The world lost a special person on a chilly New Year’s Eve in 1985. Though singer Rick Nelson was only 45 years old when a tragic plane crash took his life, his music has likely touched more generations than even he could have imagined.
James Burton has played guitar with many legends in the music industry, but it is his association with Rick during the beginning of his career that holds a special place in his heart. Both are in The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and deservedly so.
He kindly decided to share his memories of Rick in an exclusive interview, and the final portion appears below. Just so you haven’t missed Parts One — Three, you can catch up here. Without a doubt, the two musicians shared a special bond.
Stories discussed below include James’ thoughts on The Stone Canyon Band, rejoining Rick in the studio, his reunion with Rick, where was he when the plane crash happened, Rick’s final, still-unreleased album of rockabilly and classic ballads, and his memories of three Rick Nelson songs (one will surprise you). Now, onto the rest of the story.
The James Burton Interview, Part Four (Conclusion)
What did you think of Rick’s decision to form the Stone Canyon Band in 1969?
I was just so happy that he was still out working. He seemed to be contented doing it. I only wished the best for him. Rick eventually became quite the songwriter.
“Garden Party” was one of the nicer things he did during that era. There’s a story behind Rick’s final million seller – some strange things happened when he went up to New York City and played a rock and roll revival package show spearheaded by promoter Richard Nader at Madison Square Garden [Oct. 15, 1971]. Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, the Shirelles, and other artists past their prime were on the bill.
Rick had hair down to his shoulders, an embroidered western shirt, and played a different type of music – country rock – and the crowd wasn’t ready for it. They wanted to hear Rick’s original hits played the way they remembered them. Some of the audience apparently booed him, as they weren’t quite sure how to accept him. Of course, that was after I had left, and Tom Brumley, who unfortunately passed away in February 2009, had taken my place on steel guitar.
I admire Rick for exploring different musical directions that mattered to him, whether his longtime fans accepted it or not. Rick was such a great artist that he should have been able to do anything stylistically, and his fans would have accepted him unconditionally. I’m not sure why, but whatever music suited Elvis’ fancy, his fans tended to buy it. In a perfect world, this should have happened in a similar manner with Rick.
It was quite hard for him to break away from his classic sound and image, but he persevered and did things his way, even if it meant performing up to 300 shows per year, often in small clubs near the end of his life. By the early ‘80s, he was finally persuaded that it was okay to revisit his past rockabilly hits from the ‘50s and early ‘60s. Those songs have stood the test of time, and I’m glad Rick came to recognize their legacy.
Did you consider rejoining Rick’s band at any point?
Our paths simply went in different directions. I had to make a tough decision to go with Elvis when he called for the second time and asked me to put a band together and go to Vegas with him in 1969 because I didn’t want to lose all my clients. Elvis actually called me while he was making the ’68 Comeback Special but I was too busy on sessions. Thankfully, I didn’t actually lose anything, and I gained another wonderful person to work with doing live shows. Elvis was an incredible person to work with.
I also worked with Jerry Lee Lewis after Elvis’ death. We were at the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas on New Year’s Eve 1984. Rick opened the show, we closed the show, and we would do another set of shows that same night. They weren’t very long, probably 45-minute shows.
I never got onstage again with Rick because Jerry Lee’s band would never be backstage until maybe Rick’s closing number. Once in awhile, I would go down early and hang out. I don’t know if Jerry Lee would have liked that. It would be like working with Elvis – you wouldn’t want to go onstage with somebody before Elvis’ show – it wouldn’t look good [laughs].
Still, Rick and I spent two great weeks together – talking, visiting, just hanging out. We were always friends and very close. That was exactly a year before Rick’s plane, engulfed in flames, landed in De Kalb, Texas, very close to my hometown in Shreveport. Ironically, the 1944 Douglas DC-3 airplane had originally belonged to Jerry Lee, but he realized the plane was unsafe and refused to fly in it.
Rick was returning to his rockabilly roots on his final, still-unreleased album for Curb Records. Would you consider overdubbing guitar if the family had a change of heart and decided to release it?
While we were in Vegas with Jerry Lee, Rick asked me to come and play on what turned out to be his final album. I told him, “Absolutely, I’d love to.” Unfortunately, it never happened. Jimmie Haskell also called and asked me if I would play on it, as Rick had asked him to contact me.
I really don’t know the status of the recordings – whether it was finished or if they would consider releasing it. I could find out real easy, though. It’s possible that I could be called in to overdub my guitar parts after all these years. If his family called me, I would be more than happy to do that.
