James Burton began working with John Denver in 1977. The first album they recorded was ‘I Want To Live’. Just before Elvis died, James was called to play on a John Denver television special. During the taping, John asked if James would consider going out on a European tour. He said he was working with Elvis, but if scheduling permitted, he would be glad to go. Shortly after Elvis’ death, James was contacted about the album.
During the sessions, James and John talked about a band. Glen D. Hardin and Jerry Scheff, two other Elvis Presley band members, joined the band too. James remained a member of the band until 1994. He rejoined John in 1995 for the Wildlife Concert. In the 16 years James worked with John, they recorded 12 albums and toured around the world.While touring with Denver, James carried several instruments, including backup dobros and a spare Telecaster. When John died, James was a speaker at his memorial service in Aspen, Colorado in 1997.
This excerpt was taken from an interview with drummer Jerry Carrigan, who also toured with Denver. It’s a great story!!
Gritz:Tell me about playing with James Burton.
Carrigan: One time we were out with John Denver. We were going on a long flight from Austin, Texas, to Montreal, Canada. And James Burton got his acoustic guitar out. Everybody else had gone to sleep. And he serenaded me for hours. He played the solo to Ricky Nelson’s “Hello Mary Lou.” I had that record when I was a kid and I wore the grooves out on his solo and I had to buy another record! And he played beautiful stuff and then funky stuff. For hours this went on. Another time with John Denver we were over in Italy. And it was cold as the dickens over there. And we’d play these outdoor concerts in these ruins of old castles and these outdoor amphitheaters. Man, we’d play in winter coats. I looked over one night and there was Glenn D. Hardin playing piano with gloves on but he just had the ends of his fingers cut out. It was freezing cold, man.
Gritz: How could James Burton play guitar in that cold?
Carrigan: James did it. Where there’s a will there’s a way and he has the will. This man never wanted to take a day off. We’d be out there working and John would say “Well, we’re going to go to Chicago and take 3-5 days off.” We were just going to play golf and enjoy Chicago. But James comes up and he says “Hey man, talk to Voodoo [John Denver's roadie] and get him to bring your snare and some brushes up to your room and we’ll get together and play.” I said “James, I’m tired man, I’ve been playing (on the road) for a week or ten days and I want to play a little golf.” And he said “Man, c’mon, let’s play.” He never, ever wanted to stop playing. And I really admired him for it, but doggonit, there was a time to stop. John wanted us to have this recreation out on the road which I thought was a great idea. But the recreation they chose was softball. They asked whether I wanted to play and I said “No man, I don’t have a glove, and I make a living with my hands, so I really don’t want to catch balls with my hands.” I said “John, I’m telling you, somebody’s going to get hurt at this game and we need to think about this.” He said “Aw, no, this is great, we’ll play softball.” And all this softball playing was going on when we were out in Denver. And I’m out playing golf and they’re playing softball. Well, a ball hit poor old James Burton on the side of the head. And he looked like a jack-o-lantern that night – the side of his head sticking out. But he never missed a lick -he was just struttin’ and playin’ with his head all swollen. And after that John changed the sport to golf!
In October of 2007, fans of the late singer remembered the 10th anniversary of John’s death in Aspen, Colorado. James was part of this as the lead guitarist at one of the John Denver anniversary music concerts.