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

Gary North
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June 22, 2010

If you Google the phrase, "Play it, James," the hits will most 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.

Emmylou Harris was just beginning her career. She hired Elvis's band, which she called the Hot Band. Burton played backup for her in the second stage of her enormously successful career.

This brings me to the point at hand. At the concert, Emmylou made an unannounced appearance. I had thought she might. She said this about that initial run. "I was just a young girl just barely getting started. I knew that there were people who were coming to hear James, not me." Then she made a revealing aesthetic assessment.

James is able to play in the background. Somehow, he can insert a note in such a way that the singer sounds better.

That is the secret. As a master musician, he knows how to match his instrument with the singer's voice. But as a sideman, he knows his place. He is not to be front and center. He is to serve as artistic support. The singer sounds better.

Elvis understood just how good he was. He gave him opportunities to solo. The overall power of the song was made better than it would have been otherwise. Elvis recognized talent, and gave credit where credit was due. In a way, that was a foundation of his later success.

The public does not know his name. He is a humble man, who was happy to have a part in shaping the musical taste of people all over the world -- and in multiple musicl fields. When Keith Richards introduced him at the 2001 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he said, "I never bought a Ricky Nelson record. I bought a James Burton record."

The great benefit of the free market social order is that it rewards people for service that pleases customers. James Burton did not sell his services directly. He sold his services to entertainers who were popular. He made them sound better. They have always understood this. He has never lacked work.

The sideman rarely gets his due. The world does not remember James Burton's name, but Elvis fans remember "Play it, James." For James Burton, that is sufficient.

Our goal should not be to make it front and center. But standing off to the side and making the headliner perform better is a worth goal. It pleases the headliner, and it pleases the buyers.

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