James Burton interview
James Burton, Elvis' favourite guitarist, talks with EIN
lead guitarist James Burton & the TCB Band toured Australia
in December 2003.
kindly agreed to talk to EIN about the visit and his
EIN – James it’s an honour to get to chat to you on this all important
day as I believe it is your Birthday! I’d love to sing you “Happy
Birthday” just like Elvis did.
James Burton – Why, that would be lovely! It is very nice to talk to you.
It’s my day off between recording sessions and you are right,
today is still my Birthday!
EIN – I can’t wait to see you & the band perform again in Australia.
How did it come about and what’s the connection with Mick
J.B – Mick called me and said that he had an idea of doing some
shows and would we be interested in performing with him. I
assured him that I would not play with an Elvis impersonator
but that I would be glad to play with someone who loved Elvis’
music and can actually sing. Someone who don’t look like him,
dress like him or perform like him because Elvis was the only
impersonators just don’t have it. But someone that can just
be a normal performer and entertain and sing all those great
songs is fine by me. I talked to Joe Esposito plus The Jordanaires
& Darwin Lamm (Elvis International) and they all told me that
Mick was a wonderful guy, a really nice man and a great singer
& performer. They recommended him to me, saying just how much
we would enjoy working with him. We’ll be playing the music
that Elvis would appreciate, the way that only the TCB band
can and it will be wonderful.
EIN – This time you won’t be constrained by the fixed format of
the ‘Elvis: The Concert’ film – Does this mean that you can
let rip, play a few more solos and we can hear more of James
Burton’s great guitar work for a change?
J.B – I’ll be doing that and nowadays, even when we do ‘Elvis:
The Concert’ I like to change the solos around a bit for interest.
Of course I get some funny looks sometimes but it’s fun!
EIN – It must be hard because in that fixed format you don’t get
enough space, as you must know that Elvis is about to start
J.B – That’s true, very true.
EIN – I love a quote from you where you said “To be a good guitar player you have to let your playing breathe and that it is often what you don’t play that makes a great guitar player.”
J.B – That is so correct. You don’t want to overproduce, that can be the worst thing. Perfect ‘simplicity’ is the real key. Don’t you hate to hear a great song so covered up with so much stuff and over-production that it just doesn’t make sense? It can really ruin something special.
EIN – When you look at footage of Elvis in concert you can see
that he spontaneously changes songs around. He comes in early
or cuts solos short. Wasn’t there a lot of pressure on you
to make sure that it all sounded perfect & ‘rehearsed’?
J.B – Well, nothing was planned! You never knew what Elvis was
going to do next. He might give you a whole solo or he might
give you two or possibly cut you short, you never knew. You
know the single we did ‘Promised Land’? If you listen to that,
the first solo was actually supposed to be double–solo but
Elvis came back in singing cutting it short. Then the second
solo ended up being longer! Just spontaneous rock n’ roll!
EIN – What about when Elvis started singing songs too quick for
you or sometimes held back at the start. It must have been
J.B – Oh my God! When we do the ‘Elvis: The Concert’ show now,
some of those songs are so fast, like ‘Hound Dog’. Some of
those tunes are so incredibly fast that they just don’t make
a lot of sense. But when you see it on film, that’s when it
does make an impression. It’s a visual thing. Ronnie Tutt
always laughs with me & says “Man, I’d never play any of these
songs this fast!” However we do realise that it’s, like, 30
years later though! Can you believe it’s 26 years since his
EIN – Thinking about that, isn’t it truly amazing for you to have
the chance to continue Elvis’ legacy by still going out and
doing these shows. That must be extraordinary.
J.B – That’s true, yeah. We were in Graceland last week and performed
at Elvis’ Memphis club and we just had a wonderful time. Packed
out every night!
EIN – Elvis had so many Number Ones but surely “The Wonder of
You” must be the only Number 1 chart song where the lead guitarist
gets a spoken credit! That perfect moment when Elvis says,
“Play something James”!
J.B – I remember Elvis knocking on Glen D Hardin’s door one morning.
Elvis is standing there & says “I want to do this new song.
Glen can you write the arrangement for the band & for the
orchestra and we’ll do it tomorrow night?” Glen D can’t believe
it at such short notice. Well he got busy, wrote it out and
the next day we really did record the Number 1, ‘The Wonder
of You’! It’s a beautiful song. One of my favourites.
EIN – I think that lot of fans don’t realise how hard you were
also working in those early 1970s with other important stars
like Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris along with The Hot Band.
||J.B – You’re right because there are a lot of fans who go
back to the Ricky Nelson days but a lot of those fans
miss out on that part of my history because I was doing
just so much studio work. You know I was working with
so many greats like Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Dean
Martin, Ray Charles, Tom Jones.. the list goes forever!
But a lot of fans just remember me mainly with Ricky & Elvis. Gram Parsons was, of course, very influential and
also popular in the European market.
EIN – When I look at what you were doing in the seventies I can’t
imagine how you managed to find time to do all those recordings
you did as well as and touring regularly with Elvis & also
his studio recordings. I also think I’m right in saying that
you were the only TCB band member who never took a day off
and was there for every Elvis show? You must have been “The
Hardest Working man in Show business”!
J.B – That is correct, with Elvis I never had one night off! It
was no time off and no vacations and just non-stop. For a
while I was going from eight o’clock in the morning to about
4am the same night and this went on for months and months.
