Ricky Nelson


In 1957, when James was in Hollywood working with Bob Luman, Ricky Nelson heard them rehearse and knew that was the sound he was looking for. Ricky stayed there, listening for three hours! Shortly afterwards, James got a call from Ozzie Nelson, Rick’s father, offering him a chance to work for Rick full-time. James and bass player James Kirkland joined Ricky’s backing group and immediately began appearing on TV in the popular “Ozzie and Harriet Show”. The long and fruitful partnership lasted untill 1966, when James moved into session work.

When James arrived in Los Angeles to begin work with Ricky, Ricky met him at the airport and told him that he was expected at the Nelsons home for dinner. After the meal Ozzie and Harriet invited James to stay at their home. He accepted and lived with them for two years.

The first session James did with Ricky produced “Stood Up/ Waiting in School”. At the time, Joe Maphis was playing lead and James was playing rhythm. By March 1958, Maphis had been replaced with James Burton. “Believe What You Say” was the first Ricky Nelson record with James playing lead. The song is still considered to be one of Burton’s finest. In May, 1961, “Hello, Mary Lou/Traveling Man” was released, knocking Roy Orbison’s “Running Scared” off of the number one position. It was Rick’s last number one hit.


James’ popularity kept growing and the exposure from the Ozzie and Harriet show resulted in James becoming more and more in demand as a session player. But James was under contract with Ricky and for the first few years, James didn’t do much outside of his work with Rick. But in 1964, Johnny Cash asked if James wanted to join the house band of a new TV show called ‘Shindig’. This time, James was able to work things out and he joined the Shindogs.