Still Working For The King

By 11, 2003
Still Working For The King
James Burton played guitar in Elvis's band, but he's not here to back an impersonator - the TCB Band have more respect, he tells Michael Dwyer. James Burton wants to make one distinction clear. Many people love Elvis Presley, some perform Elvis Presley's songs, and a handful of them even have a sense of the elusive "Spirit of Elvis". According to the man who played behind the King for the last eight years of his life, Australian cabaret star Mick Gerace may be one of those elite few. But if he was an Elvis Presley impersonator, well, sorry, but Elvis's original TCB Band would definitely not be flying out to Australia to back him up. "We don't do that," says Burton firmly. "I have many, many friends who are Elvis impersonators, but we, the TCB Band, we don't play with them," the 64-year-old guitarist says. "We don't play with people who dress up like him, try to act like him on stage and try to sing like him. Once you've worked with the King of Rock'n'Roll, you don't degrade yourself." Honoured as a Legendary Sideman by the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame in 2001, James Burton's stint with the King was just one high-grade gig in an upmarket career. An early starter at 14, the hot-shot guitarist from Louisiana had already played with George Jones and co-written the Dale Hawkins hit Suzi Q, when Ricky Nelson signed him up in 1958. "I have somewhat of a discography around here somewhere, which I'm sure you'd like to look at," the southern gent says modestly. "So many wonderful projects I've done - Nat King Cole, the Beach Boys and... Well, you name it. The list goes on forever. "I played on the Byrds' records - that's where I met Gram Parsons. Gram Parsons! Oh, wow. He was just incredible. Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, Emmylou Harris..." Life's too short to grill Mr Burton about the Everly Brothers, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young or the Monkees. Or the fact that he and TCB bassist Jerry Scheff are the only guys to have tangled with both Elvises, Presley and Costello. One sign of the guitarist's versatility is that he was playing with Frank Sinatra when Presley's people first called in 1968. Ol' Blue Eyes had been scathing of Presley's music, famously calling it "a rancid-smelling aphrodisiac", but it smelt OK to James Burton. "They called me for Elvis's '68 comeback special and unfortunately I had to turn them down," he recalls. "Then in '69 Elvis called me himself, and we talked for two or three hours on the phone about different things in music and the world, people I'd worked with and what he liked and disliked in music. "We had a great conversation, then he asked me if I would be interested in putting a band together to go back and do live shows. At that time I was busy in studios and it was a tough decision, but I thought it would be great to go play some live shows, then come back to my original clients." As it happened, Burton led the TCB (Taking Care of Business) Band through innumerable venues and studios until Presley's final concert at the Indianapolis Market Square Arena on June 26, 1977, weeks before his death. "He had this incredible charisma," he recalls of his former employer. "When you first walk in the room and he's present, it's like, 'Wow!', like a high priest, you know what I'm sayin'? He was an extraordinary person. "His looks and his magnetism - he had a charm about him that was incredible. You can't take your eyes off him. I've seen him walk in a room with 5000 people and you can hear a pin drop. He just had that thing about him." Musical differences aside, Presley shared with Sinatra a gift for spontaneous expression, Burton says. If magic didn't happen within a few takes, neither performer would tolerate second guesses. "Elvis didn't believe in doing more than two or three takes on any song. He believed perfection either happened right away or you made a bypass on to something else. "He would sing a song maybe three times and it would come together so quick: the feeling, the soul, from the heart. A lot of artists, they wanna try this, try that. Elvis was not like that. It was more of a natural thing." Burton stuck with Presley through the toughest times. The renowned '68 comeback special reinstated the King's crown, but the subsequent Las Vegas years severely undermined his health and reputation. By the summer of '73, he began to be mercilessly panned by critics. "It wasn't as bad as a lot of the reviews might have said," Burton insists loyally. "Every show Elvis did, he would go out and give 100 per cent. "His weight, whether gaining it or losing it real fast, that was a problem there for a while. But when we did the Aloha special (in '73) he was in rare form. He'd slimmed down, he looked great. He was just a hard worker on stage and I loved it, every minute of it." Burton can't - or won't - talk about Presley's drug-fuelled demise in the '70s. The TCB Band were hired professionals who went home to their families, he says. Joe Esposito and the so-called Memphis Mafia were much closer to the singer behind closed doors. It was Esposito who forged the link with Mick Gerace on his show-and-tell tour of Australia last year. "He came back raving about Mick," says Burton. "Said he was a great entertainer and a wonderful person. Then I spoke to (Presley's old back-up singers) the Jordanaires and they told me the same thing." And so the Australian stage was set for a world first. In the Spirit of Elvis features hits from Presley's 1969-1977 period, performed by the original TCB band, with a gifted non-impersonator out front. Now all drummer Ronnie Tutt has to do is work out where to look. "Elvis's action on stage had a lot to do with how we played," says Burton. "You had to have eye-contact communication at all times, because Ronnie would play to whatever Elvis was doing. We kinda had our own rhythm, and that came strictly from Elvis."

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