By Arjan Deelen | 1999 for ElvisUnlimited
“Suzie Q’ was the song that put you on the map.
Yeah, I guess so. I recorded ‘Suzie Q’ when I was 15 years old. I wrote the music and Dale Hawkins wrote the lyrics. We recorded it in my hometown, Shreveport, Louisiana in a radiostation, KWKH. It was a good song.
A little different for a white boy back in those days! It was a unique little sound, the combination of drums, the guitar-lick and everything. It was pretty interesting.
Can you remember playing it with Elvis in the 70’s?
Yes, we were just sitting around jamming and he just jumped in and started singing it. That was probably in the studio in Nashville. Sometimes we’d be playing it on stage. I’d just be playing it a little bit and he’d start singing. Just jamming.
The first Elvis-connection is that you started recording demos for him with P.J. Proby.
Yeah, I met P.J. back in the late 50’s and we became real good friends. A lot of publishing companies would request P.J. to sing on the demos that they would send to Elvis. He was a very good singer. He used to go by the name of Jett Powers. He was a very strong singer. We played together quite a bit back then. I lost contact with him when he went to England, and never ran across him again. But we were good friends. I used to ride motorcycle a lot with him and Ricky Nelson, and Eddie Cochran would ride behind me, and Gene Vincent. We’d ride up and down Hollywood Sunset Boulevard, just having a great time.
It must be sad to realize that most of them are gone now?
Yeah, it is really. It’s really sad. They were so young. We lost so many fantastic entertainers. It’s kind of scary who might come along and maybe fill their shoes. The music industry has changed so much.
The first session work you did for Elvis were some overdubs for Viva Las Vegas.
Yes, Viva Las Vegas. I had a call from a good friend of mine, Tommy Tedesco, a guitarist. Tommy and I were talking and he said:” I’d like for you to do this guitar work.” Tommy was a great player and a great person, but he enjoyed playing mostly rhythm guitar rather than lead work. Then I had a phonecall from a contractor to confirm the date, so I went over to MGM and played on the soundtrack. It was great. Ann-Margret was a great dancer. You know, when you’re playing, you just watch the screen. She made some great moves, so we just really went for it!
It must have been difficult to concentrate.
Yeah, it was (laughs). But it was great, man. We had a great time doing that.
I’ve heard that you were asked to do the NBC Special in 1968.
Yes, the producer of the show, Steve Binder, the contractors and all of Elvis’ people tried to contact me to play on this thing, but I was in the studio doing a record with Frank Sinatra. So I was not available and I recommended a guy named Mike Deasy. Then later on, in 1969, Elvis called me. We talked for a long time. One of his opening lines was that he used to watch me play on Ricky’s TV shows, and on Shindig. He said that he had followed my career for a long time. We talked about putting a band together. When I first met him, it was like we had known eachother our whole lives, background, music and everything. It was great. We did a rehearsal, and there was a drummer that I really admired, Richie Cross. During the break, he came over to me and said:”I really appreciate your call, and keeping me in mind to do this. But I don’t think I want to do this. I don’t want to work to hard!” So Larry Muhoberac got Ronnie Tutt to do the gig, he played so good.
According to all accounts, Opening Night was very exciting.
Yes, it was. It was a very interesting night. Elvis was very nervous about opening night. Of course, he had been doing movies for nine years, and felt that he was out of touch with the public. He was scared to death. Every critic and celebrity in the world
was in the audience that night. Just before we went onstage, Elvis walked up to me backstage, and he said:” James, I’m so nervous. I don’t know if I can do this.” I said:” Elvis, don’t worry about it. All you gotta do is walk out there.” And he said:” I don’t know, man. I’m so nervous I could climb the walls.” But I was right. When he walked out on that stage, it was just unbelievable. The audience was so loud, it sounded like a freight-train. People were screaming and hollering. I don’t think we heard anything the whole first show! Since I’d last seen him on the Hayride, he’d really matured into a great showman. He just had a way with the audience, he had great communication with them. It was a very interesting situation.
The shows at the Houston Astrodome in Febuary 1970, must have been quite interesting as well.
Yeah, that was fantastic. It was really interesting how we were going to do this, because the place was so huge. God, there were so many people and they were so far away. And the sound. You’d hit a chord on your guitar, and four seconds later, it would come back to you!
The first time you recorded in a studio with Elvis was in June 1970, at Studio B in Nashville.
Yeah, that little studio. Fender sent me a bunch of guitars, and there was one that was sort of special. It was solid rosewood. It was very heavy, and I didn’t particularly acre for the sound of it. But I played it, and Elvis said:”Wow! That’s a beautiful guitar.” I handed it to him, and he said:” Whoa, that thing’s heavy!” Fender first wanted me to have it, but I said no. Then they offered it to Elvis, who said:” No, I have no use for it.” Then they tried to give it to Chip, but he wasn’t interested either. We had David Briggs, Jerry Carrigan, Chip Young, Charlie McCoy. Yeah, that was a great band. We had a great time.
It’s a shame that Elvis recorded some very substandard songs during that session. Was the publishing on songs discussed?
At one point he got a little disturbed, I think. A couple of publishers were arguing about who was gonna get the next song played, and Elvis finally said:” Hey you guys, just get outta here. I’m not recording any of your songs. Don’t come back in here, untill I tell you to.” Then we got down to business. He picked the songs, told Felton which ones he liked.
Do you like the 1970 documentary That’s the Way It Is?
They wanted to show the preparations for the show. You know, rehearsing and putting a song together. I enjoyed that film and thought that it was very interesting. It showed his joking side, kidding around, having fun, and being serious too.
That same year, you recorded your solo album: ‘The Guitar Sounds of James Burton’. What’s the story behind that?
