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|JAMES BURTON ON ELVIS AT 80
Elvis' lead guitar player, James Burton remembers the King as the world celebrates what would have been the Kings 80th birthday
August 26, 2015 / Billy Watkins, The Clarion-Ledger / Elvis Express Radio
Elvis Presley would be 80 years old if he was still with us.
I asked James Burton, who played guitar for Elvis from 1969 until his death in August 1977, if he could picture the swivel-hipped singer at that age.
“I can,” Burton said, sitting in the green room at the Bologna Performing Arts Center prior to performing Monday night with the Band of Legends. “And I’ll tell you how I picture him:
An incredible gospel singer, and I would say a great gift to the young folks today to bring them to Jesus, to encourage them toward the Christian way. That’s what I think.”
I told Burton, who turned 76 last week, I wasn’t expecting that answer.
“He would definitely be into the gospel. He loved it so much,” he said. “His focus would be different than it was when he was running around the stage doing all those karate moves.
Being 80 tends to slow you down a little bit.” Burton, who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001 by the Rolling Stones' guitarist Keith Richards, smiled and
tapped the table where we were seated. There were a whole lot of smiles before, during and after the show.
Several musicians and backup singers who recorded and performed with Elvis throughout his career did the show at Delta State University to help raise money for the GRAMMY
Museum’s educational program, which has benefited more than 130,000 Mississippi youth since 2009 through workshops, after-school and summer programs and other formats.
The Mississippi GRAMMY Museum is set to open in November here in Cleveland. Trust me: It is going to knock people’s socks off.
But Monday night was about Elvis and hundreds of hits by other artists from the 1960s through the 1980s.
You may have never heard of Bobby Wood, a fabulous keyboard player. Andy Childs, a country music artist from Memphis who sang lead and moderated the discussion portions of
the show, mentioned that Wood recorded with Garth Brooks.
Wood quietly played the first seven piano notes of Garth Brooks’ hit “The Dance.” Goose bumps covered my arms, and I wasn’t the only one I saw rubbing them off.
Wood, who also played on Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline,” told me after the show that while in the studio Garth Brooks explained to him the “feel” he wanted to open the song, a
haunting warning that the following 3 minutes, 40 seconds were going to drain your heart.
“I said, ‘You mean something like this?’ and played it for him,” Wood said. “The notes, the line, just came to me. He nodded and smiled, and I knew I’d given him what he was
searching for. That’s the job of a musician in the studio.”
You may have never heard of the Holladay Sisters — Ginger and Mary — of Pell City, Alabama. They sang backup for Dave Loggins on “Please Come to Boston” and for Willie
Nelson and Elvis on "Always On My Mind." You've also heard their voices on the Elvis hits “Suspicious Minds” and “In the Ghetto” and “The Wonder of You” and “Burning Love.”
It is strange to hear those faceless voices that have been in your head for years come out the mouths of humans.
And, no, they said afterward, they don’t mind being known forever as Elvis’ backup singers.
Gene Chrisman toured for years as Jerry Lee Lewis’ drummer. He laid down the beat for the Elvis songs mentioned above and was asked to go on tour with him.
“I turned him down,” Chrisman, “and I have no regrets about it. I enjoyed recording with him, but his concerts were sometimes as much show as they were music. I don’t mean that in
a bad way. But I just wasn’t a ‘show’ kind of person.”
Norbert Putnam played bass on approximately 120 Elvis recordings. He produced Joan Baez and Donovan. And we may have never heard of Jimmy Buffett or Dan Fogelberg if not
for Putnam’s guidance and producing skills early in their careers. Putnam and Buffett came up with the Key West sound together. And then there was Burton.
The last nine years of Elvis’ performing life, he said countless times in the middle of a song: “Play it, James.”
“I still hear it every now and then,” said Burton, who lives in Shreveport. “And if he were here with us and I could hear him say it one more time, I’d probably give you my new guitar.
“I miss that man.”
Elvis called him aside one night before a performance. He put a small chain around Burton’s neck. At the end of it dangled “TCB” and the lightning bolt. It was Elvis’ motto, meaning
Taking Care of Business.
He wasn’t wearing it Monday night.
“I got tired of women coming up and tugging on it. I was afraid they were going to break it,” he said. “Elvis only gave that to a select few people. It meant you were in his inner circle,
almost like family.”
Elvis had noticed Burton’s talents in the 1950s when the guitarist became a regular on “The Ozzie and Harriet Show,” which featured teen heartthrob Ricky Nelson. Burton played
the guitar licks on Nelson’s hits such as “Hello, Mary Lou” and “Traveling Man.”
“I owe a great deal of gratitude to Ricky’s family for inviting me to live with them while I was in California doing that show,” Burton said. “Elvis told me once that he liked watching me
play on there, and I sort of got a kick out of that. The King of rock and roll was watching me on television?”
I asked Burton his favorite Elvis song.
“I like so many,” he said, before whittling the list away to one. “He sang ballads so great,” Burton said. “And I enjoyed playing on them because when I hit a sweet note in one, he
would turn around and give me that look like, ‘Yep, that’s it.’ “But he closed the show every night with ‘I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You.’ ”
Burton couldn’t help himself. “But, you know, we’d do songs like “Trilogy” and aw, man … ”
He doubled over as if the song had punched him in the gut.
Just as he and his mates in the Band of Legends did to approximately 800 fortunate people Monday night.