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  • Big Mama Thornton: The Life and Music

    bigmamathorntoncover cropBig Mama Thornton: The Life and Music
    Author: Michael Spörke
    Publisher: McFarland & Co., Inc.
    Review Date: September 28, 2014

    I don’t know why it is that sometimes an unmistakable American story doesn’t get written until someone from another country decides to write about it. For the second time, German author, Michael Spörke, has authored a book about an American musical icon. Just as he did with Living With the Myth of Janis Joplin: The History of Big Brother & the Holding Co. 1965 – 2005, Spörke has authored what is undoubtedly the definitive biography one Willie Mae Thornton, who is the name behind “Hound Dog” and “Ball and Chain.”

    The book is entitled, Big Mama Thornton: The Life and Music, and is an exhaustively researched and documented about this legendary blues pioneer. Written by Spörke in German and translated into English by Big Brother’s Sam Andrew (as he also did with “Myth”), the book is an engrossing page-turner from beginning to end.

    The author takes the reader through the poverty stricken environment of Thornton’s birth, her move into the rough and tumble music business made even rougher in the segregated south. It’s not a “warm and fuzzy” read as we get a glimpse into Thornton’s world – a world that daily faced ridiculous prejudice and bias. We learn the stories of behind monumental songs like “Hound Dog” and “Ball and Chain” as well as the demons – both real and alleged – that Thornton battled.

    The footnoting in this book is meticulously detailed. The translation work by Andrew is spot-on. The information we get from this tome is as accurate as is humanly possible given the limited availability of primary documentation and living human beings who knew Big Mama Thornton.

    Music scholars as well as historians of rock and blues will most definitely want this book as part of their resource library. Why it took someone from Germany to write such a definitive book about such a major character in the history of American music, I’ll never understand but I’m certainly glad that Michael Spörke did exactly that.

  • Bob Gruen

    Posted March, 2010

     

    Bob Gruen @ MoMA Collage Exhibit © Mandi Newall

    Elvis. Aerosmith. Elton John. The Stones. Alice Cooper. Zeppelin. Lennon/Yoko. Dylan. Frampton.

    These artists and icons dominated my mind (besides girls) in my youth. Photo’s torn from my favorite rock magazines and posters purchased in the store (for the astronomical price of $1!) hung on my bedroom walls.

    The images are burned into the firmware of my mind. Their poses, grimaces and smiles frozen forever in their youth. The close that they were in the shots influenced how I dressed and looked. Jeans and jackets were purchased because of something similar Bob Dylan wore in a photo. Platform shoes? Thank you, Elton John. Hair? Thanks to a still shot of Mick Jagger in concert at Madison Square Garden, I started parting my longish hair in the middle, trying to feather it back just like Mick.

    What single thread runs through these memories? Many of the photos that hung on my walls, influenced my “look” and burned into my memory banks were taken by famous rock photographer, Bob Gruen.

    Gruen was destined for rock and roll. An avid fan of The Who in the sixties, they were the band that compelled him to join a crowd a half a million strong at a place called Yasgur’s Farm. There, he witnessed not only the band that he braved the crowds and eliments to see, but many other historic performances that made the Woodstock festival the stuff of legends.

    After Woodstock, Gruen eventually worked his way to the position of chief photographer for Rock Scene Magazine. This afforded him the coveted vantage point of creating candid photos of bands and artist on and off the stage. 

    Bob Gruen didn’t allow himself to be stuck in the seventies. His interest in the music scene allowed him to effortlessly go with the flow of changes in the sights and sounds of musical tastes. Gruen has covered almost every major act and artist the 70’s to today.

    I recently caught up with Bob Gruen, by phone, at his gallery in New York City. For some reason, I decided to start off the interview by asking Bob what career path he would’ve chosen had he not gone down the rock photographer path. As with his answer during the rest of our conversation, his answers are open, honest and transparent.