Where were you when you received the awful news of Rick’s untimely passing?
My wife, Louise, and I had a home in Las Vegas since I had worked with Elvis for so long [1969–1977]. We were there during that New Year’s Eve 1985 weekend. My son’s ex-wife called to tell us the news, but I didn’t take the call. I answered the phone and gave it to Louise. Minutes later, I heard a chilling scream.
I ran back into the room and yelled, “What happened?” Clearly upset, Louise replied, “Turn the TV on. Rick and his entire band just had a plane crash!” That’s how I found out about it. The band, including road manager Donald Clark Russell, guitarist Bobby Neal, bassist Patrick Woodward, drummer Ricky Intveld, and keyboardist Andy Chapin, were all good friends of mine.
It was such an incredible shock and sad time for us, especially being in Vegas and thinking of what might have been had I been able to reunite in the studio with Rick. When you lose somebody that close, they’re like family to you. We lost a wonderful entertainer and an all-around great guy.
What memories spring to mind when you hear the following songs featuring your legendary Telecaster notes?
- “Believe What You Say” [No. 4, also No. 10 C&W, No. 6 R&B April 1958]
That was the very first song of Rick’s that I played the lead guitar solo. What was it that Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones said? “Hell, I didn’t buy Ricky Nelson records – I bought James Burton records” [laughs].
Rick loved that song and kept that in his set list until he passed away. Dorsey and Johnny Burnette wrote “Believe What You Say.” Dorsey was a good friend of mine. I played on records by both of them as well as their children, Billy (Dorsey’s son) and Rocky (Johnny’s boy).
- “Travelin’ Man” [No. 1 April 1961]
“Travelin’ Man” was the very first music video played on television, a remarkable accomplishment for a cool song. Jerry Fuller composed it. He was also an excellent singer who sang background vocals with Glen Campbell and Dave Burgess on a good number of our early ‘60s sessions with Rick.
Jerry later became an in-demand producer for people like Johnny Mathis, and I was on many of those sessions as well. Fans of Paul Revere and the Raiders might not know, but Jerry guided lead singer Mark Lindsay’s early solo hits such as “Arizona” and “Silver Bird.”
- “Fire Breathin’ Dragon” [A-side January 1966]
We played “Fire Breathin’ Dragon” during our first and only appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. We also performed the B-side, “Your Kind of Lovin’”. To quote Sullivan’s famous introduction, “And now, ladies and gentlemen…” (laughs). Sullivan was one-of-a-kind, very business-oriented, but a fun guy to talk with. I met and shook hands with him, and he was very nice to me.
Doing his show was a cut and dry experience. You went in, turned the radio on, and that was it [laughs]. We were there 30 minutes. I do remember that it was cold and snowy in New York City that January evening. I don’t think I’ve seen our guest appearance in decades [Author’s Note: After playing the YouTube video over the phone for Burton, he remarked, “That sounds good!”].
Can you fathom how much time has transpired since Rick’s passing?
It doesn’t seem like it’s been nearly 30 years at all. I think about him so often. When I go out and do shows, those old tunes like “Hello Mary Lou”, “Travelin’ Man,” and even “Mystery Train” and “I Got a Woman” are top of the line [Author’s Note: Elvis also had early hits with the latter two].
Rick was a talented individual who had a wonderful career. All the music we did is just as good today as when we recorded it. Rick was on the verge of being a real gigantic superstar.
He was one of the sweetest, finest guys I’ve ever worked with, and the whole family is unbelievably fantastic. He loved his kids. Rick’s twin sons, Gunnar and Matthew, performed at my very first James Burton International Guitar Festival in 2005. I still sit in with them occasionally on Ricky Nelson Remembered, a show they do in cities throughout the USA. His youngest child, Sam, is a great singer, too.
I did a thing with Sam, Matthew, and Gunnar for the documentary Ricky Nelson Sings , which was released to coincide with the 20th anniversary of Rick’s passing. We went in the studio and played live together on “It’s Late,” “Believe What You Say,” and “Garden Party.” Hey man, it was cool. We also got together for an amazing evening on Larry King Live to remember Rick during that same anniversary. I remain the absolute best of friends with his whole family.
What would you like to say to Rick’s many worldwide fans?
