by Robert Wilkinson
Today is the 75th birthday of one of the most excellent guitarists of the second half of the 20th century, the remarkable James Burton! He played on hundreds of hits, and is generally considered one of the true masters of the instrument.
James Burton (August 21, 1939) is widely honored as one of the greatest guitarists ever to pick up the instrument. He was part of “the Wrecking Crew” as well as the “Shindogs.” This bunch of top flight LA musicians included Glenn Campbell, Leon Russell, Tommy Tedesco, Hal Blaine, Barney Kessel, Steve Douglas, Larry Knechtel, Carol Kaye, Errol Palmer, Jack Nitzsche, Jim Gordon, Bill Pitman, Chuck Findley, Lou Blackburn, Dr. John, and a bunch of other major league session players who backed some of the great acts of the 60s, 70s, and 80s.
Basically, when labels weren’t sure the talent could play at the level they wanted, like the Monkees, Byrds, and other top groups, they called in the Wrecking Crew. They’re most evident in all the Phil Spector “Wall of Sound” productions, and were featured on the Beach Boys “Pet Sounds” album, no small accomplishment! They also played behind Simon and Garfunkel, the 5th Dimension, Mamas and the Papas, John Denver, and Nat King Cole, among many.
James Burton began as a teenage lead guitar prodigy with Ricky Nelson, working with him from 1958 to 1967, so he’s the lead on ALL the hits! From there James backed Elvis as part of the TCB Band from 1969 to 1977. That link is to a great concert! James also backed Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, John Denver, Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Costello, and Roy Orbison.
You can see him at his best in the 1988 special, “Roy Orbison and Friends: A Black and White Night.” It’s a great clip of some of the greatest musicians in history backing Roy before he died, so check it out the next time PBS airs it in your 'hood, or just check it out on the web!!
For now, due to time limitations, I can’t post much more than what I’ve linked to of this amazing talent’s work. But you can get a huge amount of his fantastic picking in the late 50s and early 60s by going to my article Happy 2013 Birthday to Pioneer Rock and Roller Rick Nelson since James is all over every tune there. Next year I’ll try to include more of his work with other artists.
Thanks for the guitar slinging, James. You’ve always been one of my favorites, and still are! May you live much longer, and keep showing the young ones how to TCB.
ps - In a special nod to a man who walks his talk and my truly dear friend, a big happy and merry birthday and solar return goes out to Philipp Manser, Malibu yogi extraordinaire. May you live long and prosper, my Brother!
Copyright © 2014 Robert Wilkinson