James Burton & Ricky Nelson
Uncle Bill Story #231
May 27, 2002 - By "Uncle Bill" - Bill0666@aol.com
The recent mentions of James Burton and Ricky Nelson cause Uncle Bill to
dwell deep in the past for yet another great moment in Rock & Roll. At least
from my perspective.
It was early July in 1961. I was home in Columbus, Ohio from the service,
desperately looking for a job and a band. Things were really tough.
I hadn't seen a real rock and roll show since 57 and I needed a shot of good
old American rock & roll real bad.
The ads came out for Ricky Nelson to appear at what we called "Dead Bird
Stadium" on Mound Street in Columbus. It was a place where the Columbus Red
Birds baseball team played. They weren't very good, and neither was the
stadium. Built during the depression, it resembled an old prison from the
outside more than a baseball park. I was excited. I had two of Nelsons latest
albums and Loved the guitar work by James Burton. So I rushed down to Heatons
Music store and purchased a ticket. Since all my buddies were either married,
moved away or in the service; I was going alone.
The night of the concert it decided to rain. I didn't worry much because most
of the seats were under a large roof, and sheltered from the elements.
However, because I was so early to get a seat, my seat was in the box seats
between third and home plate. Not under the roof.
I find my seat. It's raining off and on. I discover that I'm surrounded by
thousands of "teenyboppers," Remember them? Mostly young girls. At 21, I'm
the oldest there by eight years at least.
Now I'm miserable, wet, feeling way out of place and thinking very seriously
about leaving. The rain stops for a while.
There was a stage set up with a big canopy over it covering the pitchers
mound. One of the interesting things about this show was that it was sponsored by
Coke Cola. The very first sponsored tour I had attended.
The show starts. Like the Elvis shows I had seen, the preliminary acts looked
like the Ed Sullivan Show. Dog act, magician and a female singer who I
believe was Cathy Carr, of "Ivory Tower" Fame. Not 100% sure about this but I
think I read it the next day in the reviews.
We get through the first half; Intermission; I gotta pee but there's a line
three miles long at both mens rooms. So now I'm wet, out of place and I gotta
pee. Not in the greatest mood for Ricky Nelson.
They clear the small stage of the previous entertainers stuff and began to
assemble Nelsons bands things. I see Ritchie Frost come out to help set up
his drums, Joe Osborne saunters out carrying the first Fender Jazz base with
gold hardware I had ever seen. The piano player came out, "I think it was
Glen Garth" followed closely by James Burton. Burton had a bright Red custom
painted Fender Telecaster with a chrome pick guard and a maple neck. I
watched him closely as he plugged in to what appeared to be a Fender twin
reverb amp sitting on a bandmaster bottom.
It was fun just listing to him tune.
About twenty minutes later, lights go off. A local DJ gets up and mumbles
some gibberish about not storming the stage and introduces Nelson, who climes
out of one of the dugouts and slowly walks to the stage. He's wearing a
lavender sports coat and carrying a plain Martin guitar.
It should be noted that "Traveling Man" was nearly number one in the country,
and "Hello Mary Lou" was also charting as well. Nelson was a hot act.
The teenyboppers were on their chairs, screaming, screeching throwing all
kinds of stuff on to the field.
I was huddled in the corner of my box with my head down on the rail trying to
look disinterested. I mean, I was an old man at 21, and to be there was....
It takes forever for Nelson to get to the stage. The band hasn't played a
He stands there adjusting the microphone and gleaning more screams out of the
near frantic girls. Looks over his shoulder at Burton and nods his head.
Click, click, click, click. I could hear Frost do the down beat on his
It's "Hello Mary Lou." Now I raise up from the rail. I loved this song...It
sounded great and you can her everything real good. Nelson comes out of the
second chorus and steps back, Burton steps up and just torn into the lead for
"Mary Lou." The entire volume of the band went up about five notches. Frost
was pounding away on his ride cymbals and James Burton was like a man
possessed. The spotlight kept hitting the chrome pick guard and light
reflected everywhere. It was surreal..Now I'm on my chair, and I'm not
screaming, I am in total awe of what I just heard.
Through out the evening, Burton kept me mesmerized by the complete elegance
of his total mastery of his guitar. Whether it was the simple solo from
"Traveling Man,'" or the blazing rip from "Believe what you say," he was just
unbelievable. And so was that rest of the band. They were tight, and played
all of Nelsons hits with excitement and freshness. Even "I'm Walkin" rocked
hard under their care...
I left there with many lessons learned. From then on, in every band I had,
when it came time for a guitar solo, the crescendo of the band went up to
accent the lead. It always worked.
Many years later I stood in a massive crowd at John Mellencamps "Lonesome
Jubilee" tour, and watched his magnificent band with the great Kenny Aronoff
on drums plow into the lead of "Paper in Fire." The volume of the band shot
up with a thunderous back beat that brought twenty-six thousand people on to
their seats, and I thought about that rainy, miserable night in 1961, and
James Burton, and Ritchie Frost, and teenyboppers, and a completely stunned
"young" Uncle Bill...
God I love Rock & Roll ...
Good-bye Heart: in NY
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