Everyone knows someone from Dubberly! The Long Musical Career of Dubberly’s James Burton |

Written by Johnny Wessler

I’ve been asked, “Who is the most famous person you’ve met?” I met and had my picture taken with George Jones, Kevin Costner, Demi Moore and Pam Tillis to name a few. I even met Donald Trump when he brought the Miss USA pageant to Shreveport and once locked eyes and shared a smile with Yoko Ono in New York. You probably know all of these names, but I have to say, “The most famous person I’ve met is Dubberly, Louisiana’s favorite son, James Burton!”

James is a musician. Not just an ordinary musician, but one who has reached the pinnacle of success. Some people may not recognize his name or his face. But virtually everyone who has listened to music, over the past six decades, has heard through him.

When Burton was young, his family moved 30 miles west from Dubberly to Shreveport. When he was a young teenager, he asked his father to buy him a guitar he saw in the window of a local music store. No one knew at that time that music would open up the world to James.

In a few years, he was kind enough to participate in a talent contest open to all ages. James was around 14 and won! The host recognized the prodigy and asked him if he would like to join his group.

It was this contact that introduced young James to the Louisiana Hayride where he became a staff guitarist. He has performed with many guest artists including George Jones, Linda Brannon, Bob Luman and David Houston to name a few.

James Burton in his first band. Also pictured – Sammy Mangham, Larry Bamburg, Bo Morgan, Tommy Cassell

James was asked to do local recording work during this time. He recorded some at RAM Records with Mira Smith and at KWKH Studios with Bob Sullivan as engineer. Dale Hawkins wrote the lyrics and James wrote the music for a song called “Susie Q”. This song, and its iconic opening lick, became one of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll!

Burton’s talent has not escaped the direction of Hayride. Louisiana Hayride producer Horace Logan quit his job and took 17-year-old James Burton with David Houston, Bob Luman and James Kirkland to Los Angeles, California to make the second* Rock and Roll movie, ‘Carnival Rock’. (*the first Rock and Roll movie was Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock”) James’ guitar work shines in this movie. You can find clips from the film on YouTube.

Carol Goleman took this photo of James Burton and Sonny Harville with George Jones

Carnival Rock was filmed in the same studio where the popular TV series “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” was filmed. Ricky Nelson, the idol son of Ozzie and Harriet, wanted to form a band and after hearing from James, decided he had found his guitarist. Since James was only 17, Ricky’s parents had to convince James’ parents to let him stay in Los Angeles. So they let James live with them and have a guest role on their TV show.

Ricky Nelson’s music developed around James’ style, which has been described as country-rock or rockabilly. James traveled and performed on most of Nelson’s songs over the next few years.

Many aspiring guitarists were influenced by James during this time. Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page said: “That’s when I started… I used to listen to Ricky Nelson records and pinch James Burton licks and learn them note for perfect note.” Keith Richards, the Rolling Stones guitarist who officially inducted James into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame said it perfectly. “I Didn’t by Ricky Nelson Records. I bought James Burton Records on which Ricky Nelson was singing.

During the induction, Richards showed everyone that he still carried a picture of James Burton in his wallet. Many other guitarists like Brian May of ‘Queen’, Pete Townsend of ‘The Who’ and Vince Gill all say James was one of the biggest influences in their careers. James is famous for the famous!

In 1965, James began working on a television show called “Shindig!” This exposure got the phone ringing and before long James was the most sought after session musician in Los Angeles. He has recorded over 400 albums. If you’ve ever listened to The Beach Boys, Johnny Mathis, Barbara Streisand, The Monkees, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Mamas and The Papas, Judy Collins, Glen Campbell, Merle Haggard or Johnny Rivers, you were listening to James’ guitar!

It was around this time that he got a call from Elvis Presley, who asked James to be on his comeback special. James was in the middle of a recording session for Frank Sinatra and had to turn the offer down. However, the following year, Elvis asked Burton to organize the TCB group for his show in Las Vegas. It became an iconic part of Elvis shows where he would say, “Play it, James”, leading to one of James’ solos! James performed with Elvis until Presley’s untimely death in 1977.

