It's Up to You and Fools rush in, but by 1964 with the explosion of ‘Beatlemania’ Nelson’s career began to fade.  Burton had an exclusive contract with him but seeing as the gigs were slowing down, he began a prosperous career as a session guitarist, becoming, in very little time, one of the most wanted guitarists, mingling with legendary members of the Wrecking Crew such as Hal Blaine and Glen Campbell. His big chance came up when Johnny Cash called him to see if he would accompany him in a new television show called Shindig!, he wanted him to play the dobro, an instrument he was also an expert at besides the ’steel guitar’. The show producer was a great fan of Burton’s work with Nelson, so he asked him to stay with the show’s band as lead guitarist, which would become known as the Shindogs, one of the most prestigious studio bands. Enhanced by the programme’s popularity, where he had the opportunity to play with more of his idols such as Muddy Waters, Ray Charles, Howlin' Wolf and Chuck Berry, Burton became one of the most sought after session players, taking part in sessions with artists like The Everly Brothers, The Monkees, Nancy Sinatra and hundreds more at a pace of some 4 to 6 daily sessions. Among the best songs are A child’s claim to fame by Buffalo Springfield, where he adds a marvellous dobro phrasing  and Someday Soon by Judy Collins, where his Telecaster interacts to perfection with Buddy Emmons’ pedal steel.

If there is something to be highlighted in this period, however, is his approach to country music alongside the creators of the ‘Bakersfield sound’, Buck Owens and, especially, Merle Haggard. Burton’s Telecaster can be considered a vital part of this sound that reacted against the sweet melodic sounds of Nashville.  His famous ‘licks’ with his ‘chicken pickin’ style are what stand out on songs such as  Open Up your Heart by Owens and signature hits of Haggard’s career like The Lonesome Fugitive, Workin' Man Blues or the immortal Mama tried. In that same year, 1968,  Burton said no to a King and a future Nobel Prize winner in Literature. In very little time Burton rejected to go on tour with Bob Dylan and declined to appear on a special on the return of Elvis Presley because he was recording with Frank Sinatra. He never had another opportunity with Dylan but the King did not take no for an answer a second time.

After his successful return to television Elvis decided to get back on stage and made James Burton the front man to his new band the TCB Band.  He couldn’t say no to that, and on July 31st 1969 he was beside the King in his first concert since 1957. Elvis was extremely nervous but Burton gave him some good advice: “all you gotta do is get out there”. He was right, that man was born to be onstage and his return was a complete success from the beginning with Blue Suede Shoes' to the end  with Can't Help Falling in Love. Elvis was still the King and Burton was his best squire until his death. He never missed a concert and with him he recorded classics like The wonder of you (his favourite), Burning love, Patch it up and Promised land. And although he didn’t play with Dylan, he got Elvis to record a splendid cover of Don't Think Twice it's Alright. He was playing with elvis when he started using his Paisley Pink Telecaster, his most renowned guitar.

But Burton’s career didn’t end with Elvis, he also had time to record the two solo records of one of the most important country rock artists, Gram Parsons. They had met on a recording of Byrds and Burton didn't hesitate to cooperate with him on the legendary GP and Grievous angel, where you can see Parson’s enormous satisfaction in having a legendary guitarist play with him and being able to call him by name. Although Parson’s records did not take off commercially, over time, boosted by Emmylou Harris’ success - who was a member of the band as well as the one in charge of promoting his music- they did become a key to his career. Her solo career would be brilliant and she did not blink an eye in having Burton as bandleader for Hot Band on records like Pieces of the Sky  and Elite Hotel. For live shows Harris would look for openings in Elvis’ dates so that he could get Burton to play with him, but when he had to choose, Burton was loyal to Elvis.

After Elvis’ death, his career did not fade in the least, he became a member of John Denver's band as well as Jerry Lee Lewis’, he played with another Elvis (Costello), in one of his classic 80’s numbers King of America and in 1987, together with the rest of Elvis’ TCB Band, was one of Roy Orbison’s guests on his special A black & white night. On that special, there were people such as Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, K.D. Kang and Bruce Springsteen, alongside Orbison. But, as Springsteen pointed out, it was a double pleasure “it’s not everyday you get to sing with Roy Orbison and play the guitar with James Burton”.

The Official James Burton Website 
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