He's backed The King, The Killer, The Hawk and The Chairman of the Board. He put the lonesome sound in Ricky Nelson's "Lonely Town" and Merle Haggard's "I'm A Lonesome Fugitive," gave wings to Gram Parsons' Grievous Angel and was the hottest guitarist in Emmylou Harris' Hot Band. He's arguably the greatest six-stringer in rock 'n' roll -- and Shreveport's James Burton has been ignored by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for 15 years.
That injustice is corrected this Monday, March 19, when Burton is inducted into the Hall at a ceremony at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York City. The honor is validating, but it still carries an unspoken sleight; Burton is being inducted in the "sidemen" category, like legendary drummer Earl Palmer was in 2000. Just as rock and roll is unimaginable without Palmer's contributions on the drums, nearly every rock guitarist and band on the planet -- whether they know it or not -- is drawing on Burton's legacy.
"He's one of those guys that seems to pluck out perfect guitar parts out of the air, especially in that country/blues idiom," says the Radiators' Dave Malone. "I learned a ton from him, especially bending two guitar strings at once, and all his chicken-pickin' stuff. As far as Telecaster players go, he's in the Top 5."
Burton's curiosity, ingenuity and deference to singers surfaced early in his career. He won talent contests when he was 13 years old, and played the Louisiana Hayride when he was 14. In 1956, at 15, he cut his record, the immortal "Susie-Q." Burton's north Louisiana compatriot Dale Hawkins sang the original version and Creedence Clearwater Revival made it a smash, but Burton wrote the song's timeless guitar riff. It was the first window into Burton's signature sound, born partly out of homespun technical innovation. While trying to figure out the styles of blues players like Elmore James and Hubert Sumlin, Burton guessed that they were using lighter strings to make the string bends for those crying sounds. He improvised and replaced four of his guitar strings with banjo strings, and switched the positions of the remaining two.
Then he perfected a mix of Chet Atkins-inspired dual rhythm and lead guitar lines, with variations through a combination of fingerpicking and flatpicking. It produced the high whine of a pedal-steel guitar with gutter-level twang, and Burton's instrumental voice slowly seeped into the American music vernacular. He was hired for recordings by disparate acts from Buck Owens to Buffalo Springfield, and Burton also stepped out for one informal cutting session with Ralph Mooney -- the aptly titled album Corn Pickin' and Slick Slidin' -- and an eponymous low-key solo album in 1971.
But it was his work with Ricky Nelson and Merle Haggard that cemented his pioneer status. On Nelson's "Believe What You Say," Burton's solo is an unexpected blast out of nowhere, starting high where most players would end up. At the other end of the scale, his unhurried, plucked phrases, containing only a few notes each, on Haggard's "I'm a Lonesome Fugitive" were a supreme example of restraint, saying volumes in less than 15 seconds. And Burton's stature only grew when he replaced Scotty Moore in Elvis Presley's band in the latter part of Presley's career.
In addition to his session work, one of the hallmarks of Burton's career is his dedication to live performance. With Nelson, Presley and Emmylou Harris, Burton wasn't just a hired gun in the studio. He was the sparkplug in those artists' touring bands, putting his craft on the line in front of audiences night after night. At 60, Burton is still frequently on the road, as the lead man in Jerry Lee Lewis' band.
Burton remains revered by his peers. Elvis Costello has used Burton extensively on recent albums, and when Roy Orbison filmed the all-star concert A Black and White Night to cap his comeback, he chose Burton as the house guitarist.
It's been a long, fruitful ride for the Shreveport teenager who used to play at the closing credits of the Ozzie and Harriet television show. He now has his own signature Fender guitar model, along with better-known legends like Eric Clapton. And with his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the man who invented chicken-pickin' is finally getting his spot alongside so many of the bands he influenced.
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