Many folks in the early 1950s were hesitant to accept Leo Fender's radical new electric guitars, but James Burton wasn't one of them.
"The very first time I saw a Fender," he recalls now, "I was about 11 and downtown shopping with my mother in my hometown of Shreveport. We happened to walk by a music store, and I saw this guitar hanging in the showroom there. It was a blond Telecaster with the black pick guard. And I told mother, 'That's the guitar I want right there.' That guitar just knocked me out when I saw it, and after I played it I fell in love with it even more."
Burton's parents bought the guitar for him, and he and the Fender Telecaster remained inseparable through a career that has seen him become the foremost rock and country music sideman of his generation, recording and performing with everyone from Elvis Presley to Elvis Costello. "That guitar just seems to be a part of me," Burton says. Fellow musicians call him Mr. Telecaster.
When Burton got a chance to meet Leo Fender in the late '50s, he found that he liked the man as much as he did his guitar. The lasting friendship they formed, and Burton's respect for Fender's genius, are the reasons the guitarist has disrupted his ever-busy schedule to take part this Saturday (on what would have been the late guitar innovator's 82nd birthday) in a memorial concert to Fender at the Bren Events Center at UC Irvine. (Fender died March 21 in his Fullerton home of the complications of Parkinson's disease.)
Other guitarists paying tribute include Yngwie Malmsteen, Albert Lee, Dick Dale, Albert Collins, Robben Ford, Steve Lukather, Vivian Campbell, Dweezil Zappa, Randy Hansen, Gary Myrick, Robbie Krieger, C.C. DeVille, Jeff (Skunk) Baxter and others. Proceeds benefit the Newport Beach-based PEP-USA, or the Parkinson's Education Program.
Burton spoke by phone last Friday from a Utah tour stop with John Denver. After his performance Saturday, he will immediately flying to Memphis to take part in an Elvis memorial at Graceland. It's his lot that he's always in-demand somewhere.
When he was merely 15, Burton's snaking rhythms and stinging solos on Dale Hawkins' 1956-recorded "Suzie-Q" set the standard for rockabilly guitar. He came to California with rockabilly singer Bob Lumen's band, and here Ricky Nelson was awed by his playing and got father Ozzie to hire him to back Nelson on his singing spots on "The Ozzie and Harriet Show." On TV and on Nelson's records, Burton's lean, inspired picking influenced a whole generation of rock and country players.
It was shortly after joining Nelson in 1957 that Burton first met Fender.
"Leo was just the greatest," Burton recalled. "He was a very quiet, generous man from all my experiences. We just became friends. That I played a Fender Telecaster sort of excited him, that I was interested in his instrument, and he just offered to help me in any way he could.
"Meanwhile, I was a little in awe of him because I thought he was a genius. I think he built the greatest guitars that have ever been built, the Telecaster and the Stratocaster. He created the guitar for me, and I think there're lots of others who feel the same way."
Despite his brilliance, Fender never acted like a know-it-all, Burton said. Rather, Fender had a great affection for music and musicians, and was glad to participate in the music, in his way, by providing players with the best tools possible.
"He was always concerned with talking to musicians, learning what they were really looking for in an instrument, and then working real hard, experimenting, until he came up with it," Burton said.
Whenever Burton went to Fender's factory in Fullerton, the guitar maker would give him his latest guitars and amps to try. Burton, in turn, was glad to help promote Fenders by using the instruments on Nelson's TV spots, and, later, when he was bandleader of the Shindogs on the '60s rock program "Shindig."
Today such manufacturer sponsorship/artist endorsements are big-money deals negotiated by lawyers. Fender, though, gave out his instruments with no strings attached, so to speak. "He really didn't care for endorsements," Burton said. "He just wanted his equipment out there, for people to use it and be happy with it."
Although Burton admires the way Fender kept working on new instruments up until the day he died, his own affection remained with the Telecaster. The same 1952 model his parents bought him saw him through Nelson's hits and an incredibly varied array of sessions.
A sampling of his thousands of recording credits include work with Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, the Supremes, Ray Charles, the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Judy Collins, Nat (King) Cole, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin, Johnny Rivers, the Fifth Dimension, and Kenny Rogers.
