James Burton ranks as one of America’s finest guitarists. A true heavy in the business. He’s recorded with all the greats. This is an excerpt from Insured Beyond The Grave when I interviewed Burton in 2008. His resume exceeds all the standards of excellence. 

     Born in Shreveport, Louisiana, on August 21, 1939, guitarist-extraordinaire James Burton began playing music professionally at 14. He recorded the inimitable solo on Dale Hawkins’ hit “Suzie Q” at 15. By the time he was 16, Burton operated as the guitarist in Ricky Nelson’s band. Burton played in Nelson’s band for eight years. In 1964, he started the Shindogs—the houseband on the TV show Shindig—with Delaney Bramlett.

    To even seasoned guitar legends, James Burton’s sound remains unmistakable. Burton went on to record with over one thousand artists, some of which included, Herb Alpert, Buffalo Springfield, Hoyt Axton, J.J. Cale, Johnny Cash, Judy Collins, Nat King Cole, Willie Nelson, Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, the Everly Brothers, Elvis Presley, Merle Haggard, Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, Waylon Jennings, Jerry Lee Lewis, Billy Joe Shaver, Bobby Darin, Joni Mitchell, Phil Ochs, Buck Owens, Glen Campbell, George Jones, Dean Martin, Randy Newman, Sammy Davis, Jr., Frankie Lane, Burl Ives, Charlie Rich, Duane Eddy, Townes Van Zandt, Henry Mancini, Leon Russell, Hank Williams, Jr., John Denver, Ronnie Hawkins, Ry Cooder, Ronnie Milsap, Del Shannon, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and many others.

    The great southern music fan and Rolling Stones guitar legend Keith Richards inducted James Burton into the rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001. James Burton’s guitar style inspired the “chicken-pickin’” sound. Burton’s spirit and talent remains a graceful presence on any music scene.     

What was your first guitar? 

JB: Well, my first guitar was actually an acoustic guitar. I’m not even sure the name of it. Unfortunately, I don’t even have it. I didn’t keep my first guitar. It was something like a Regal. A Silvertone Regal. It was in that category. I’ve got some old pictures at home that I think I have with that guitar.

How old were you then?

JB: Oh, I started playing when I was 12 or 13. I got my acoustic when I was 12. 

At 15 you were already recording the solo on the Dale Hawkins hit, “Suzie Q”. 

JB: Yeah, I actually started playing when I was 13. My mother and dad bought me my first electric—Fender Telecaster—a blonde body, a beautiful, two-pickup, Telecaster. 

Do you still have that one? 

JB: Oh yeah. They bought me my first guitar and I started playing. I went professional when I was 14.

How did you land the Dale Hawkins gig? 

JB: Well, it was just a blessing from God I guess. It was like he just put it in my hands and said ‘Here, play.’ It was just incredible. When I was in school, I won a couple of talent contests. Then I went out to one talent contest that they had in Bossier City at a nightclub. So my dad drove me over there and walked up to the guy and said ‘My son plays guitar and he’s 13 years old. Is it okay if he plays the talent show?’ The guy said sure. I won first place that night. I won first place in three talent contests and then I went to cutting records when I was 13 and 14. I think I played on Merle Kilgore’s first record. Then when I recorded “Suzie Q” I was 15—around 1953 or 1954.

I’m sure “Suzie Q” opened a lot of doors for you. 

JB: It did. Well, when I was working with Dale Hawkins in a blues band we cut “Suzie Q” and a few others with him.

What were your early musical influences?

JB: Oh, you know—the old blues stuff like Chuck Berry, Lightnin’ Hopkins, B.B. King, Bo Diddley, Elmore James, John Lee Hooker…stuff like that. Country music was my first love. I learned from those old country albums. 

I interviewed Charlie Louvin two weeks ago. Did you listen to the Louvin Brothers’ music? 

JB: Yeah. I loved the Louvin Brothers music…Charlie and Ira…

Like the Louvin Brothers, I discovered your playing through the music of Gram Parsons. Could you talk about him a little bit? 

JB: Well, Gram…I played on a Byrds record. Gram was a singer in the Byrds. Gram and I were good friends. We used to go out to the Palomino Club in North Hollywood and jam. He’d always call, ‘Man, I’m going out tonight. I need you to come play guitar with me.’ We’d go out and play and he’d get up and sing. One day I got a phone call from Merle Haggard. Merle said, ‘Do you know this guy Gram Parsons?’ I said yeah I know Gram. He said, ‘Well, is he an okay country singer?’ I said yeah, he’s a good singer. Merle said would you be interested in co-producing a record with me on him? I said, Well, sure, I’ll do that. Then about two weeks went by and we never heard back from Merle, so one day Gram called me and said ‘James’—he jumped through the phone man—‘I got a deal. My manager Ed Tickner got me a deal on Warner Brothers.’ He said, ‘We’re going in the studio.’ So, we went into the studio and started cutting. We cut a couple of albums real fast. That’s where I met Emmylou. Then when Gram passed away then Ed Tickner took over Emmylou and got her the same deal with Warner Brothers.

Read the entire interview in Insured Beyond The Grave 

(James Burton photo credit by Gijsbert Hanekroot)