    “I have no idea. Well, the 60’s were a different time from now. Now, people really plan their future and their career. In the 60’s it was turn on, tune in and drop out. And that’s basically what I did. I wasn’t really thinking about a career. I didn’t really do very well in school and I didn’t have a major in college.

    “I had an older brother who was an overachiever who always got straight A’s and it kind of left me with not much will to succeed on that level – to compete on that level. So, I was living with a rock and roll band and having a good time. “

    So, the obvious question in your mind would be, why photography, so I asked.

    “Photography was always my hobby and I got pretty good at it. When the band got signed, they used my pictures for the publicity. I started meeting publicists for record companies and they started hiring me to take more and more pictures. It just worked out that way. 

    “I didn’t really have a plan to be a photographer in any specific sense – to be anything. A policeman, fireman, anything like that. I really didn’t have a plan. I was aimless.”

    Boy, weren’t we all!

    Having read his thoughts about attending Woodstock, I asked if he took any pictures while he was there.

    “I did, actually. I went as a fan of The Who and I like camping out. Me and a couple of friends went up there to have a good time. It’s funny, the pictures I took. I did take pictures of my friends inside our tent so I have some ‘head shots’ with a green tent behind them but they don’t show much of the festival. 

    “I did find a couple of dozen pictures of the festival that I took - a couple around my tent and a couple of the stage area. I didn’t take any of the acts. I wasn’t there to work in that sense. I hadn’t yet started getting into the music business yet.

    Last summer, a French magazine asked me to put down my memories from Woodstock. He (the editor) liked the idea that I was there as a fan and not working so I put together a story and put it up on my website (here.).

    I asked Bob if he attended the 40th anniversary festivities back in August of last year.

    “Not the 40th. No, we didn’t go – or the 30th. We went to, I think, the 25th. Not the one that turned into an overblown riot but the first reunion which turned into a drunken mess.  We left half way through it.

    “Actually, I went up the hill into Woodstock to see a real show. We saw The Fugs, with Alan Ginsberg, who were playing on the Saturday night of the festival. 

    All of us have stories of regrets and missed opportunities. I asked Gruen if there were any shots or gigs that got away from him that he regretted missing.

    “Oh, well, there are a lot of things I missed. I wish that I could have photographed Otis Redding but I started a little too late to connect with him. I met Jimi Hendrix once. He said, ‘We’ll meet again’ but he was wrong” he adds with a sad chuckle before concluding by saying, “But, other than that, I’ve pretty much met or photographed everybody that I wanted to.

    Lots of changes have happened both in the music business and in the world of photography in general. I asked Bob what he viewed as the most positive changes in his line of work.

    “Oh, well, the ease of delivery. We don’t have to rush to dupe slides and hire messengers and ship things to England overnight. The idea of making multiple prints and rush and having to get them out to all the different magazines . . . now we just e-mail scans. It’s a lot easier.”

    And the biggest negative change in his line of work?

    “Photography has gotten so easy that there’s tens of millions of people doing it!

    “It used to be that a photographer had to be somewhat nerdy – to be a bit of a tech guy. You had to focus and know what F stops and speeds meant. You had to be able to develop and print film. All of those things have been automated. Now, you just pick up your phone and push one more button and whatever you’re looking at can be seen around the world. That’s quite an advance.”

    Gruen had voiced his displeasure with websites like Flikr. I wanted to know, though, if he saw the internet as more of a positive or a negative in his industry.

    “Well, it negatively affects the work because people tend to think that everything they see on the internet is ‘free’. Content is what I’ve sold all my life. Everybody think it’s free. It’s similar to the downloading of music files, people just take pictures and move them from one site to another and use them any way they want without even thinking that they have to pay for it. So, this tremendously cuts into the income when people aren’t paying for your work.

    I thought for sure that the proliferation of music videos and concert DVD’s over the years would have hurt the photography trade. Bob’s insights into this area set me straight on that perception.