Along with staking out solos with Owens and Haggard on some of the most influential country singles of the '60s, he also was the guitarist of choice with a new wave of country musicians. His string-snapping recordings with country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons and with Emmylou Harris' Hot Band remain some of Burton's best work.
When Elvis decided in 1969 to return to the concert stage, he asked Burton to assemble the band and be his lead guitarist. Burton remained with Elvis until the singer's death eight years later. Shortly after beginning with Elvis, Burton started playing his now-trademark pink paisley Telecaster.
One perspective not offered in most of the post-mortem books on Elvis was what it was actually like to be onstage with him in the thick of a performance.
Burton maintains: "It could be just unbelievable up there. The excitement onstage was really frightening sometimes; you'd get cold chills. He was such a great entertainer. His music was so exciting, and he had so much power behind his vocals, such an incredible range. We had a real hot band, and it seemed the two went together so well. Everybody worked hard and loved it."
Working with Elvis, he said, would never be just a routine gig. "The thing about his shows was they were so natural, no one knew what was going to happen next. We didn't know. Even though we'd make out a set list of songs for each show, it didn't mean anything because he never followed that order. It wasn't what you'd call a planned show at all."
He found playing with the other Elvis to be quite an experience. He's recorded three albums with Costello, including this year's "Mighty Like a Rose," and has also toured with him.
"He's different , you know? He's just so free, so loose to just go for something that you wouldn't even think of. That's a great thing he has about the approach to his music, that he gives something that people would never expect. He's a brilliant singer, brilliant songwriter. He's just an incredible guy to work with, and I love his music."
One of Burton's steadier gigs for over a decade has been touring with John Denver. Some players would find it a torque-wrenching experience to go between such diverse performers as Costello and Denver, but Burton takes it all in stride. He said he approaches work with each performer as a unique experience and that he tries to give something unique back.
More than his chops on guitar, he credits his full studio log to his ability to fit into a musical whole. "It takes everybody in a group to make music happen. Having the ability to work closely together is the most important thing in music."
Burton doesn't even know yet what he'll be playing at the Fender memorial show, but he expects he'll work something out with Albert Lee and his band. Burton was a major influence on Britisher Lee's playing, and the two have often traded licks since Lee took Burton's place in Harris' Hot Band in the '70s.
After more than three decades in L.A., Burton and his wife recently moved back to their hometown of Shreveport, La., where, when people talk about bass, they mean the fish. Away from the hive of the music industry, he's starting to take the time to pursue his own musical interests. He recently designed a James Burton Signature Model Telecaster with the Fender company. (Although Burton and Leo Fender himself remained friends, Burton stayed with the Fender brand of guitars after Leo sold that company in 1965 and subsequently went on to make Music Man and G & L guitars.)
He also recently completed a video course on his guitar style, marketed by Hot Licks, and he is putting together a series of musical tribute albums to Nelson, Elvis and Roy Orbison. His chief interest, though, is to record a solo album (a decades-old solo album and a disc of duets with steel guitar great Ralph Mooney are long out of print) and put together a band to do his own gigs.
He says he sometimes speculates on what his life would have been like without Leo Fender's inventions.
"I think I'd still be a musician and that the unique sounds I strive for and my creative gift would still be pretty much the same. But the Fender absolutely helped me get that. It plays an awful big part in my life. The amazing thing is how you could use that one guitar on so many different kinds of sessions, for so many different things.
"Everybody has a different musical personality, and for so many of us it was Leo's inventions that helped us express it. I know I owe him a lot. It just seems like he was such a great inventor, I don't even think he took any free time to himself: Every minute of his life his brain was working, experimenting and coming up with new ideas for musicians."
What: The Leo Fender Memorial Jam Benefit.
When: Saturday, Aug. 10, at 3 p.m.
Where: UC Irvine Bren Events Center, Campus Drive and Bridge Road, Irvine.
Whereabouts: Corona del Mar (73) Freeway to Mac Arthur Boulevard south. Go left on University Drive, right on California Avenue, then left on Bridge Road.
Wherewithal: $25 to $50; benefits PEP-USA.
Where to call: (714) 856-5000.