James Burton

Posted March 31, 2004
           While in Hollywood with Luman, Ricky Nelson heard them rehearse and shortly after that, James got a telegram, asking him and bass player James Kirkland to meet Ricky Nelson. They were offered to be on the Ozzie and Harriet show as Nelson's backing band. Both agreed to do it, and before Burton knew it, he was living with the Nelson's. Ozzie and Harriet had invited him to stay at their home. Burton lived there for about 2 years, before finding his own place.
           During his time with Ricky, James performed at Town Hall Party together with Bob Luman. Their live recording of 'My Baby Walks All Over Me' and 'Milk Cow Blues' can be found on the 'Rockin' At Town Hall' album. Burton's first recording with Nelson was "Waiting in School" / "Stood Up". Joe Maphis played lead and James played rhythm. After this, Burton took over from Maphis and played on every record until 1967. "Believe What You Say" was Burton's first record with Nelson, on which he played lead.
           Burton style of playing has always been very distinct. He uses a straight pick and a fingerpick on his middle finger. On this record, James replaced his first 4 strings with banjo strings and moved the A and D string up to D and E. He later had them gauged.
           While working with Nelson, Burton also found time to record with Glen Campbell. Burton played dobro on Campbell's 1963 album "Big Bluegrass Special". This is probably the first album on which Burton played dobro. While taking a break from a session with Nelson, Burton and Joe Osborn (Nelson's bass player after James Kirkland left) recorded 3 instrumental songs. "Fireball Mail"/"Daisy Mae"/"Bimbo". The songs were released as on the Fabor label under the name "Jim and Joe". Also recorded in 1963 was Burton's solo single "Swamp Surfer"/"Everybody Listen's to the Dobro". It was released under the name of Jimmy Dobro.
           Still working with Nelson, Burton also found time to record with artists like Dean Martin, Bobby Darin and The Everly Brothers. Burton was under contract with Ricky Nelson, so he couldn't do much outside work. But because of his work with Ricky on songs like "Hello Mary Lou" and "Travelin' Man", Burton was an increasingly in-demand guitar player. In '65, Burton got a call from Johnny Cash to play dobro on a TV pilot for a new musical show called "Shindig. Nelson wasn't too happy about the fact that Burton would leave him, but after a while, Nelson's manager gave Burton the go-ahead.
           The television exposure served as a catalyst for James' rising session demand. Calls came in from all sectors of the music field. Burton would be doing 4 to 6 sessions a day and sometimes up to 25 sessions a week! He does regret that he never kept a log of all the sessions he did, and since record jackets from the 60's rarely gave credit to sessionmen, his work is mostly undocumented. "I was busy 24 hours a day, seven days a week," said Burton. "Sometimes I felt like a walking zombie, but all the different styles kept the music interesting."
           Burton was called to play on a session with Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, in Bakersfield, California. Burton helped creating the 'Bakersfield sound' while playing with them. On those sessions, he also met pedal steel player Ralph Mooney, with whom he would record his first solo album in 1969. In 1968, James was nominated for the Country Music Award for Best Lead Guitar, but it would take 10 years and 7 nominations before Burton finally won the award for Best Guitar Player.
           James was asked to feature on the special 'Elvis', better know as the '68 Comeback Special, but at the time, he was working with Frank Sinatra and therefore was unavailable. But when Elvis Presley called him in '69 to put up a band for his Las Vegas engagement, he was there. It was a very though decision to make, since his studio career was very busy and very lucrative. Burton had already turned down an offer by Bob Dylan to go on tour. Sessions were usually booked three months in advance, so Presley gave Burton a few months to get the band together. Burton would remain with Elvis until Elvis' untimely death in 1977.

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