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.”

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