Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Man Who Helped Shape Rock and Roll

Statue of James Burton on Elvis Presley Ave. - Shreveport Municipal Auditorium

James Burton is not a household name outside the music industry. But to people who know music, he is a living legend.  In 1954, a 15 year old Burton first met another young man, from Tupelo Mississippi,  who came here to hone his music and would soon become a legend in his own right. Their paths in life would again cross one day.  

Burton's first venture into a recording studio in 1957 produced the timeless rock classic "Suzie Q." written by Burton and another local music legend, Dale Hawkins.
As a young man of 19, Burton can be seen playing behind teen idol Ricky Nelson in what is the forerunner of modern music videos at the end of some of the old classic Ossie and Harriett TV shows from the 1950's &60's 

Burton's sound and talent made him a much sought after studio musician who's licks can be heard on a some of the great music of the 50s, 60's and 70's.  As Burton's reputation as a guitarist spread, his work took him into the studio with the likes of Dean Martin, Bobby Darin and The Everley Brothers.  Later Burton was to record and tour with Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell, John Denver, Judy Collins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Joni Mitchell and Buffalo Springfield, to name a few. In 1967 Burton turned down an offer to join Bob Dylan's first Electric Touring Band.  

But the legendary accomplishments of James Burton reaches much further into rock history then just the life described above. 

In the early years of electric amplification, guitars used thick, tautly strung "Jazz Strings" that gave a mellow yet strong sound.  But in a musicians never ending search for a unique sound,  Burton hit on the one thing that changed the sound of the guitar and lay the road for the guitar gods of modern Rock and Roll.  Burton replaced the bottom three string of his fender guitar with much thinner and more flexible Banjo strings, allowing string bending and vibrato much like a violin. The result was the guitar sound of the early Rock and Roll as we know it today, and led to the later guitar techniques of Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix and beyond. 

Then in 1968, that young man from Tupelo James met 22 years earlier called and ask him to join in his comeback. Burton agreed and remained his good friend, confidant and only guitar player till their death in 1977. 

At Burton's  induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001, Rolling Stones Guitarist Keith Richards give Burton the highest compliment he could give a fellow guitar player by ending his introduction by saying, "I never brought a Ricky Nelson Record, I bought a James Burton record." 

In 2007 Burton was inducted into the Musicians Hall of Fame in Nashville, and in 2009 inducted into The Louisiana Music Hall of Fame. Burton is also named one of "Five Living Legends of Shreveport." 

And to solidify the Legend, Burton is listed #19 on Rolling Stone Magazines' 100 Greatest Guitarist of all Time.

James Burton never forgot where he came from, and in 1990 returned  to his hometown of Shreveport permanently. He bought the old mansion of filmmaker Charles B. Perice on the shore of Cross Lake and to this day remains active with the James Burton Foundation and the James Burton International Guitar Festival which each year brings famed musicians from all over the world to our little corner. 

Not many people I know can say their neighbor is a legend. I'm proud to say James and Louise Burton are friends and neighbors. James Burton is a soft spoken man and every bit the gentleman, full of  gratefulness for the talent he was given and the life he has been so fortunate to lead.  In August he will reach his 75 year. 

At a recent Burton New Years Eve Party he led a group down into the massive garage of the Burton home to show a newly purchased boat.  On one side of the garage sits a  immaculately polished burgundy 1976 Cadillac Coup, looking as if it just rolled off the showroom floor.  It has 26 miles on it. 

When ask why he never takes it out and drives it, he turned slowly in the direction of the car and paused, then said in a soft melancholy voice "Elvis gave me that car".