James Burton can certainly lay legitimate claim to the title of original guitar hero. Many guitar players were strumming away throughout the 1950s, but Burton pioneered the role of the lead guitarist through his impeccable phrasing and stinging tone on the guitar that he would forever be associated with, the Fender Telecaster®. Rock and country guitarists far and wide reverently credit him as a seminal influence, from Keith Richards and Jimmy Page to Vince Gill and Brad Paisley.
Born Aug. 21, 1939, in Dubberly, La., Burton grew up in Shreveport, La. His parents got him his first guitar, an acoustic. His second guitar was also an acoustic, but it was in a J&S Music store in Shreveport where he first saw a ’53 Telecaster and knew it was the guitar for him.
Listening to KWKH in Shreveport, Burton heard and absorbed the work of many great guitarists, and he soon astonished everybody with his playing. He turned professional at age 14, working club gigs and private parties, and was soon invited to join the house band for popular radio show Louisiana Hayride.
His first record of note came in 1957 with Dale Hawkins’ “Susie Q,” after which Burton found himself in Hollywood, Calif. There he came to the attention of teen TV star Ricky Nelson, who enlisted Burton for his backing band. Burton became a familiar face to millions of viewers as Nelson’s ace guitarist on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.
Burton played on every Ricky Nelson record until 1967, but also found time to work with Glen Campbell, Dean Martin, Bobby Darin, the Everly Brothers, Buck Owens, Frank Sinatra, Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash. He became one of the most in-demand session guitarists of the 1960s.
In 1969, Burton became guitarist in Elvis Presley’s “TCB” band, a spot he kept until Presley’s death in 1977. He continued to do session work during this period, and also worked extensively with Emmylou Harris. Post-Presley, Burton began a 15-year stint with John Denver, and worked with Jerry Lee Lewis, Kenny Rogers and Cash. Burton teamed up with Elvis Costello in 1986, a collaboration that would last for four albums.
Burton appeared in the 1998 television special Roy Orbison and Friends: A Black and White Night, backing up the legendary singer along with guests including Costello, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne and others.
He remained as busy as ever. Burton was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001 by Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards. In 2005, he held the first of his annual James Burton International Guitar Festival events in Shreveport, benefiting his own charitable foundation.