I did 4 or 5 studio sessions every day and 7 days a week.
we would also go with Elvis twice a year to The Hilton to
play Vegas. We would perform 4 weeks straight and we’d do
2 shows a night non-stop everyday for thirty days! Can you
imagine Elvis’ voice holding up for that time? I mean most
singers who go to Las Vegas get ‘Vegas throat’ because of
the dry air and they can’t sing, while Elvis kept going doing
2 shows a night! You can watch those shows and see how hard
he worked. It was incredible.
God, those jumpsuits he wore weighed a ton! I couldn’t even
pick one up! They gave me one to take to the plane or something
one time and I said “You’ve got to be kidding, I can’t even
pick this thing up!” How he managed to wear those suits and
keep jumping all over the stage like he did, I just don’t
EIN – Elvis recorded Ricky Nelson’s “Fools Rush In.” Did you suggest
that or other songs for him to record?
J.B – That was my fault! Well that song was one, also ‘Susie-Q’
and another song, remember ‘Early Morning Rain’? Well Chip
Young and I were just sitting in Studio B and playing around
with the melody and both on acoustic guitars. Elvis came in
and said, “What is that?” and then he started humming the
melody and started remembering the words. He says ”Hey, let’s
record that! Turn the machines on boys!” It was the same thing
with ‘Fools Rush In.’ Just too bad I didn’t write 3 or 4 songs
to get him to sing!
EIN – There is a tape of Elvis playing ‘Susie-Q’ on stage with
you. What a shame he didn’t record it in the studio.
J.B – I actually remember us messing around with ‘Susie-Q’ in
the studio but I don’t know whether they actually got any
of it on tape. But I definitely remember playing it with Elvis
and I think that we did eventually put it down.
EIN – With the new ‘Roustabout’ song being found there is always
new stuff turning up so you never know and that would be a
J.B – Oh yeah!
EIN – You worked on The Louisiana Hayride and Shreveport is where
you grew up. Did you ever end up playing with Elvis on the
J.B – I was playing in the Hayride staff band before meeting Bob
Luman who I ended up working with. The host & M.C, Horace
Logan, was managing Bob and he was of course the person who
put Elvis on the Hayride. I don’t know if you know this but
Elvis did ask Horace Logan if he would manage him at that
time. However Horace says, “You know son, I’m into Hillbilly
& Country music, I’m not into Rock n’ Roll!” What a missed
opportunity! But he did love Elvis.
I never did play at the same time that Elvis was there. With
the Bob Luman band we had a very similar format, played the
same songs and in the same style, with a stand-up bass and
me playing lead. So whenever we were on tour, Elvis would
play The Hayride & vice-versa. So we never actually ran into
EIN – I loved the story of your early days when you went motor-cycling
with Ricky Nelson, Eddie Cochran & Gene Vincent! What an amazing
J.B – Ricky & I used to go motor-cycling all the time and
one day we bumped into old Gene Vincent. Well I used to do
shows & tours with Gene when I was working with Bob Luman
& the Louisiana Hayride. So Ricky & I were riding around and
we bumped into Gene and then also Eddie Cochran and they both
said, “Hey, can we go riding with you guys?” Well, Eddie got
on the bike behind me and Gene was on the bike with Ricky
and we went riding all over Hollywood & Sunset Boulevard!
EIN – What a rock n’ roll team. That is unbelievable!
J.B – Oh, yeah, we had such a great time! I really miss Ricky too,
you know. We were all like family. You know I lived at his Mum
& Dad’s for the first couple of years? All these great friends
are gone, it’s so sad.
|EIN – Towards the end with Elvis do you think that because
you were working with him all the time that it was hard
for you to notice Elvis’ health getting worse?
J.B – As people, one never looks for the worse. With Elvis, well,
we knew a couple of times that he was feeling bad. But he had
a terrible thing with gaining weight and then he’d loose it
real fast. You know I saw him lose 50 pounds in a week and I
know that that is not good for you. He had such terrible food
habits. He loved his food and his maid in Graceland would just
be cooking all those bad things. For a while there he would
eat a dozen eggs and a pound of bacon for breakfast every morning.
Now that is not good! One day the doctor just woke up & said
“Hey, no more, that’s it!”
EIN – So being so close you couldn’t really see the fast deterioration?
J.B – No we didn’t. The only thing I noticed was the extreme weight
gain problems. I just couldn’t see how he could gain & lose
weight so fast without doing his health some damage. Remember
how good he looked when we did The Aloha Special? He looked
incredible & tanned & healthy but just a few weeks after that
and he was gaining weight again. But we were working so hard
and it was non-stop two weeks on, 2 weeks off right to the
- You have won 7 Country Music Awards for your guitar playing
and Emmylou Harris says of you, “James Burton is a true poet”.
What is the piece of work that you a most proud of?
J.B – Gee, that’s a tough one for me! I love it all, I still love
playing & playing guitar licks that knock me out. It’s so
hard to pick one particular thing, although I was very honoured
to be Elvis’ lead guitar player for nine years and I was very
blessed to have played with Elvis. He was such a wonderful
EIN – James, you are a true survivor with such an amazing career
and you are still playing which is even better.
J.B – I am just honoured. God has blessed me and my music and
I thank him everyday for that and for every day that I’m living.
EIN – Thank you so much for talking with us and make sure that
you enjoy the rest of your birthday.
J.B – Thank you & I’m really looking forward to coming over to
Australia again playing with the band and spending some time
meeting people. Please tell all the fans to come and say “Hello”
and we’ll try and arrange an autograph session for them all!
Burton was interviewed by Piers
Beagley, August 21st 2003.
*** EIN copyright 2003
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