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James Burton: The Teen Who Invented American Guitar

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James Burton: The Teen Who Invented American Guitar

James Burton: The Teen Who Invented American Guitar

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: You've probably heard guitarist James Burton even if you don't know it. Ever since he was a teenager he's been recording behind a remarkable array of artists from Ricky Nelson to Ray Charles. He also managed to put out some records on his own.

With the help of a recent album on Ace Records, rock historian Ed Ward surveys the first half of his career from 1956 to 1969.

ED WARD, BYLINE: What were you doing when you were 16?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Merle Travis was supposed to be on the show tonight. He was scheduled. We were expecting a number. As a matter of fact, right about this time we'd be introducing a number by Merle and then we started hearing that he wasn't able to make it - not feeling too well. So I was going to ask, I believe this is James Burton, isn't it? James, come out here and play Merle Travis' guitar solo. Will you do that?


JAMES BURTON: OK. I'd like to do one Merle had out called "Cannonball Rag."




WARD: When he was 16, James Burton was inventing the American guitar. He'd been born in Dubberly, Louisiana, in 1939, and was apparently self-taught on his instrument. At 15, he cut a single backing local singer Carol Williams, and then one day he came up with a guitar riff that he liked. He took it to a singer from Shreveport he was touring with, and they worked out a song to use in his act. One thing led to another, and it wound up on a record, credited to Dale Hawkins, the singer.


DALE HAWKINS: (Singing) Oh Suzie Q. Oh Suzie Q. Oh Suzie Q, I love you my Suzie Q. I like the way you walk. I like the way you talk. I like the way you walk I like the way you talk, My Suzie Q.

WARD: This led to a regular gig on the "Louisiana Hayride" radio show, which, in turn, led to Burton's joining the band of Bob Luman, a rockabilly and country singer who made some great records, due, of course, to having a great guitarist.


BOB LUMAN: (Singing) Oh well, oh well, oh well, make up your mind, baby what are you going to do? If you can't be true, then you and I are through. Have you forgotten the love that's in your heart and the one who cares for you. Last night you told me that you wished I'd stay away. Now you phone and want me back again today. Oh well, oh well, oh well, make up your mind, baby if you can't be true. Then I'm not the one for you.

WARD: Luman found himself in Hollywood to make a film called "Carnival Rock," and one night at a show Luman was playing, the Collins Kids, Larry and Lorrie, were there, as was Lorrie's new boyfriend...

Luman found himself in Hollywood to make a film called "Carnival Rock." And one night at a show Luman was playing, the Collins Kids Larry and Lorrie were there, as was Lorrie's new boyfriend, Ricky Nelson, who was a television star thanks to his parents' sitcom "Ozzie and Harriet."

Seeing a kid his own age who could play that well, he immediately offered James a place in his own band. And each week, "Ozzie and Harriet" signed off with Ricky doing one of his latest records. There was James Burton, making it look easy.


RICKY NELSON: (Singing) Well, I hear that you've been sneaking around on me. But, honey, that's not the way it's going to be. Well, I told you once and I warned you twice, if you want my love you've got to be nice and stop that crazy sneaking around on me.

WARD: Working with Nelson solidified Burton's place in the Hollywood rock and roll universe, and he started getting called for sessions. There were hundreds of them, and neither he nor anyone else remembers all of them. But by the early '60s, he was a busy guy.


DAVID GATES: (Singing) One day the kiddies will open their books all about history. They'll turn to page 19 and read about me. People far and wide will know about my fame, and every living soul will know my name. Now I have a good...

WARD: The obscure "Tryin' to be Someone" by David and Lee, from 1962, shows Burton as one of the pioneers of a stinging, one-string solo technique that was soon to make Bakersfield country music famous. Although in this case, he's backing up David Gates and Leon Russell, who would make an entirely different kind of music.

Shortly after this, British TV producer Jack Goode decided America needed a British-style rock and roll television show, and launched "Shindig!" It never really caught on, but James Burton was asked to assemble the band. The Shindogs, as they were known, featured Glen D. Hardin on piano, Joey Cooper on rhythm guitar and vocals, Chuck Blackwell on drums and Delaney Bramlett on bass.


SHINDOGS: (Singing) Why do you always have to hurt me? Seems like that's all you ever do. Why do you lie to me and break my heart in two? Why am I still in love with you?

WARD: They left behind a single for Warner Bros that wasn't particularly inspired, but showed the genesis of a Los Angeles sound which would grow in the next couple of years, as would the L.A. rock scene. And although he was by then a member of the Strangers, the band fronted by rising country star Merle Haggard, Burton was called in to play Dobro on one of the more impressive albums to come out of the Sunset Strip.


THE STRANGERS: (Singing) There goes another day and I wonder why you and I keep telling lies. I can't believe what you say because tomorrow's lullaby can't pass me by. My lonesome cry, yeah.

WARD: Buffalo, Springfield had plenty of guitar players, but that Dobro hook was exactly what that song needed. Playing with Haggard was surely fun. But before long, his former Shindog pianist Glen Hardin approached him to see if he'd like to work in another band, fronted by a singer named Elvis Presley.

James Burton said yes, but that's a story for another time. He was, however, inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001 by another guitarist named Keith Richards, and he's still playing.

DAVIES: Ed Ward lives in France. He reviewed a new collection of recordings by guitarist James Burton on Ace Records. Coming up, David Edelstein reviews the new Wes Anderson film "Moonrise Kingdom." This is FRESH AIR.

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