Guitarist James Burton, a stand-out sideman for Elvis Presley, Ricky Nelson, Emmylou Harris and numerous other country-related acts, will be inducted March 19 into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame during the 16th Annual Induction Ceremony at The Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City.
Burton joins the Hall of Fame in its “sidemen” category, which recognizes performers who have made major contributions to rock ’n’ roll while backing other, more prominent artists. Scotty Moore, Presley’s original guitar man, was inducted in March as part of the Hall’s first-ever class of sidemen.
“The recognition is really exciting and also surprising,” Burton says. ” I didn’t know anything about it until my friend [producer] Andy Paley called me after hearing the news on television. The Hall of Fame called to congratulate me a little later. I feel like I won an Oscar or something. It’s wonderful.”
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame announced its 2001 slate on Tuesday (Dec. 12) during a news conference at VH1 Studios in New York. Michael Jackson, Paul Simon, Aerosmith, Queen, Steely Dan, The Flamingos, Solomon Burke and Ritchie Valens also were selected. Island Records founder Chris Blackwell will go in as a “non-performer,” and Chuck Berry’s pianist, Johnnie Johnson, will join Burton in the sidemen category. VH1 will air the induction ceremony on March 21.
Burton — who has homes in his native Shreveport, La., and in Nashville and Los Angeles — has never attended one of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s induction ceremonies or its museum in Cleveland.
“I work with Jerry Lee Lewis a lot, and when Jerry Lee was elected [in 1986] I tried to go to the ceremony, but I was out working on some other projects and couldn’t make it,” Burton explains. “One of my guitars is displayed in the museum. The pink paisley I played with Elvis is in there with Elvis’ memorabilia.”
Burton played a major role in popularizing a Telecaster-generated electric guitar sound that remains a part of country music to this day.
His distinctive and influential guitar style evolved from listening to the country playing of Chet Atkins and Merle Travis and the blues styles of Elmore James, Lightnin’ Hopkins and John Lee Hooker. He was just 14 when he and pianist Floyd Cramer worked together in the Louisiana Hayride band, backing George Jones and other country singers who came to Shreveport.
Burton has played on countless recording sessions since he first played lead guitar on Dale Hawkins’ 1957 classic, “Susie-Q.” In the ’50s, Burton appeared on national television during musical segments of the Nelson family show, The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet, and he later handled the lead guitar parts on Nelson’s hit records.
In the ’70s, Burton divided his time between Presley and Harris. He led Presley’s band from his famous return to the public stage in 1969 until the singer’s death in 1977. Burton played on Gram Parsons’ solo albums, and after Parsons’ death in 1973, he joined Harris’ first Hot Band.
Burton’s many credits include sessions with Frank Sinatra, George Harrison, The Byrds, Wanda Jackson, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, The Monkees, Elvis Costello, The Ventures and Mark Chesnutt.