    “People tend to watch videos on YouTube or whatever. You can’t put YouTube on your wall unless you have a big screen on your wall. It recently came up in an article. There was an exhibit recently at the Brooklyn Museum of Art called ‘Who Shot Rock’. It’s about Rock Photography. The reviewer wrote that he felt that video was the better way to review it. We all could’ve been up in arms about that. 

    “Video hardly captured the excitement of rock and roll at all. To capture one peak moment in a still photograph that says so much about the energy and excitement, the mood of an artist - you can only do that in a photograph – a photograph that you can put on a wall and it’s just there. You feel the inspiration. Not like having to turn on a TV or to operate the machinery or video. I don’t think that video cuts into the still. The appreciation is still photo. “

    As stated earlier, Bob Gruen isn’t stuck in the past. I was curious, however, what his thoughts of the past are. His answer is both philosophical and reflective.

    “I respect the past and I think people should learn from the past but I don’t dwell in the past. I don’t wish that I could go back to Max’s. It’s like we shouldn’t even go back to high school. Some people do but I certainly don’t. I look forward , looking for new experiences.

    Fast-forwarding to the present, I asked Bob what bands and artists command his attention today. His response is instant.

    “Greenday. There are a few others that I enjoy. I’ve seen Courtney Love. She’s a riveting performer. You can’t take your eyes off of her. But Greenday is certainly the top band of the land. They’re the most powerful and meaningful band around. And the most fun, especially if you’ve ever seen them live. They’re the most fun band around today.

    “There’s a group here in New York that I like called The Sex Slaves. They’re very blunt and also a lot of fun. But there’s not a lot. I was never somebody who ever sought to follow every single group that ever existed and have an encyclopedic knowledge of it. I just follow what I like. I’m a fan. I mostly follow my friends or people friends recommend. I’m not out every night on the prowl looking for a new band.

    “I’m a bit older now. Thirty years ago it was fun for me to sit on a bus with 22 year olds who are getting drunk but it’s not really the same any more for me.” With a laugh, he adds, “I’m a grandfather nowadays, I prefer to spend time with my family.

    With the mention of his family, I commented on the fact that his son, Khris, is pursuing a little bit different route in the music business than his.

    “Yeah, he’s just finishing up his third CD, which should be out soon. He’s got his fans and he’s getting more and more popular.  He started kind of late – somewhat intimidated by my reputation. Also, my ex-wife married Joe Beck, the jazz guitar player, who is a world famous musician. And I think that, rather than encouraging Khris, it kind of held him back a bit because he felt he couldn’t on that kind of level. And I’m very happy to see that he’s doing very well on his own and enjoying it a lot.

    In the course of the conversation, I mention the use of his photo of John Lennon that graces the cover of Philip Norman’s biography of the man. It brought to mind the many others Bob Gruen had known because of his line of work. I asked him who are some of the people that he misses either due to their death or retirement from active life and what is it that you miss about them?

    “I miss Joe Strummer – being able to hang out with him and spend time with him. His shows were great. He was great. It was great fun. Whenever my wife and I would go out to dinner with Joe Strummer, we would have to remind each other to bring our sunglasses because we knew we weren’t coming back until after the sun was up. When you walk out of a bar at eight in the morning you NEED your sunglasses” he finishes with a laugh.

    “Of course, I miss John Lennon – hanging out with him. He was great. Every time I saw him, I felt that I learned something.   I miss a lot of people. I miss Johnny Thunders. Joey Ramone. But I make new friends. The Sex Slaves, Green Day. You move on. That’s the down side to living longer than your friends, missing them” he says with a chuckle.

    With so many accomplishments that he can point to, I asked Bob what he would like to achieve that he hasn’t already. His deadpan answer floored me.

    “Make a lot of money.”

    Say WHAT?! I thought rock photographers made a lot of money?

