“Play It, James!”


Last night, Charlie and I went to see James Burton, legendary guitar player, Rock and Hall Hall of Famer, guitarist for Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Ricky Nelson, Merle Haggard, Elvis Costello and … the other Elvis, of course. On all of those great live recordings of Elvis’ shows from the late 1960 through the 70s, when it was time to go into the musical solo section of the songs, Elvis would shout out, “Play it, James!” It always makes me happy to hear that, maybe because it is indicative of Elvis’ essentially collaborative nature, despite the fact that he was more famous than a Pharaoh. Elvis had asked James Burton to play for his 1968 NBC special, and Burton turned him down. But the following year, when Elvis was putting together his band for his big opening in Las Vegas, he asked Burton again, and this time Burton said Yes. His time with Elvis was just a small part of this man’s extraordinary career (which is still going strong). Burton still plays and tours, on occasion, with the old TCB band, Ronnie Tutt and all the rest. Beautiful!

Elvis and James Burton

Burton was playing at Iridium, on 51st and Broadway. It was a muggy day, with dramatic clouds, and a drizzly heavy atmosphere in the air. Charlie and I met up, and then we went to get a drink at Jimmy’s, this awesome dive-y bar on 44th, the kind of bar that is rapidly disappearing from the boroughs of Manhattan. It’s a tiny corridor, and the walls are covered, overlapping, with posters and photos of Muhammad Ali. (The owner is connected to Ali.) The place was packed, but we found a table, and caught up a bit. It was nice. We then headed to Iridium for the 10 p.m. show. I was already up way past my bedtime (my new bedtime), but I had taken a nap earlier in the day to prepare. It’s almost Elvis Week, and I was not missing out on my chance seeing James Burton. And I’ll go see him again!

Iridium is a small club, with a nice vibe. We had great seats (although there really isn’t a bad seat in the house). James Burton had already played a show there at 8, and was wandering around with his wife (his whole family was there – more on that in a bit), saying hi to people, looking spry and awesome, all in black, with a black baseball cap with his name on it in red.

Dave Keyes was the amazing piano player (check him out here), who led the “Great Balls of Fire”, which blew the roof off.

Jon Paris played guitar and harmonica, as well as sang. He took the Elvis parts, he was awesome. He started off the whole show by saying, “We’re gonna start off with the song that started it all.” And of course it was “That’s All Right”, and to see James Burton picking along in his brilliant way to that song, the part I know so well from all of Elvis’ live appearances, was a total thrill.

Tony Garnier, who has played with Bob Dylan for years, played acoustic bass and standup bass.

And Shawn Pelton was the incredible drummer. More on him in a bit.

Eventually, James Burton brought out his son, Jeff, who is also a musician, and then, after that, Jeff brought out his daughter, also a guitar player. Fantastic! She joined her dad and grandfather (and everyone else) for “Johnny B. Goode”. When she came onto the stage, James Burton said into the mike, so so sweetly, after she was introduced, “She’s a good girl.” Tear.)

Father and son

They played a ton of Elvis. “Blue Suede Shoes”, “I Got a Woman”, “Milkcow Blues Boogie”, “Burnin’ Love” – and – unbelievably – “Polk Salad Annie”. Jeff Burton said they all hailed from Louisiana, and he described the alligators in his backyard, and said, “Now there’s a song about Louisiana that kind of says it all …” Although “Polk Salad Annie” starts with the words “Down in Louisiana”, I somehow hadn’t anticipated that that was the song, and I hadn’t anticipated that they would cover that song at all. I mean, Elvis and “Polk Salad Annie” … you can’t quite separate the two. But then they went off and did it, and it was so much fun, so exciting, the Iridium just rocking out to that nasty dirty swamp-funk number, AND it just highlighted how much of the song’s power and sexiness came from Burton’s guitar. And Elvis knew that. You can see him almost riding the groove of Burton’s playing like a giant wave in the famous clips of him doing that song.

Listen to that guitar. It’s dirty, man.

But it wasn’t all Elvis music, of course. Jeff Burton said, “We’re gonna do a couple of Ricky Nelson songs now …” and some loud guy in the back screamed, “ALL RIGHT!!!” I know I’m with my tribe when people scream “ALL RIGHT!!!” with excitement at the name Ricky Nelson. They sang “Mary Lou” and “Travelin’ Man”. James Burton wandered around the stage, playing, communicating with his fellow musicians (he was clearly in charge), modulating and adjusting the performance. It was amazing to watch the silent communication. The drummer was in the ZONE with all of these classic songs, and at the same time that he was in the zone, he also never took his eyes off of James, the conductor. It was exhilarating.

They played “Suspicious Minds” (and again, that guitar part on the song is a huge part of its “hook”, once we get the compelling factor of Elvis out of the way). The whole audience sang along. I can’t describe my emotions. Elvis! MY TRIBE. I AM WITH MY TRIBE.


Speaking of my tribe, that loud guy was clearly having the best time of his entire life and Charlie and I heard him screaming out the following phrases throughout the night:


Not even kidding. It was as though these were the only words in this man’s vocabulary to express his deep and outrageous excitement at the show he was seeing. Every time we would hear another eruption from behind us, it would be one of those three phrases. I absolutely adored it. It was a huge part of the night.

Youtube clip from Friday night’s show! Milk Cow Blues Boogie, go, Elvis! Listen to them jam.

