2003 Interview

By Piers Beagley | August 21, 2003 for ElvisInformationNetwork

James it’s an honour to get to chat to you on this all important day as I believe it is your Birthday! I’d love to sing you “Happy Birthday” just like Elvis did.
Why, that would be lovely! It is very nice to talk to you. It’s my day off between recording sessions and you are right, today is still my Birthday!

I can’t wait to see you and the band perform again in Australia. How did it come about and what’s the connection with Mick Gerace?
Mick called me and said that he had an idea of doing some shows and would we be interested in performing with him. I assured him that I would not play with an Elvis impersonator but that I would be glad to play with someone who loved Elvis’ music and can actually sing. Someone who don’t look like him, dress like him or perform like him because Elvis was the only one!

The impersonators just don’t have it. But someone that can just be a normal performer and entertain and sing all those great songs is fine by me. I talked to Joe Esposito plus The Jordanaires and Darwin Lamm (Elvis International) and they all told me that Mick was a wonderful guy, a really nice man and a great singer and performer. They recommended him to me, saying just how much we would enjoy working with him. We’ll be playing the music that Elvis would appreciate, the way that only the TCB band can and it will be wonderful.

This time you won’t be constrained by the fixed format of the ‘Elvis: The Concert’ film – Does this mean that you can let rip, play a few more solos and we can hear more of James Burton’s great guitar work for a change?
I’ll be doing that and nowadays, even when we do ‘Elvis: The Concert’ I like to change the solos around a bit for interest. Of course I get some funny looks sometimes but it’s fun!

It must be hard because in that fixed format you don’t get enough space, as you must know that Elvis is about to start singing again?
That’s true, very true.

I love a quote from you where you said “To be a good guitar player you have to let your playing breathe and that it is often what you don’t play that makes a great guitar player.”
That is so correct. You don’t want to overproduce, that can be the worst thing. Perfect ‘simplicity’ is the real key. Don’t you hate to hear a great song so covered up with so much stuff and over-production that it just doesn’t make sense? It can really ruin something special.

When you look at footage of Elvis in concert you can see that he spontaneously changes songs around. He comes in early or cuts solos short. Wasn’t there a lot of pressure on you to make sure that it all sounded perfect and ‘rehearsed’?
Well, nothing was planned! You never knew what Elvis was going to do next. He might give you a whole solo or he might give you two or possibly cut you short, you never knew. You know the single we did ‘Promised Land’? If you listen to that, the first solo was actually supposed to be double–solo but Elvis came back in singing cutting it short. Then the second solo ended up being longer! Just spontaneous rock n’ roll!

What about when Elvis started singing songs too quick for you or sometimes held back at the start. It must have been really tricky?
Oh my God! When we do the ‘Elvis: The Concert’ show now, some of those songs are so fast, like ‘Hound Dog’. Some of those tunes are so incredibly fast that they just don’t make a lot of sense. But when you see it on film, that’s when it does make an impression. It’s a visual thing. Ronnie Tutt always laughs with me and says “Man, I’d never play any of these songs this fast!” However we do realise that it’s, like, 30 years later though! Can you believe it’s 26 years since his death already?

Thinking about that, isn’t it truly amazing for you to have the chance to continue Elvis’ legacy by still going out and doing these shows. That must be extraordinary.
That’s true, yeah. We were in Graceland last week and performed at Elvis’ Memphis club and we just had a wonderful time. Packed out every night!

Elvis had so many Number Ones but surely “The Wonder of You” must be the only Number 1 chart song where the lead guitarist gets a spoken credit! That perfect moment when Elvis says, “Play something James”!
I remember Elvis knocking on Glen D Hardin’s door one morning. Elvis is standing there and says “I want to do this new song. Glen can you write the arrangement for the band and for the orchestra and we’ll do it tomorrow night?” Glen D can’t believe it at such short notice. Well he got busy, wrote it out and the next day we really did record the Number 1, ‘The Wonder of You’! It’s a beautiful song. One of my favourites.

I think that lot of fans don’t realise how hard you were also working in those early 1970s with other important stars like Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris along with The Hot Band.
You’re right because there are a lot of fans who go back to the Ricky Nelson days but a lot of those fans miss out on that part of my history because I was doing just so much studio work. You know I was working with so many greats like Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Dean Martin, Ray Charles, Tom Jones.. the list goes forever! But a lot of fans just remember me mainly with Ricky and Elvis. Gram Parsons was, of course, very influential and also popular in the European market.

When I look at what you were doing in the seventies I can’t imagine how you managed to find time to do all those recordings you did as well as and touring regularly with Elvis and also his studio recordings. I also think I’m right in saying that you were the only TCB band member who never took a day off and was there for every Elvis show? You must have been “The Hardest Working man in Show business”!
That is correct, with Elvis I never had one night off! It was no time off and no vacations and just non-stop. For a while I was going from eight o’clock in the morning to about 4am the same night and this went on for months and months. I did 4 or 5 studio sessions every day and 7 days a week.

