'Play It, James!' The Success Secret of the Guitarist Who Made Ricky, Elvis, and Emmylou Even Better

Recently by Gary North: 101 Thoughts on America’s Economy

If you Google the phrase, “Play it, James,” the hits will take you to something about James Burton. Elvis made the phrase famous. Here is a classic bit of Elvis nostalgia.

Search for “James Burton” and “YouTube,” and you will have your day’s entertainment in front of you.

In every field, there is always one performer who stands head and shoulders above the pack. In the world of studio sidemen, James Burton is the acknowledged master in country music, country rock, and rock and roll. He has been at it for over 55 years.

I am interested in people who achieve outstanding performances throughout an entire career. I am curious to know what they did to achieve success.

On Saturday, after having given a lecture at a conference, I climbed into my minivan and drove three-and-a-half hours to Nashville. It was Father’s Day Eve, and I intended to have the best Father’s Day ever. I was escorting my wife and daughter, a Nashville resident, to a gathering of the country guitar pickers’ tribe. It was held at the White Horse Saloon. They had come to honor James Burton. I wanted to be there.

The mayor showed up to be part of the festivities. Emmylou Harris was a walk-on. So was Vince Gill. The affair had been organized my Muriel Anderson, the best country-picking female in the business, and a master of the guitar harp.

James Burton was a teenager in Louisiana in 1955. He was to co-author and played the guitar for Suzie-Q, a classic rock song of the era, one revived by Credence Clearwater Revival a decade later. He wrote the introductory licks that later made it famous when he was 14.

In 1957, the ex-band leader Ozzie Nelson decided to make his son Ricky into an Elvis-like phenomenon. He brought the 18-year-old Burton to Hollywood to serve as the backup for Ricky. Ozzie had it nailed. Ricky Nelson became a phenomenon. But Burton provided the music.

Throughout the 1960s, Burton was the sideman who graced album after album. I remember playing a Hoyt Axton record. Burton had a trademark lick. My new wife, no folk music or country music fan, commented that she hadn’t heard anything quite like it. Neither had anyone else before Burton invented it.

In 1968, Elvis decided to make a comeback. He did so in the Aloha TV show. But he wanted to broaden his performances. He hired Burton, and told him to put together a band. The result was a sensational new career path, remembered most for the Las Vegas shows in 1969 and 1970. Burton toured with Elvis until 1977, when Elvis died.

Read the rest of the article

June 24, 2010

Gary North [send him mail] is the author of Mises on Money. Visit He is also the author of a free 20-volume series, An Economic Commentary on the Bible.

Copyright © 2010 Gary North