Written by Johnny Wessler
I’ve been asked, “Who is the most famous person you’ve met?” I’ve met and had my picture taken with George Jones, Kevin Costner, Demi Moore and Pam Tillis to name a few. I even met Donald Trump when he brought the Miss USA pageant to Shreveport and once locked eyes and shared a smile with Yoko Ono in New York. You’re probably familiar with all those names, but I have to say, “The most famous person I’ve met is Dubberly, Louisiana’s favorite son, James Burton!
James is a musician. Not just an ordinary musician, but one who has reached the pinnacle of success. Some people may not recognize his name or his face. But virtually everyone who has listened to music, in the last six decades, has heard by him.
When Burton was young, his family moved 30 miles west from Dubberly to Shreveport. When he was a young teenager, he asked his dad to buy him a guitar he saw in the window of a local music store. Little did anyone know at that time, music would open up the world to James.
Within a few years, he was good enough to enter a talent contest open to all ages. James was around 14 and won! The host recognized the prodigy and asked him if he’d like to be in his band.
It was this contact that introduced young James to The Louisiana Hayride where he became a staff guitarist. He performed with many of the guest artists, including George Jones, Linda Brannon, Bob Luman and David Houston to name a few.
James was asked to do some local recording jobs during this time. He recorded some at RAM Records with Mira Smith and at the KWKH studios with Bob Sullivan as engineer. Dale Hawkins wrote the lyrics and James wrote the music for a song called, ‘Susie Q’. That song, and its iconic signature opening lick, has become one of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 songs that shaped Rock and Roll!
Burton’s talent didn’t escape the notice of the Hayride management. Horace Logan, the producer of the Louisiana Hayride, quit his job and took 17-year-old James Burton, along with David Houston, Bob Luman and James Kirkland to Los Angeles, California to make the second* ever Rock and Roll movie, ‘Carnival Rock’. (*the first Rock and Roll Movie was Bill Haley’s ‘Rock Around the Clock’) James guitar work shines in this movie. You can find clips from the movie on YouTube.
Carnival Rock was filmed in the same studio where the popular television series, ‘The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet’ was being filmed. Ricky Nelson, the heartthrob son of Ozzie and Harriet, wanted to form a band and after hearing James, decided he had found his guitar player. Since James was only 17, Ricky’s parents had to convince James’ parents to let him stay in Los Angeles. So, they let James live with them and have a guest role on their tv show.
Ricky Nelson’s music developed around James’ style, which has been described as country-rock or rockabilly. James traveled and performed on most of Nelson’s songs for the next few years.
Many aspiring guitar players have been influenced by James during this time. Jimmy Page, guitarist for Led Zeppelin said, “That’s when I started… I used to listen to Ricky Nelson records and pinch the James Burton licks and learn them note for note perfect.” Keith Richards, the guitarist for The Rolling Stones, who formally introduced James into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame said it perfectly. “I didn’t by Ricky Nelson records. I bought James Burton Records that Ricky Nelson happened to be singing on.”
During the induction, Richards showed everyone that he still carries a picture of James Burton in his wallet. Many other guitarists like Brian May of the band ‘Queen’, Pete Townsend of band ‘The Who’ and Vince Gill all say James was one of the biggest influences on their careers. James is famous to the famous!
In 1965, James started working on a television program called, ‘Shindig!’ This exposure got the telephone ringing and in short order, James was the most sought-after studio musician in L. A. He recorded over 400 albums. If you ever listen to The Beach Boys, Johnny Mathis, Barbara Streisand, The Monkees, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Mamas and The Papas, Judy Collins, Glen Campbell, Merle Haggard or Johnny Rivers, you were listening to James’ guitar!
It was during this time he got a call from Elvis Presley, who asked James to be in his comeback television special. James was in the middle of a recording session for Frank Sinatra and had to turn the offer down. However, the next year, Elvis asked Burton to organize the TCB band for his Las Vegas show. It became an iconic part of Elvis’ live shows where he would say, “Play it, James,” leading in to one of James’ solos! James played with Elvis until Presley’s untimely death in 1977.