    “No, this is a VERY low budget operation! I don’t know if there was more than two or three times in my life when I started the month with enough money to finish it. I mean, I never had a cushion where I knew my bills were paid. I’ve always had to work every week to insure that I would have an income.

    “I think that people tend to think that if you hang out with Led Zeppelin or John Lennon that you have that kind of money – that you live on that kind of level rather than just visit. I visit. But then I come home to a small apartment in the Village. I don’t have a yacht. For many years I never even had a new car. Only recently, because my wife has an income and she shares with me am I able to lease a new car.

    “I’m doing much better than I used to. I’m at least leasing a new car rather than driving my old beaters. It’s a misconception that you live the high life and travel around and make a lot of money. Some photographers do. A few. Not many. 

    “Certain photographers working with a ‘boy band’ who sells dozens and dozens of pictures to every magazine around the world - if you have good access to them then you can make some good money. But, for most people shooting most bands, especially nowadays there are so many magazines and so many online so-called magazines that pay practically nothing because there are tens of thousands of people interested in photography since it got so easy. And many of them will just give away a picture for the credit.

    “So, though prices have increased ten-fold, payment for photographs haven’t increased much at all since the 70’s. If anything, it’s going down because of so many more people willing to just put it out there for credit.

    “And then other things like Corbis and Getty – the major photo agencies that are buying up the other smaller photo agencies in the world – they’re trying to own the content and so they’re purposely setting out to put photo agencies and photographers out of business by licensing photos at tremendously discounted rates. I mean, photos that we license for four or five hundred dollars, they license for five or ten dollars, literally that kind of difference. And to have to try and compete with those kinds of prices, we can’t. That’s the point: those kinds of companies want to put all of the other people out of business. They want to own all of the content for the future because content is king on the internet.”

    Wow! Who woulda thunk it?

    How about touring exhibits? I wanted to find out where I could see exhibitions featuring his art and if books were available featuring him.

    “I don’t really have a world-wide agent organizing that. I’m still pretty independent here. So, I only do a few exhibitions a year. I do have a some planned in June for London and, possibly, in the fall in Paris. My John Lennon book is going to come out in French next October in France. 

    “I just had a big collage piece of my work that was in the Museum of Modern Art over the last summer, but that’s over now. ‘Who Shot Rock’ is going to travel to five other museums. It may actually be down south there.

    “We’re also excited about getting the show together for the opening here in NY – I don’t even have the list of where it’s going. It closed here January 31st. But then I know that it’s going to travel to a few other places.

    “My website, BobGruen.com, directs people to most of the available things. My photos are available from several different galleries here in the states. There’s one in particular that does a lot of business online. My books, Clash is still in print but hard to get. John Lennon is still available. The New York Dolls book is available on Amazon or BarnesandNoble.com or whatever website people want to go to. 

    “The best collection of my work, called Rockers. Currently it’s only published in Brazil but it’s available on my website but it’s a little pricey because it’s heavy and we have to ship it. I think its $60 or $70 with the shipping. But that’s the biggest collection of my work.

    “I’m currently just beginning to work on a book that will be out in the fall 2011 that will be an American published collection of my work.”

    My time with Bob Gruen was quickly coming to a close and I had a couple of more questions that I just had to ask. One had to do with his thoughts about the artists’ he knew (other than Lennon) who are no longer with us.

    “Joe Strummer comes to mind first. I spent a lot of time with him. Joey Ramone. He was a wonderfully sweet guy. Johnny Thunders was a good friend.”

    What about the other artist who he wasn’t quite as close to?

    “Quite a lot of my photos were just done as jobs. They were friendly but not necessarily friends. You’re pleased to see each other but you don’t go out to dinner with each other. Some of them you develop friendships with. As in any business where you work with a lot of people there’s certain people that you hit it off with and wind up being friends with.

    “I was lucky in that way to have a number of good friends.”

