The Desert Sun, Palm Beach, California
Guitarist James Burton reflects on Ricky Nelson’s life and music
The Desert Sun
The "California sound" mined by The Eagles probably came from Alabama and Mississippi.
That's where Elvis Presley, Hank Williams and dozens of Delta blues masters are from.
But, as the 20th anniversary of the death of Rick Nelson nears, you may hear it started with that youngest sire of TV's quintessential parents, Ozzie and Harriet.
Nelson family members and Rick's former guitarist, James Burton, will appear tonight on "Larry King Live" to remind viewers that the rockabilly, pop and country LPs Nelson made from the late '50s to mid-'60s spawned the country rock movement The Eagles refined.
"Music USA," A Rough Guide book chronicling all the regional music making up today's pop, calls Nelson "Los Angeles' first white superstar."
But Nelson, who was managed and mentored by Palm Springs residents Greg McDonald and Col. Tom Parker, forged his sound in harmony with Burton.
"Nelson's records sounded authentic because he used some Southern musicians with a natural feel for the music, most notably James Burton," says "Music USA." "In this respect, Nelson helped set the mold for the L.A. studio system, in which a coterie of top pros would provide the musical backbone for the faces on the record sleeves."
Burton, who was doing studio work when Nelson died in a New Year's Eve plane crash in 1985 at age 45, still champions Nelson today while also acknowledging his place in rock history.
"I don't know if you heard the quote Keith Richards made when he inducted me into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame," Burton said in a telephone interview from his native Shreveport, La. "He said, 'I didn't buy Ricky Nelson records. I bought James Burton records.'"
Burton has played or recorded with multi-generational artists, including Brad Paisley, Elvis Costello, George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buck Owens, Nat "King" Cole and Frank Sinatra.
He led Elvis Presley's band from 1969 through the mid-'70s.
It was a 1964 gig with another pioneer of country rock, Johnny Cash, that eventually led Burton away from Nelson and into his role as a studio sideman.
"Johnny wanted me to play a slide dobro on this song that he was going to do on this TV show," Burton said. "Ricky didn't want me playing with other artists because he told me my sound was his sound.
"I thought about that for a little while and said, 'I'm playing slide dobro. I'll tell them not to put me on camera and nobody will even know it's me.'"
It was on that TV show, "Shindig," that Burton was asked to join the band, and that led to other recording opportunities.
But Burton says his country rock collaboration with Nelson actually began when he was living in the Ozzie & Harriet household with Rick and his brother, David.
Burton came to Los Angeles at age 17 in 1957 with country singer Bob Luman. Nelson heard them rehearse at Imperial Records and invited Burton and his bass player, James Kirkland, to watch a taping of "Ozzie & Harriet." They wound up recording for the show and a month later, Ozzie invited Burton to dinner.
"Ozzie excused himself after dinner - he had to go upstairs and work on a script," Burton said. "So he said, 'James, Harriett and I and Rick and Dave would very much like you to be our guests in our home because we know what it's like being away from home.'
"He thought it would be a great idea for Rick and I to spend time together and work on our music. I lived with them for the first couple years."
And, yes, it was an Ozzie & Harriet-type TV lifestyle.
"The whole family was just so wonderful," he said. "Being at home was just like going to work."
Nelson had already recorded his first hit, Fats Domino's "I'm Walkin'," and Joe Maphis played lead guitar on Burton's first recording with Nelson.
But Burton said Nelson adopted the sound Burton had developed in the South listening to country, blues and gospel music.
"I already had my sound," he said. "The tone of my guitar is the sound we went for and what I liked and what we basically did on all the records."
Nelson had a run of eight No. 1 singles in his first nine releases from 1957-59. Burton influenced more middle-of-the-road songs, such as "Poor Little Fool," "Lonesome Town" and "Travelin' Man," and gained attention with his distinctive guitar solo on "Break My Chain."
When the hits stopped coming, Nelson recorded two country albums in 1966 and '67 with Burton on dobro and Glen Campbell on lead guitar.
By that time, Burton was going in a similar direction as a studio guitarist for the Byrds, Merle Haggard and Buck Owens. Then he recorded three albums with Gram Parsons, often called the father of country rock, and his band, the Flying Burrito Brothers.
"I played with the Byrds on their records and that's when I first met Gram," Burton said. "He wanted to be a country singer and that was his main bag. When he got his record deal, he called me and said, 'Man, I'm in the studio, let's go do it.' So I went in and we cut those records."
Burton has to reflect when asked who he thinks is the father of country rock. Was it Parsons? Elvis? Cash?
"I don't know," Burton says wearily. "I think Ricky. We started that many years ago."