You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

James Burton Dishes on Leaving the Shadows for the Bright Lights of Hollywood

In the pantheon of essential rock and roll guitarists, James Burton attained his status early with 1950s superstar Ricky Nelson and continually added to his resume with impressive collaborations that include a long stint with both the King, Elvis Presley, and the Queen of Country Music, Emmylou Harris. Burton first showed up on Variety’s radar when he appeared as a member of Ricky Nelson’s band on the hit TV series, “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” in 1958.

How did a rockabilly guitar player from Louisiana wind up in Hollywood, appearing on one of America’s biggest TV shows?
I was a member of the Shadows, which was the band for a great early rockabilly star, Bob Luman, and we were in Hollywood doing a rock ‘n’ roll music B movie for Roger Corman called “Carnival Rock.” After the movie wrapped, Luman’s manager, Horace Logan, who also produced the “Louisiana Hayride” music shows, got us a gig on “Town Hall Party,” which was the biggest local country music TV show in Southern California. We were rehearsing over at Imperial Records, which was also Ricky’s label. He was in the other room and heard us tearing up Billy Lee Riley’s song, “Red Hot,” which we’d also cut for Imperial. We wound up all hanging out and playing music together for hours.

How long was it before you left the Shadows to join Ricky Nelson’s band?
We had a house out in Canoga Park and when one of the guys in the band, James Kirkland, went out to get the paper he saw a telegram on the door. Rick wanted James and me to come to General Service Studios to watch a taping of “Ozzie and Harriet.”

That was the beginning of a long collaboration with Ricky Nelson.
Not quite. We did some songs for the show but when they asked us to stay on full time, we said no. We were homesick and wanted to get home for Christmas. So we left and went back to Louisiana. About two weeks later Ozzie called us and offered us the gig as full-time band for Ricky. So we came back and that’s when it all started.

What was the first record you did as Ricky Nelson’s guitarist?
The first record I played on was “Waitin’ in School,” which was written by Dorsey and Johnny Burnette. But I didn’t play lead. Joe Maphis was already booked for that and I played rhythm guitar.

A teenager from Louisiana winds up on a TV show and playing and touring with a guy who was competing with Elvis for the crown as king of rock ‘n’ roll. What did you like best about those incredible days?

Playing music. You know Ricky’s dad was a bandleader and just a brilliant man in so many ways from bandleader, to director and writer and businessman. I remember when we cut “Fools Rush In,” Ozzie told me my guitar solo reminded him of a great sax player he once had in his band. I was going to say the guy must have had great taste, but I just thanked him for the compliment.

People have used the term “Ozzie and Harriet family” as a kind of put-down, as in “too good to be true.”
I wound up living with the Nelson family for a couple of years and they treated me like I was their third son. They were an incredible family. For me, working on the TV show was sort of the same as being at home.

So you made Los Angeles your home in the ’60s and kept busy as one of the famous “Wrecking Crew,” meaning you must have played guitar on dozens if not hundreds of hit records.
I was busy. I was on “Town Hall Party” and I played the guitar for the movie “Rio Bravo,” where Ricky sings “Get Along Home Cindy.” And I was on Glen Campbell’s first album, “Kentucky Means Paradise.” I played on tons of Phil Spector’s records.

Long before the downfall of Spector.
Back then he was a cool guy. I remember him congratulating Nancy SInatra on one of her big hits and she had tears in her eyes because Phil was the maestro in those days.

How did you like being part of his famous “Wall of Sound?”
He definitely had weird ideas on how to work. He have three organs, four pianos, 25 guitar players, three drummers, you know, the whole bit. One time I asked him how he could put it all together and he said, “I hear it all in my head.”

More Music

  • Neyla Pekarek

    Watch Neyla Pekarek's Michel Gondry-Inspired Cardboard Kitsch Video (EXCLUSIVE)

    Neyla Pekarek’s post-Lumineers solo career is off to a strong start with a show at the Opry at the Ryman on Saturday night and the Monday release of her new video for the song “Train.” The clip was directed by Los Angeles’ Liza Nelson and features Pekarek riding a cardboard constructed locomotive in a look reminiscent [...]

  • Benny Andersson, Anni Frid Lyngstad, Agnetha

    Abba’s New Music Delayed Until Later This Year

    Abba fans rejoiced last April when the group, which split up 35 years ago, announced that they had recorded two new songs for a “Virtual Abba” experience in collaboration with “American Idol” creator Simon Fuller. The project first announced in 2016, and was scheduled to premiere, via digital versions of band members, on NBC and ABC [...]

  • Erykah Badu Attempts to Clarify Her ‘Prayer’

    Erykah Badu Attempts to Clarify Her ‘Prayer’ for R. Kelly

    Erykah Badu took to Twitter Sunday night in an attempt to clarify her “prayer” for R. Kelly, which she spoke about during a Saturday concert in Chicago. “I don’t know how everybody else feels about it but I’m putting up a prayer right now for R.,” she said to the crowd before referencing the longstanding [...]

  • Harry Connick Jr.

    Harry Connick Jr. Swears Off Super Bowl After Saints Defeat

    Tempers flared during today’s NFC championship game between the New Orleans Saints and Los Angeles Rams at the Super Dome after a controversial non-call on a potential pass interference penalty and head-to-head hit by L.A. defensive back Nickell Robey-Coleman, who slammed into Saints pass receiver  Tommylee Lewis on a crucial third-down play. The ref’s decision [...]

  • Editorial use only. No merchandising.Mandatory Credit:

    Lady Gaga Slams Government Shutdown, Mike Pence at Vegas Residency

    Lady Gaga took a short break from singing “Million Reasons” at her Saturday performance of “Enigma” in Las Vegas to slam the president for the continued government shutdown. While sitting at the piano for her performance, Gaga broke into a takedown of the government shutdown and Vice President Mike Pence, who has been in the [...]

  • maggie rogers

    Album Review: Maggie Rogers' 'Heard It in a Past Life'

    Maggie Rogers earned one of those very rare “Saturday Night Live” slots in which a musical guest is booked onto the show well in advance of her major label debut album’s release — two and a half months prior, in this case. And the scrutiny of such an appearance is not always pretty. Rogers’ “SNL” [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content