Then we would also go with Elvis twice a year to The Hilton to play Vegas. We would perform 4 weeks straight and we’d do 2 shows a night non-stop everyday for thirty days! Can you imagine Elvis’ voice holding up for that time? I mean most singers who go to Las Vegas get ‘Vegas throat’ because of the dry air and they can’t sing, while Elvis kept going doing 2 shows a night! You can watch those shows and see how hard he worked. It was incredible.

My God, those jumpsuits he wore weighed a ton! I couldn’t even pick one up! They gave me one to take to the plane or something one time and I said “You’ve got to be kidding, I can’t even pick this thing up!” How he managed to wear those suits and keep jumping all over the stage like he did, I just don’t know!

Elvis recorded Ricky Nelson’s “Fools Rush In.” Did you suggest that or other songs for him to record?
That was my fault! Well that song was one, also ‘Susie-Q’ and another song, remember ‘Early Morning Rain’? Well Chip Young and I were just sitting in Studio B and playing around with the melody and both on acoustic guitars. Elvis came in and said, “What is that?” and then he started humming the melody and started remembering the words. He says “Hey, let’s record that! Turn the machines on boys!” It was the same thing with ‘Fools Rush In.’ Just too bad I didn’t write 3 or 4 songs to get him to sing!

There is a tape of Elvis playing ‘Susie-Q’ on stage with you. What a shame he didn’t record it in the studio.
I actually remember us messing around with ‘Susie-Q’ in the studio but I don’t know whether they actually got any of it on tape. But I definitely remember playing it with Elvis and I think that we did eventually put it down.

With the new ‘Roustabout’ song being found there is always new stuff turning up so you never know and that would be a great find.
Oh yeah!

You worked on The Louisiana Hayride and Shreveport is where you grew up. Did you ever end up playing with Elvis on the Hayride?
I was playing in the Hayride staff band before meeting Bob Luman who I ended up working with. The host and M.C, Horace Logan, was managing Bob and he was of course the person who put Elvis on the Hayride. I don’t know if you know this but Elvis did ask Horace Logan if he would manage him at that time. However Horace says, “You know son, I’m into Hillbilly and Country music, I’m not into Rock n’ Roll!” What a missed opportunity! But he did love Elvis.

Unfortunately I never did play at the same time that Elvis was there. With the Bob Luman band we had a very similar format, played the same songs and in the same style, with a stand-up bass and me playing lead. So whenever we were on tour, Elvis would play The Hayride and vice-versa. So we never actually ran into each other.

I loved the story of your early days when you went motor-cycling with Ricky Nelson, Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent! What an amazing gang!
Ricky and I used to go motor-cycling all the time and one day we bumped into old Gene Vincent. Well I used to do shows and tours with Gene when I was working with Bob Luman and the Louisiana Hayride. So Ricky and I were riding around and we bumped into Gene and then also Eddie Cochran and they both said, “Hey, can we go riding with you guys?” Well, Eddie got on the bike behind me and Gene was on the bike with Ricky and we went riding all over Hollywood and Sunset Boulevard!

What a rock n’ roll team. That is unbelievable!
Oh, yeah, we had such a great time! I really miss Ricky too, you know. We were all like family. You know I lived at his Mum and Dad’s for the first couple of years? All these great friends are gone, it’s so sad.

Towards the end with Elvis do you think that because you were working with him all the time that it was hard for you to notice Elvis’ health getting worse?
As people, one never looks for the worse. With Elvis, well, we knew a couple of times that he was feeling bad. But he had a terrible thing with gaining weight and then he’d loose it real fast. You know I saw him lose 50 pounds in a week and I know that that is not good for you. He had such terrible food habits. He loved his food and his maid in Graceland would just be cooking all those bad things. For a while there he would eat a dozen eggs and a pound of bacon for breakfast every morning. Now that is not good! One day the doctor just woke up and said “Hey, no more, that’s it!”

So being so close you couldn’t really see the fast deterioration?
No we didn’t. The only thing I noticed was the extreme weight gain problems. I just couldn’t see how he could gain and lose weight so fast without doing his health some damage. Remember how good he looked when we did The Aloha Special? He looked incredible and tanned and healthy but just a few weeks after that and he was gaining weight again. But we were working so hard and it was non-stop two weeks on, 2 weeks off right to the very end.

You have won 7 Country Music Awards for your guitar playing and Emmylou Harris says of you, “James Burton is a true poet”. What is the piece of work that you a most proud of?
Gee, that’s a tough one for me! I love it all, I still love playing and playing guitar licks that knock me out. It’s so hard to pick one particular thing, although I was very honoured to be Elvis’ lead guitar player for nine years and I was very blessed to have played with Elvis. He was such a wonderful guy.

James, you are a true survivor with such an amazing career and you are still playing which is even better.
I am just honoured. God has blessed me and my music and I thank him everyday for that and for every day that I’m living.

Thank you so much for talking with us and make sure that you enjoy the rest of your birthday.
Thank you and I’m really looking forward to coming over to Australia again playing with the band and spending some time meeting people. Please tell all the fans to come and say “Hello” and we’ll try and arrange an autograph session for them all!