    I thought I was wrapping up the interview by commenting as to how I thought it said a lot about him with the fact that he was able to develop the relationship and friendship with John Lennon and Yoko and that he still has the relationship with Yoko. Only expecting a “thank you” for the compliment, Gruen, instead, takes the opportunity to defend his good friend, Yoko Ono.

    “You know, Yoko’s been very maligned in the newspapers and in the press. With her new album in the past year, she’s got quite a bit of positive press. But, when people ask me what kind of women Yoko is, I always say that she’s the kind of women that John Lennon could marry.”

    Since he opened the door to discussing Yoko Ono, I asked Bob what he thought the biggest misconception about her was.

    “The biggest misconception? That she doesn’t have a sense of humor. John said that she’s the most famous unknown artist in the world. Everybody knows who she is but nobody knows what she does. And I think with her new album out, she’s getting a lot of press, she’s getting a lot of attention. More people are getting to see her perform and starting to get an idea of what a wonderfully open and how much humor her work has.

    “She’s quite prolific. On her website,Imagine Peace, she answers 10 to 15 questions every week from people all over the world. They just write in questions and she comes up with almost zen-like answers. She’s got a Twitter feed that she updates every few hours with, again, zen-like conceptual art ideas. She’s just fascinating.”

    Soon after, we wrapped up our chat. While going through the rest of my hectic schedule on that January day, I reflected on the gems that Bob Gruen gave me in the way of stories and quotes. I also realized that Bob still influences us today. Long gone is our ability to squeeze into hip-hugging bell-bottom jeans and whose feet can handle wearing platform shoes? And I don’t even want to go down the path of discussing my hair. 

    No, those are pains we can do without. However, while Bob’s work from the past brings us smiles and memories, his work today is creating new impressions that will stay with us for the rest of our days.

    Thank you, Bob Gruen, for all that you’ve done and are doing.

  • Donnie Sumner

    Posted May, 2012

    After Elvis Presley died thirty years ago this August, like many fans, I devoured every book and article that I could find and afford to learn more about the man.  I have more books on the subject of Elvis than I do any other singular subject – and that’s after having lost one or two of them.

    One of the books I bought (but no longer have) was one written by the late televangelist, Rex Humbard.  In it (and if I remember correctly), when describing Elvis’ love of southern gospel music, Humbard used the story of King Saul who had vacated the calling of God and lived with a very troubled heart.  During his many sleepless, anxious nights, he would summon a young David to play music – music that became what we know to be the Psalms of the Bible - to soothe his soul.  It was Humbard’s contention that southern gospel music had the same effect on Elvis.

    Whether or not that was actually the case may be open for debate. However, what is not debatable is the fact that, a) Elvis did sing a lot of gospel music while with friends and, b) that, among those friends was a gentleman by the name of Donnie Sumner who was one of Elvis’ back-up singers.

    Recently, I became aware of a new book written by Donnie.  I, of course, have been aware of Donnie and his work – both during and after his years with Presley.  His story is interesting, entertaining and compelling.

    Imagine this: You’ve got what would appear to be one of the sweetest gigs in the world:  singing back-up for Elvis Presley!  Not only that, but Elvis really considers you a close friend.  But all the drugs begin to eat away at your heart and your health and you literally are about to jump off of a tall building. Instead, you walk away from the King of Rock and Roll.

    That is exactly what Donnie Sumner did. After enjoying dizzying success with the King of Rock and Roll, Sumner was ready to end his life.  It was then that he decided to walk away from it all. That story and many, many others are shared in In the Shadow of Kings (see the Boomerocity review of it here).

    Mr. Sumner was gracious enough to grant a phone interview with me to discuss the book and his post-Elvis life. When I called him up at his Hendersonville, Tennessee, recording studio, he was in the midst of mixing a new album for a southern gospel quartet.

    I was aware that, among the things that keep the sixty-nine year young singer very busy was his recording studio and production work.  He said of that work, “Aw, I stay in the studio from six-thirty or seven o’clock in the mornin’ to about eight or nine at night, five days a week.”

