Guitarist James Burton praises Elvis

By Tim Ryan (Starbulletin, Hawaii. Aug 2004)

The soft-spoken Louisiana guitar picker with a sugary drawl is visiting "my momma" in Shreveport as he's about to embark on another Elvis Presley world tour.

 

"I always come to stay with momma before I go on tour," says Rock 'n Roll Hall Fame guitar player James Burton on the phone.

"We're very close." Burton, who will perform Sunday night in the "Elvis -- The Concert" extravaganza at the Blaisdell Arena, played lead guitar for Ricky Nelson, Elvis Presley and a host of other legendary musicians. The concert reunites former Elvis band-mates live on stage with a state-of-the-art video projector system, complete with a singing Elvis.

In 1998, "Elvis -- The Concert" was designated a Guinness World Record holder as the first live tour headlined by a performer who is no longer living. (Presley died Aug. 16, 1997.)

The show's concept is to present an authentic as possible an Elvis Presley concert. Producers edited together a collection of Elvis' finest concert performances that exist on film and video and removed virtually all sound from the footage except for the man's vocal. Besides Burton, other original tour-mates of Elvis in the show include musical director and conductor Joe Guercio, Burton's mates in the Takin' Care of Business Band, pianist Glen D. Hardin, bassist Jerry Scheff and drummer Ronnie Tutt, and from backup vocal groups the Sweet Inspirations and the Stamps Quartet, Estelle Brown, Myrna Smith, Ed Enoch and Ed Hill.

Original principal orchestra members include Ron Feuer on keyboards and Walt Johnson on trumpet. BURTON, 65, got his first job at age 14 as a member of the house band on the popular radio show "Louisiana Hayride," which Elvis performed on early in his career.

It was on the radio show where Burton met Dale Hawkins, whose 1957 hit, "Suzie Q," was the first in a string of hits to feature the young Burton's guitar work. On a trip to Los Angeles, Burton was in a recording studio where Ricky Nelson was also working. The singer heard Burton's playing and stopped by to meet him. "We were both 16, so we had that and music in common," said Burton, who had hoped himself to be a singer.

Nelson introduced Burton to his father Ozzie, who invited the youngster to perform on "The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet" TV show. That gig led to a six-year stint, 1958 to '64, recording and touring in Nelson's band and several cameos on the TV show whenever Ricky's music was showcased.

"Yeah, when I started working with Ricky, his dad Ozzie wanted me to smile, so I always had this dumb look on my face and I haven't been able to break it," he said, laughing. "My momma was mad when I went to work with Ricky because she was worried about me all the way out in L.A.," he said. "I had just turned 17."

But the Nelsons stepped up to the plate and let Burton live in their home for two years. Anyone who saw either Nelson or Elvis perform in concert couldn't miss Burton.

He was always either standing to the left of Nelson or to the right of Elvis. Because of his brilliant guitar playing -- Burton perfected a style he calls "chicken pickin' " -- his skills were in demand, and has since played on countless recording sessions since he first played lead on that Hawkins' classic.

"Gosh, I was working for everybody at one time it seemed," he said. "I was a side musician for the Buffalo Springfield, Monkees, Elvis from 1969 until he died in 1977, Gram Parsons, Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins, John Denver, Buck Owens, Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard. "I've played for two Elvises, Presley and Costello," he said.

"I just recorded some songs with Keith Richards, who's a good friend. Keith was the one who inducted me in that Hall of Fame. "The recognition of getting into the Hall of Fame was surprising," Burton said. "I didn't know anything about it until my friend (producer) Andy Paley called me after hearing the news on television. The Hall of Fame called to congratulate me a little later. I felt like I won an Oscar or something." Burton played a major role in popularizing a twangy Telecaster electric guitar sound that remains an integral part of country music to this day.

"Elvis was a very sweet, nice man," Burton said. "He treated us like family, real family. He was always asking how we were doing, how our families were doing and if we needed anything, anything, he would take care of it and sometimes we had no idea he was doing it.

"Maybe he gave too much of himself to everyone. "Elvis touched people's lives all over the world. He sang with passion and he loved, just loved, pleasing his fans.

Interview: James Burton opens up to EIN

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