By Ben Sandmel
Guitarist James Burton is among the most prolific, often-recorded and highly-respected stylists in the country-rock genre — and quite likely the only one to record with both Elvis Presley and Elvis Costello. A native of Dubberly, Louisiana, the precocious, prodigious Burton began performing in bars and nightclubs around Shreveport at age 14. Such visibility garnered him a prestigious chair in the house band of the Louisiana Hayride. This weekly live radio show reached a broad audience second only to that of Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry, and reigned as one of country music’s most popular and influential programs for nearly two decades. Burton played there with such greats as George Jones, and Johnny Horton, among others.
Burton’s style draws equally on country and rock, with a strong blues element — illustrating the limitations of attempting to separate music into categories. In 1958 he unleashed a riveting, primal, bluesy solo on Dale Hawkins’ hit “Suzie Q.” Many ensuing records also became hits due to Burton’s expertise. Moving to Los Angeles, he began playing with teen heart-throb Ricky Nelson, enlivening Nelson’s 1961 hits “Traveling Man” and “Hello, Mary Lou.” In his solos for Nelson, Burton perfected a unique style based based on single-note runs that combined speed and dexterity with a laid back, unhurried feel. This amplified approach to old-time country finger-picking is often referred to as “chicken pickin’.” Burton’s work with Nelson put him in great demand for session work, inspiring younger musicians to emulate him, with varying success. George Harrison of the Beatles, for example, told Guitar Player magazine, “Those early sounds that we did, I just hated them. They sounded so puny. I mean, listening to James Burton playing on the Rick Nelson records… and we would come up with our stuff that was so feeble.”
Ensconced in Los Angeles as an A-list guitarist, Burton sometimes played on six sessions a day. His improbably extensive and varied resumé includes work with country, rock, pop, gospel, jazz, and contemporary folk artists, not to mention cartoon soundtracks. A random sampling ranges from Dean Martin’s Lay Some Happiness On Me to 19 Elvis Presley albums; Elvis Costello’s Out of Our Idiot and Mighty Like A Rose; Nat King Cole’s I Don’t Want To Be Hurt Anymore; the Monkees’ Instant Replay; Judy Collins’ Who Knows Where The Time Goes; Cajun fiddler Doug Kershaw’s Spanish Moss, and Rockin’ My Life Away, The Palomino Club Recordings; Pat Boone’s Ready To Rock; Buffalo Springfield’s Buffalo Springfield Again; Emmylou Harris’ 1970s classics Elite Hotel, Pieces of the Sky, and Luxury Liner; seven albums with Jerry Lee Lewis; Joni Mitchell’s For The Roses; Rodney Crowell’s Ain’t Livin’ Long Like This (featuring the original version of “Leaving Louisiana In The Broad Daylight”); nine Merle Haggard albums; Spongebob Squarepants’ The Best Day Ever; Johnny 99 by Johnny Cash; Neil Young’s Lucky Thirteen; and, in 2013, Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell’s Old Yellow Moon.
Along with prolific studio work, Burton was highly sought for live performances. In 1965 he worked on the popular television show Shindig, assembling and leading the house band, The Shindogs. In 1969, while touring with Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley called Burton to assemble and lead the band for Presley’s acclaimed career comeback in Las Vegas. Never one to be star-struck, Burton recalled that with Presley “we just kicked back, relaxed, and enjoyed our time together.” In 1987, Burton again served as a bandleader to the stars on an HBO Special honoring Roy Orbison. He accompanied Orbison plus special guests as Tom Waits, Jackson Browne, and Bruce Springsteen.
James Burton has succeeded so…