Ask “Mr. Music”
Jerry Osborne


DEAR JERRY: The great "backup" guitarist James Burton is featured in a Roy Orbison concert called "Black and White Night 30." Besides Burton, Roy was backed by Elvis Costello, Jackson Browne, Tom Waits, Bruce Springsteen, and more. But it's Burton I want to know about; he has been an amazing player since the days of his backing Ricky Nelson, but I don't think he's gotten the recognition he deserves. What can you tell us about his career? Did he ever write any songs?
—Judy Jonson, San Francisco

DEAR JUDY: James Burton is often described one of two ways. He is either the greatest rock guitarist ever, or one of the greatest rock guitarists ever. That it comes down to choosing from these potent accolades indicates how revered James Burton is, especially among his peers.

Let's begin by dispelling the oft-told story of Burton's debut disc. Many, including some rock and roll scholars, point to Dale Hawkins' 1957 single of "Susie-Q" as James Burton's first time on record.

Even the normally reliable's Burton Bio states: "His first recorded track was the Dale Hawkins hit, "Susie Q", in 1957."

This could be an accurate statement if amended to say "Susie-Q" is the first HIT record — it peaked at No. 27 — featuring the guitar artistry of James Burton.

But his first appearance on a record was in 1956, when he backed Carol Williams on "You Never Mention My Name," coupled with "Just for a While" (Ram 100/101). "Susie-Q" came along months after the Ram single.

Years later, James revealed that though he is not credited on "Susie-Q" labels, he alone composed the music. What Dale Hawkins wrote was the lyrics. This would not be the last time James Burton would be uncredited.

Besides subsequent sessions with Dale Hawkins in 1957, James played lead guitar for Bob Luman, an up-and-coming rockabilly artist on Imperial Records. Later that year, Bob Luman, the Platters, and David Houston, starred in "Carnival Rock," a low-budget, teen-oriented film. In it, James Burton is the uncredited lead guitarist.

Also in '57, during the Imperial session for Bob Luman's "Red Hot," Ricky Nelson, another Imperial artist who was in the studio that day, heard from James Burton exactly what he'd been wanting in his band from a lead guitarist. He had to have James Burton.

With Ricky only 17, his father, Ozzie, handled the contractual matters, and made James a regular in Ricky's combo, and on the very popular ABC-TV show, "The Adventures Of Ozzie and Harriet." This was a huge opportunity for James, to be part of one television's longest running family comedies (October 3, 1952 - September 3, 1966).

Always cast as the lead guitarist in Ricky's band, Burton joined the show for their Christmas 1957 program, and his last episode was the series finale in 1966. He appeared in 57 episodes, uncredited in all but one, "Rick's Chemistry Grade" (1958), when he was just "James."

Beginning with "Believe What You Say," in early 1958, and running concurrently with his appearances on "The Adventures Of Ozzie and Harriet," James provided the lead guitar licks for one top-selling single after another for Ricky, soon to be known as Rick.

The commitment to a weekly TV show kept Rick from frequent and extended tours, but when he did perform live, Burton was right by his side making the live versions of Rick's hits sound just like his records.

Beginning in September 1964, James somehow found time to be the lead guitarist of the Shindogs, the house band that backed most of the singing guests on "Shindig," also a weekly ABC-TV show.

By this time, Burton was the most in-demand rock guitarist, and in the mid-to-late 1960s he stayed busy playing sessions for many major stars.

But then, in mid-1969, came a life-changing phone call from Elvis Presley. And though the two had never met, Elvis was very familiar with Burton's skills, and he trusted James enough to ask him to put together a team, later known as the TCB Band, to back him in Las Vegas shows, on concert tours, and his recording sessions for RCA Victor.

James faithfully fulfilled all of his obligations to Elvis, right to the very end. Their last show was June 26th, 1977, at Market Square Arena in Indianapolis. Presley died on August 16th.

In the 40 years since the last show with Elvis, James, now 78, has remained one of the world's most sought-after lead guitarists.

IZ ZAT SO? Not all of James Burton's records credit him that way, and here are some examples where the credit varies, sometimes significantly.

Also below are tunes written or co-written by James, other than the "Susie-Q" music:

1957: "The Creep" - The Shadows (James Burton and James Kirkland)
Used in the film "Carnival Rock," but not on record at the time.

1963: "Everybody Listen to the Dobro"/"Swamp Surfer" - Jimmy Dobro (Philips 40137)
"Swamp Surfer" co-written by Marty Cooper - Burton.

1963: "Bimbo"/"Fireball Mail" - Jim & Joe (James Burton and Joe Osborn) (Fabor 124)

1963: "Daisy Mae"/"Fireball Mail" - Jim & Joe (James Burton and Joe Osborn) (Fabor 124)
"Daisy Mae" co-written by Burton, Osborn.

1965: "Someday, Someday"/"Why" - The Shindogs (Warner Bros. 5665)
Vocals by other Shindogs, with Burton on lead guitar.

1965: "Love Lost"/"Jimmy's Blues" - Jimmy Burton (Miramar 108)
"Love Lost" written by James Burton / "Jimmy's Blues" co-written by J. Burton, M. Jones, J. Osborn.

1965: "Santa Claus Is Back in Town"/"Christmas Party" - Nick Hoffman/Instrumental (Roman 101)
B-side has no artist credit, only "INSTRUMENTAL." "Christmas Party" is essentially a different take of "Jimmy's Blues," the B-side of "Love Lost" (Miramar 108) by Jimmy Burton.

1966: "Who Do You Think You Are"/"Yes, I'm Going Home" - The Shindogs (Viva 601)
Vocals by other Shindogs, with Burton on lead guitar.

1968: "The Texas Waltz"/"Corn Pickin'" - James Burton and Ralph Mooney (Capitol 2140)
Nothing unusual about the name credit, but listed because James wrote "Corn Pickin'."

Most of these tunes are on the 28-track CD, "James Burton - The Early Years: 1956-1969" (Ace 04682), available from

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