    Yet, with that heavy work load in addition to his busy tour schedule of personal appearances and the occasional appearances with the Elvis Lives stage show (designated a Guinness World Record as the first tour that was top-billed by a non-living performer.  Leave it to Elvis.), Donnie found time to write a book.  I asked him how the book writing process was for him and if there was going to be a follow-up to the book.

    “Well, I piddled at it for eight or nine years and then I took about three months off and concentrated on it, finished it up and got it out. Now, I’m doing somethin’ else.  I’ll do other writings but not anything autobiographical.”

    When Sumner set out to write the book, he said that he had, “. . . three goals, startin’ at the bottom: To put down on a piece of paper as much of my story as I could to tell my grandkids. Second, was to tell the human side of Elvis and tell all this funny stuff and show him as a human being with no negative stuff. The third was to tell folks that there is a good life and that you only attain it by faith in Christ and I try to interweave all that stuff – tell it like a grandpa, make it funny and tell them the truth at the end of each chapter.”

    As can easily be imagined, the targeted niche for Sumner’s book is the very wide, diverse and, sometimes, strange demographic of Elvis fans as well as those who love southern Gospel music.  I was curious who, from his perspective, Donnie saw as the typical purchaser of In the Shadow of Kings.

    “A lot of Elvis fans, a goodly number of my old friends and a tremendous number of people who have kids in similar situations who want to give it to their kids and grandkids. That’s the best part of the whole piece is if I can help somebody.”

    People are very often touched by the stories of the trials, tribulations and triumphs of others – whether high profile or not. Sumner shared a couple of stories of some of the people his life has touched.

    “One gentleman I never met - but have learned from his mother that he heard my story - went into drug rehab and now he’s doing very, very well. And, then, I was in a little town called Lenoir City, Tennessee, where I did a concert. I came back years later and was the associate pastor of that church. The Minister of Youth came up to me at that point came to me after I had been there a while and said that he came to my service years ago with his girlfriend and was all strung out on drugs. He heard my story and that night he decided to start a new life. He did and was now my youth minister at the church I was an associate at! I don’t hear many stories of that sort of thing because they’re not close friends and only a close friend would tell you a story like that.”

    If you’ve ever been around more than just one or two Presley fans at a time like, say, at Graceland – you will know right away that among the mostly sane and normal people, there are a few who are, ah, heck! How do I say this?  “Special”?  Yeah, special.  Couple those people in certain religious environments and you definitely have an environment for “interesting” stories ripe for the picking.  Sumner shared a story or two.

    “The only personal responses have been how much they appreciate portraying the human, funny side of Elvis rather than all the negative stuff and they appreciate how I handle the subject of drugs and Christianity in the book.” Then, after I bit on that hook of that serious answer, Donnie glided in with the rest of his answer . . . with deadpan seriousness that contained the urge to burst out laughing.

    “I’ve got a couple of people who talk to Elvis all the time. Then I’ve got one girl that has ‘married’ Elvis after he died.  They write me all the time and I don’t even respond. And, then, I’ve got one that’s his ‘daughter’ and Joe Moscheo and Red and Sonny West abused her all of her life. And I’ve got one that Elvis talks to her all the time. He’s come back as ‘Jessie’ and he’s got a new record out.  There’s nuts out there everywhere.”

    These stories begged the question about Sumner’s opinion as to the claim that Elvis staged his death in August of 1977.

    “Well, I’ll start by telling you when J.D. (Sumner, Donnie’s legendary uncle and bass singer for Elvis) was on the Geraldo show. Geraldo asked him if he was certain that Elvis was dead.  He said, ‘I am absolutely certain”. Geraldo said, “Why are you so sure?” He said, ‘If he wasn’t dead, he woulda done killed Michael Jackson.”