John Denver asked James to play on an upcoming European tour. This turned into a collaboration that lasted the next 16 years where they recorded 12 albums and toured the world. Denver died in a plane crash in 1997 and James spoke at his memorial service.

Burton recorded and toured with Elvis Costello on and off for about a decade. And, in 1988, he had a starring role in the acclaimed Cinemax special, “Roy Orbison and Friends, A Black and White Night.”

In 1990 Burton returned to Shreveport. He soon noticed that schools were placing less and less emphasis on music education. This troubled him, so he established the James Burton Foundation. Their mission is to “support music education for those in need through guitar donations and music education in schools, hospitals, and community service organizations.”

The foundation has organized a dozen fundraisers for guitar concerts. Some of the biggest names in the entertainment industry have come to Shreveport. People like Brad Paisley, Kix Brooks, Junior Brown, Steve Cropper, Doyle Dykes, Rick Derringer, Emmylou Harris, Chris Isaak, Dr John, Sonny Landreth, Albert Lee, Jim Messina, Gunnar Nelson, Steven Segal, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Ricky Skaggs, Steve Wariner, John Goodman and many more generously donated their talents to support James’ efforts.

The foundation has raised funds to purchase and donate over 1,000 guitars to students and veterans. You can learn more by visiting JamesBurtonFoundation.org.

If that wasn’t enough to justify James Burton’s fame, let me share a few side notes.

James is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Country Music Hall of Fame, Musicians Hall of Fame, Louisiana Hall of Fame, and Red River District Walk of Stars.
He was part of the famous “Wrecking Crew”.
It was part of a collaboration that won a Grammy Award for Best Country Instrumental Performance.
Rolling Stone Magazine honored him as one of the most influential guitarists of all time – He’s ranked in the top 20!
He is known as “The Master of the Telecaster”.
He invented a style of guitar playing called ‘Chickin’ Pickin’.
He was the first to put banjo strings on a guitar, allowing the player to dramatically change pitch by bending the strings.
He won honors for his dobro work.
James Burton still owns all the guitars he bought.
Fender Guitar Company honored James as the first person to make a signature guitar for him.
He appeared in Ricky Nelson’s “Traveling Man” music video, which has been called the first music video.

Burton still travels extensively for appearances around the world. A few years ago I was in Memphis for ‘Elvis Week’. I was right next to James at Sun Records. The place is not that big and we were facing at least 150 people wanting to get closer to James. It was the closest I’ve come to seeing what it’s like to be famous. It’s not all it’s supposed to be. I understand why celebrities become reclusive.

People from all over the world come to have their picture taken with the statue honoring James which stands on Elvis Presley Avenue in front of the Shreveport Municipal Auditorium. The statue faces the headquarters of his Foundation, located just across the street!

If you’re lucky, you can enter the building and walk onto the stage where James’ career began. So many careers started on The Louisiana Hayride, it became known as The Cradle of the Stars.

James Burton was born in Dubberly, Louisiana in 1939. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone more famous. And a personal note – James Burton is one of the nicest, humblest people you will ever meet. James and his wife, Louise, are proud conservative Christians.

As of this writing, they’re in Nashville putting the finishing touches on “James Burton and Friends,” the sold-out show they taped last November. It will star James Burton and feature some of his friends like Steve Cropper, John Carter Cash, Sammy Hagar, Johnny Owens, Albert Lee, Joe Walsh, Marty Haggard, Jason Scheff, Chris Whitehall, Alex, Roy, Jr and Wesley. Orbison, Micky Dolenz, The Imperials, Brian May and Paul Shaffer as well as other surprise guests!

If you ask someone famous, “Who is the most famous person you know?” Don’t be surprised when they say, James Burton, that guitarist from Dubberly, Louisiana!

Johnny Wessler offers historic musical tours and presentations of northwest Louisiana. For more information contact him at: Johnny.Wessler@gmail.com or 318-393-3274