Elvis had an eye infection, so he had to cancel. Felton and I had been talking about doing a record together, and we had an offer from A&M Records. We already had the musicians booked, we already had the studio time, but we weren’t prepared. Felton said:” Let’s do your record”, and I said:”What???? What are we gonna do?” I would have preffered to have had some time to write some new material and doing it in a different way, but it’s a good album.
In 1971, Elvis recorded Ricky Nelson’s ‘Fools Rush In’. Was that your idea?
Chip and I were playing it a little bit, and he wanted me to play the solo. So we started to play, and Elvis walked back in the room and started humming it, and singing it. Then he said:” Hey, get the guys in here. Let’s cut this.” He wanted it, the way we did it. It was very similar to the way I did it with Ricky. Another soong I got him to record was Bob Dylan’s ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Allright’. We were just jamming it, and then Elvis told them to start rolling the tapes. And do you know what song I was responsible for in Aloha? ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’. That was my fault. We were rehearsing, and I started playing it. Elvis said: “What’s that?”, and i said:”It’s just an old Hank Williams tune.” So Elovis started singing it, and Mary Pasetta, the producer of the show said:” I want that in the special!”
Did you socialize with Elvis?
My main aim with Elvis was music, but we had a great communication. We did talk a lot. He would tell us different stories, things that happened when he was in the Army and stuff. If he wanted to talk to me, any given time, he’d just pick up the phone and call me. But my main thing with Elvis was the music.
There seemed to be a lot of eye contact between the two of you on stage.
You had to watch him because he was a very good director. He might just decide to stop the song or something like that. That eye contact was very good. He sort of keyed off the guitar. He loved certain licks that I would play. If I would leave them out, he’d miss it. Musically, you had to know where he was at. You had to pay attention at all times. If you’d look away, you might lose your place in the show. It was very interesting because he never did the same thing twice.
I’ve read that the first Stax sessions in July 1973 were marred by problems.
There were some technical problems in the studio, and there was something with the sound in the studio that was bothering him. But I believe he had a difficult time.
Two months later, there was a session at his house in Palm Springs. Were you basically there to overdub?
Well, for some reason, Elvis decided he wanted to record some songs. It was a bit strange. He had the Gospel group out there, Voice. And I was there. He called me and wanted me to be there. They called RCA, and they came with a truck. So we recorded at the house. At that time, my brother from Shreveport was in L.A. to visit me. So my brother and I drove down to Palm Springs to spend the week. We’d just hang out for hours, and recorded whenever he felt like singing. We just had a great time, it was fun. It was a strange way of doing it, but that’s what he wanted to do. Kinda laid back. Elvis stayed in his pyjamas all day, all night, every day. We would eat at the house. It seems like we stayed there for days.
It’s been rumoured that there was a jamsession of Chuck Berry songs at the Stax sessions in December 1973.
Yeah, we did a lot of tunes like that to warm up. And then we’d record. That was a good session. I played two wah-wah solos on that little country song ‘You Asked Me To’. That was pretty interesting. Also played some wah-wah on that song that Red West wrote, ‘If You Talk In Your Sleep’. That ‘s a very unusual song.
During the opening show in August 1974, Elvis did a very interesting set, opening with ‘Big Boss Man’, and performing songs like ‘Down in the Alley’, Promised Land’, ‘My Baby Left Me’.
Yeah, he was just throwing in a lot of the jam tunes. Fun tunes that he enjoyed doing. But he went into extreme musical change at that time. He wasn’t really into any particular direction, so he was doing a lot of different stuff. Probably searching for something that he liked, fall into a different groove. He had gotten to a point where he wanted to go back to small rhythm section stuff, rather than having a lot of strings and a lot of horns. He really wanted to make a change. At one time he would actually be into doing, like you say, a lot of blues. ‘Big Boss Man’ and Steamroller Blues’, which he really loved. But sometimes he was also into Gospel and country.
Looking at photos of his last year, the deterioration is obvious. Was it clear to you at the time?
It wasn’t very clear to us actually. Elvis gained weight, but he loved food and he had that little Sounthern boy habit of eating Southern fried food. And he loved ice cream. Big balls of ice cream. Something I noticed is that he’d gain a lot of weight, and then he’d go on an extreme diet and lose a lot of weight real fast. But his death came as a great shock. I had no idea.
How did you hear the news?
We were on a plane, flying to Portland, Maine to play a show on August 17th. The band was flying down on August16th, and during the flight we were asked to return to Las Vegas. We all wondered why we were going back. I knew that Vernon had had some heart problems, and I wondered if something had happened to him. We had no idea why Elvis would cancel our tour. We landed in Pablo, Colorado to refuel. Marty Harrel, the trombone player, said he’d call Vegas to hear what was going on. Marty was coming back, came up to me and put his arm around me and said:”Elvis passed away.” Cold chills went over me, I just couldn’t believe it. I said:” Is this a joke?” “No, it’s for real,” he said. We had to walk back and tell the others. Boy it was a long flight back to Vegas. It was just an incredible sad time. An incredible loss for the entire world and music industry.
How do you look back on the years with him?
Oh, I miss him. I love his music, I loved him as a person. I will always think of him as one of the greatest entertainers of all time. He’ll be terribly missed.
It must be great doing Elvis – The Concert.
Yes. It really is. The beauty of it is that it’s very high class. If Elvis was here, I don’t think he would make any changes, and I think he would be very honoured that we’re doing this for him and his wonderful fans around the world. As long as the fans want it, and it’s financially able to take care of itself, I think it would be very good to continue.
James, I want to thank you for the interview.
Thank you. I enjoyed it very much