John Denver asked James to play on an upcoming European tour. It turned into a collaboration that lasted the next 16 years where they recorded 12 albums and toured the world. Denver died in an airplane crash in 1997 and James spoke at his memorial service.
Burton recorded and toured with Elvis Costello intermittently for about a decade. And, in 1988 he was a prominent part of the acclaimed Cinemax special, ‘Roy Orbison and Friends, A Black and White Night’.
In 1990, Burton moved back to Shreveport. It wasn’t long before he noticed that schools were putting less and less emphasis on music education. This troubled him, so he formed The James Burton Foundation. Their mission is to “support music education for those in need through guitar donations and music instruction to schools, hospitals and community service organizations.”
The foundation has put on a dozen, or so guitar concert fundraisers. Some of the biggest names in the entertainment industry have come to Shreveport. People like Brad Paisley, Kix Brooks, Junior Brown, Steve Cropper, Doyle Dykes, Rick Derringer, Emmylou Harris, Chris Isaak, Dr. John, Sonny Landreth, Albert Lee, Jim Messina, Gunnar Nelson, Steven Segal, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Ricky Skaggs, Steve Wariner, John Goodman and many, many more have unselfishly donated their talents to support James’ efforts.
The foundation has raised money to buy and give-away well over 1,000 guitars to students and veterans. You can learn more by going to, JamesBurtonFoundation.org.
If this wasn’t enough to justify James Burton’s fame, let me share a couple of side notes.
James is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, The Country Music Hall of Fame, The Musicians Hall of Fame, The Louisiana Hall of Fame and The Red River District Walk of Stars.
He was a member of the famous “Wrecking Crew”.
He was part of a collaboration that won a Grammy Award for Best Country Instrumental Performance.
Rolling Stone Magazine has honored him as one of the most influential guitar players of all time – He is ranked in the top 20!
He is known as “The Master of the Telecaster.”
He invented a style of guitar playing called ‘Chickin’ Pickin’.
He was the first one to put banjo strings on a guitar, allowing the player to dramatically change tones by bending the strings.
He has won honors for his dobro work.
James Burton still owns every guitar he bought.
Fender Guitar Company honored James as the first person to have a signature guitar manufactured for him.
He appeared in Ricky Nelson’s ‘Traveling Man’ video, which has been called the first music video.
Burton still travels extensively for appearances around the world. A few years ago, I was in Memphis for ‘Elvis Week’. I was standing right next to James at Sun Records. The place isn’t that big and we were facing at least 150 people wanting to get close to James. It was the closest I’ve been to seeing what it is like to be famous. It isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I understand why celebrities become reclusive.
People from all over the world come to take their picture with the statue honoring James that stands on Elvis Presley Ave. in front of Shreveport’s Municipal Auditorium. The statue faces his Foundation headquarters, located right across the street!
If you’re lucky, you can get into the building and walk the stage where James’ career began. So many careers began on The Louisiana Hayride, it became known as The Cradle of the Stars.
James Burton was born in Dubberly, Louisiana in 1939. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone more famous. And a personal note – James Burton is one of the nicest and most humble people you’ll ever meet. James and his wife, Louise, are proud conservative Christians.
As of this writing, they are in Nashville putting the final touches on, “James Burton and Friends,” the sold-out show they recorded last November. It will star James Burton and feature a few of his friends like, Steve Cropper, John Carter Cash, Sammy Hagar, Johnny Owens, Albert Lee, Joe Walsh, Marty Haggard, Jason Scheff, Chris Whitehall, Alex, Roy, Jr, and Wesley Orbison, Micky Dolenz, The Imperials, Brian May and Paul Shaffer along with more surprise guests!
If you ask someone famous, “Who’s the most famous person you know?’ Don’t be surprised when they say, James Burton, that guitar player from Dubberly, Louisiana!
Johnny Wessler offers historic music tours and presentations of Northwest Louisiana. For more information contact him at: Johnny.Wessler@gmail.com or 318-393-3274