I’d like to tell all the fans hello and may God bless each and every one of them. Every place I travel around the world, someone always mentions Rick’s name. His music truly lives on. I miss him, and I hope to continue doing great work with his kids – Tracy, Gunnar, Matthew, and Sam.
- DON’T GO ANYWHERE YET! James Burton, Sam Nelson, arranger/producer Jimmie Haskell, and Nelson’s biographers agreed to speak on the record about the singer’s controversial, ultimately final album for Curb Records. Unfortunately, after Nelson’s death the rockabilly-themed project was promptly placed in the dustbin whilst various figureheads argued over rights, whether the singer’s vocals were satisfactory, and if the project deserved to see the light of day. Wrangling beyond the so-called myths, an in-depth feature [“As Long As We Had Him: Rick Nelson’s Friends and Family Recall His Last Album”] sheds light on the ill-fated Curb sessions nearly 30 years later.
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The Complete James Burton Interview
- Part One: “Remembering Rick Nelson: An Interview with His Friend, Guitarist…”
- Two: “On the Road with Rick: The Master of Telecaster Remembers…”
- Three: “Never Be Anyone Else But You: The Guitarist on the Studio Years”
- Four: “25 Years Ago This Week – James Burton’s Tribute to a Legend”
The Complete Sam Nelson Interview (Rick’s youngest child)
- Part One: “My God, What an Incredible Asset: Sam Tackles Ozzie & Harriet”
- Two: “The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet Was the People’s Show…”
- Three: “Rick Nelson Was Really My Dad: Sam Nelson Remembers…
- Four: “He’s Part of Something Incredible: The Lowdown with…”
- Five: “Sam Nelson, Musician: Revisiting H Is Orange and more with…”
- Six: “Rick Nelson Lived the Hero’s Journey and Left His Own Mark”
- Seven: “As Long As We Had Him: Rick’s Friends & Family Recall His Last Album”
The Complete Philip Bashe Interview (author of Teenage Idol, Travelin’ Man)
- Part One: “Teenage Idol, Travelin’ Man: An Interview with Rick’s Biographer”
- Two: “Rick Nelson Had a Great Deal of Musical Integrity…”
- Three: “Rick Nelson Never Sold Out: A Word with the Singer’s…”
- Four: “From You Just Can’t Quit to Garden Party: The Life Philosophy of Rick”
- Five: “As Long As We Had Him: Rick’s Friends & Family Recall His Last Album”
The Complete Sheree Homer Interview (author of Rick Nelson: Rock ‘N’ Roll Pioneer)
- Part One: “Rick Nelson: Rock ‘N’ Roll Pioneer: In Step with Sheree Homer”
- Two: “Rick the Songwriter: A Candid Take on His Formative Compositions”
- Three: “A Shy and Humble Guy Who Loved His Fans: Rick’s Rockabilly Legacy”
- Four: “As Long As We Had Him: Rick’s Friends & Family Recall His Last Album”
Exclusive Interview: Legendary recording artist B.J. Thomas spoke about his debt of gratitude to Rick Nelson in a recent wide-ranging interview. In “Just a Regular Guy With a Burning Desire To Sing…”, Thomas also recalls amazing stories about arriving in Memphis in the late ’60s and singing for Elvis Presley, the impact of Chips Moman and the Memphis Boys on his career, appearing on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ and having buckets of rain inexplicably thrown on his head, and opening for the notoriously temperamental James Brown…
- Exclusive Interview No. 2: The Master of Telecaster, James Burton, was Rick’s most significant guitar compadre in the recording studio. Also a member of the famed Wrecking Crew in Los Angeles, Burton is best known for his extensive work with Elvis Presley, John Denver, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Monkees, and Glen Campbell. To read a revealing conversation with Burton marking the 25th anniversary of Nelson’s untimely death [“On The Road With Rick Nelson…”], simply click on the highlighted link.
Author’s Note: Jordanaire Ray Walker recorded and performed in concert with Rick Nelson and Elvis Presley for decades. In a 2011 article written by this writer, the genial bassist recalled what it was like to sit front row center during an Elvis recording session. Things got pretty crazy when the “Alabama Wild Man”, Jerry Reed, unexpectedly showed up to add some patented gut-string guitar to a few country rock numbers. Visit the following article, “Jordanaire Ray Walker Recalls Studio Nights With Elvis Presley and Jerry Reed,” for the complete lowdown.
**Special thanks to Marshall Terrill, whose editing skills enabled this interview to see publication just in time for the anniversary of Rick Nelson’s death.
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