There were three moments that stand out above the others, shining with a kind of transcendent magic, that stopped the club dead in its tracks. One was what appeared to be an improvisational wholly-instrumental version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, with only Burton and his fellow guitarist playing. Burton introduced it simply, saying, “This is something new … we’ll just give it a try.” They stood facing one another, Burton’s guitar was the lead, and it was a swoopy gorgeous emotional finger-picking version of the song. They kept looking at each other, silent words of communication flowing back and forth. I swear, nobody moved in that club, it was like everyone was afraid to break the spell. And it was a spell. Burton is a maestro on that thing, and while the song flowed far from its origins, you always could hear the original in there. It was unbelievable. As he neared the end, drawing it out, right before the last lingering note, a guy in the back (I think the same one who screamed out “Ricky Nelson”), breathed out, loud enough so everyone could hear, “Fuuuuck.” My sentiments exactly.


The other was an instrumental song, again, that I did not recognize. I am so sorry I didn’t recognize it, and neither did Charlie, although I asked him afterwards, “What was that???” It was melancholy, the chord changes, gentle and yet insistent, went right the hell through me. Burton faced sideways, so he could communicate with the band. There was something about the melody that actually felt healing to me, especially right now. I am doing very well, I have support and I understand what I am supposed to do. I still have bad moments, but those are really more from habit than reality. That instrumental song acted like a warm blanket, it felt actually soothing, in an active and participatory way. I never wanted it to end. I felt the song holding me up, showing me something new, peace, comfort, ease. I am so thankful to them for playing that mystery song.

**Update: Such are the glories of the Internet. I had an email exchange with Jon Paris, and asked him what the mystery song was. It is called “Only the Young”, and here is a clip of James Burton playing it. Thank you, Mr. Paris! The song has been haunting me ever since I first heard it!

And lastly. The night ended with a giant finish, “Johnny B. Goode”, the stage crowded with people. It’s a small enough club that after the ovation, James Burton said into the microphone that he had some T-shirts, CDs, he’d be happy to stick around and give autographs, sign stuff, say hello. He said he looked forward to coming back to New York and he hoped he’d see us all again. The other band members were quietly exiting the stage as he talked, but it was all very informal. People were starting to chat, people were standing up, and Burton was talking … and then … (impromptu, clearly, the other band members weren’t ready for it, and all sort of stood nearby, frozen, wondering if they would be needed) … Burton played, solo, an eerily gorgeous and simple version of “Love Me Tender”. The house lights were up. People had already started gathering their things together, Burton was still talking, and then suddenly, he stopped talking, pulled his guitar into position, and, in an almost meandering subconscious way, began playing a song that we all know so well. No one sang along. The band was gone.

And I felt the absence in that moment, for the first time all night. The absence of Elvis. He was there, in that club, really for the first time, when Burton played “Love Me Tender”. As I’ve said before, Elvis is more palpable in his absence than he was in being present. But this … this was something different. Burton didn’t sentimentalize the moment, or make a big deal out of it. He didn’t announce the song. The name “Elvis” had been mentioned from the stage, of course, but not in any reverential way. But the mood changed when Burton, with the house lights up, stood there and just started that song, and I am not sure if he was even doing it consciously.

That eerie quiet solo “Love Me Tender” was an elegy, an act of remembrance, as well as a summoning.

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20 Responses to “Play It, James!”

  1. One thing that always amazes me about Burton is how YOUNG he was when he was recording those amazing Ricky Nelson sides. Truly revolutionary guitar leads.

  2. Clementine Moriarty says:

    Sheila……your description of the James Burtons’ solo of ….’Love Me Tender’……brought forth a tear or two. Stunning clarity with your chosen words…..perfect for the beginning of Elvis Week. TYVM! Girl!….. Always TCB!

  3. Troy Y. says:

    Wow. Great piece here, Sheila. Your description of the “Love Me Tender” portion gave me chills….

  4. NJS21 says:

    I stayed for both shows at the Iridium and went to see him play with Sleepy LaBeef on Sunday. All were well worth it! He is a master guitarist and one of the nicest people I have ever met!

  5. Greg C. says:

    Nice piece Sheila! Enjoyed the read very much.

  6. Louis Van Hal says:

    They are one of the finest family’s i ever met, always friendly and respectvol

  7. Theokie says:

    Hi Sheila, I saw JB in Liverpool, UK a few weeks back and he played Love’s Lost, an intrumental piece of his own. It dates back to Shindig on TV, so that may be the tune.

    • sheila says:

      Hi! I just looked that one up – some great TV clips – but I don’t think that’s the song. It was a bit slower. I’ll keep digging – but I really appreciate the suggestion. Thank you!

      • sheila says:

        I found out that the mystery song is called “Only the Young” – I’ve added a clip of Burton playing it in Austin. So so beautiful and sweet!

  8. Dan Clifford says:

    That was an awesome review about an amazingly humble and legendary guitar man. We met James and Albert Lee this summer on Vancouver Island and I was very taken by how genuinely nice they were. What a treat to meet people like them! I’ll go see James Burton any time he’s anywhere near me.

  9. Dave Joiner says:

    That you Sheila for posting your revue and especially the video. I would have loved to have been there. James is THE man. Love his playing. Thank you again so much for sharing.

  10. Byron L says:

    “Only The Young” is an old Ventures instrumental off their “Fabulous Ventures” LP. Really pretty song. The TCB Band will be playing here in Honolulu on Oct.24 backing up New Zealand singer John Rowles. After reading you post here I’m even more looking forward to going. I’m positive I will regret it if I miss him.

    • sheila says:

      Byron – thanks so much for the background on that beautiful song! I will track down that LP.

      Have a wonderful time at the show! It sounds like it’s going to be great!! Report back, if you think of it – would love to hear your thoughts on it.

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