    After both of us laughing very hard at that comment, Donnie added, “Yeah, I am absolutely positive that he is dead. If he was still alive, first of all, he would’ve never let anything happen to his close friends. They would’ve never had any financial problems. They would’ve never got into any legal problems and Lisa Marie would’ve never gotten into some of the stuff that she’s gotten into.

    “At some point, he would’ve come back because he loved life and he loved music. If he were alive, he would still be doing it in some fashion because it would’ve killed him not to do it. That’s what killed him to start with was that he thought he was losing it.

    “He is definitely dead. I won’t go into the personal reasons why I know but J.D. dressed him and I asked J.D. a couple of questions that only those who knew him best would know. J.D. confirmed those visible answers to the point that, if it was not Elvis in that casket, it was the greatest make-up job – and greatest wax dummy – ever known ever in human existence.”

    Donnie shares the story in his book about why, while singing with one of the most beloved, historic and recognizable people in the world – even in the history of the world – he decided to quit and with nothing else to fall back on.

    “A simple quote is in my book: ‘If you eat a bowl of cherries, the only thing you’ve got left is the pits and too much candy will make you sick.’  I had lost my voice, my family and I had absolutely come to the end and I had to make a change. It was either die or start over and I chose to start over.”

    I commented that it took a lot of courage to quit a gig like that.  Sumner responded quickly and unequivocally.

    “I tell you what, Randy, it don’t take any courage. When you hit bottom, you ain’t got no place to fall. It don’t matter where you’re at when you hit the bottom, the bottom’s the bottom no matter where it’s at. You can hit the bottom in the presidency or you can hit the bottom on skid row. The bottom’s the same. You can’t go no lower than the bottom.”

    I asked Donnie if he had something to fall back on when he left Elvis, to which he replied, “Not at all. I didn’t care. I just wanted to get out of the drugs and see if I could live. I would’ve dug a ditch just to get straight and live. I had no idea. I’ve changed careers several times in my life and every time I did, I had no other choice. I had no idea what I was going to do when I quit the one I was in.”

    Elvis was known for expecting almost unconditional loyalty from those who worked for him.  I had to ask Sumner if his friendship with Elvis was harmed by his departure or, for that matter, what his Uncle J.D.’s reaction was.

    “I never talked to J.D. about what he thought when I left but he was certainly proud of me. When I told Elvis that I would like to resign, he said, ‘I’d like to do that, too. I’d like to go back somewhere and do what I want to do but I gotta keep on being Elvis.’ I turned around and walked out of the hospital. That was the last time I ever talked to him face-to-face.

    “He called me two or three times, wanting me to come work on sessions with him. Charlie (Hodge) would call from time to time to see how I was doing. He said Elvis said to call and see how I was doing. But I never talked to Elvis again face-to-face.  I talked to him twice about sessions. Charlie would always call on those session calls and said, ‘Elvis wants you to come over and do this, that or the other’ and I would say the reason why I couldn’t. Elvis would then get on the phone and say, ‘I understand. I love you. Bye.’

    Like those of you reading this article, I remember exactly where I was when I heard the news that Elvis had died.  I was at a church youth camp in the desert outside of Tucson, Arizona.  A kid had a local newspaper and I could see the headline that said something to the effect of, Elvis Heart Attack Victim.  I asked the kid, “Is he dead?” because the headline didn’t make it clear if he “just” had a heart attack or if he died from one.  The kid gave me one of those, “Yes, you idiot” looks. I spent the rest of that day totally stunned by the news.

    I asked Sumner what his reactions and thoughts were on that fateful day.

    “I was in Florida at the time. I was in a revival. J.D. called me and said that Elvis died. He said, “I want you to come up and sing at the funeral.” I said, “Aw, Uncle Jake, he ain’t dead. He’s been going to do this for years and he finally did it. He’ll be back next week.’

    “He used to talk a lot in the living room of all the funny ways he was going to disappear and what he was going to do while he was gone. Then he was going to come back and freak everybody out. I honestly thought when J.D. called – he called about one o’clock in the afternoon on the day Elvis died – I really didn’t think that Elvis was dead. I made up this crazy excuse that I just couldn’t afford to come up there.

    “They kept talking about it on the news.  The next morning, I called J.D.  I said, ‘Uncle Jake, are you sure that Elvis is dead?’ He went through all these things. ‘Yep, I dressed him. I had the hairdresser come in and we fixed his hair and I had so-and-so cosmetologist come in and put on his make-up.’ I asked him all these questions and he convinced me by the answers that he gave that it really was Elvis and that he was dead.

    “I hung up the phone and I started trying to find a flight to Memphis. There was no – between Miami, Tampa, Orlando and Jacksonville – there was not one single charter service nor commercial flight available for a trip to Memphis. I tried to make car arrangements. J.D. said that he would rent a limousine to bring me up there. In Polk County, where I lived, and in Hillsborough County in Tampa and in Orlando – in those three big cities, there was not one single limousine that was available for long distance service. Because of logistics and the time element that I had wasted, I wasn’t able to attend the funeral.”

    Donnie’s uncle, the late J.D. Sumner, is legendary in the southern gospel quarter genre and is known for holding the Guinness World Record for eighteen years for recording the lowest vocal bass note – a “G0”.  If you sit at a piano and hit the further key on the left, it’s two notes below that.

    No, I’m not kidding.

    I had the privilege of meeting J.D. Sumner at the ’78 Dove Awards.  He was wearing his “TCB” ring and pendant which Elvis had given him. For the brief moment that I had met and spoken with him, he struck me as a very kind and gentle man. He passed away in November of 1998; just three days shy of his 74th birthday. I asked Donnie for his thoughts on his legendary uncle.

    “He was a giant of a man, physically, spiritually, emotionally, and domestically. People never talked about J.D.’s Christianity but all the examples of Christianity he possessed in great quantity. He never brought it on stage with him. He didn’t wear his salvation on his arm sleeve. He was the most human Christian gentleman that I had ever known – other than my father. I have nothing to say about him or his Christian example or his moral ethics. He’s like everybody else in the world of entertainment – every once in a while he’d slip but just because you slip doesn’t mean you’re down. There was only one sinless life and he died so that I could get over mine.”

    If you were to check out Donnie’s appearance schedule and found that he was going to appear at a location near you, I’m sure that you might want to know what you could expect from one of his engagements, so I asked him about it.

    “I hope that, while they’re there, they think, ‘Boy! That guy’s got a lot of stage skills. He’s got a good voice. He’s got a great presentation and I really enjoyed it. It was funny. It was exciting and I think I’m going to tell my friends what a great program he does.’

    “Then, when they walk out the door and get in the car, I want them to say, ‘Hmm, I didn’t think about that while he was there. I think I’m going to try that’ and then cause their life tomorrow to be better than it was the day before because they had a good time at my program the night before.

    “My only desire is to cause somebody’s life to be better because I passed through it. If I can do it with a song, I’ll do it. If I can do it with a Scripture, I’ll do it. If I can do it by just walking around and being friendly, I’ll do it. There’s a lot of ways to be a help to somebody and I’ll proudly use all of them.”

    Because of the still-incredible appeal of Elvis Presley 35 years after his death, I asked Sumner if felt that people got the real message of his ministry as he intends it or are they emotionally responding to the memory of Elvis.

    “I call my work a ‘blind side’ ministry. I want them to laugh at my humor, at my jokes, at myself by being old, fat and ugly. And I want them to understand that I did, in fact, work with Elvis. I’ve been there and done that and these are the stories that I’ve got to prove it. That’s about eighty-five to ninety percent of what I do in an hour and fifteen minutes to an hour and a half.

    “In the last 10 – 15 minutes of my programs, I can concentrate an entire Sunday. It’s at that point that I lay aside all my stage skills, all my humor and just tell them the cold, hard facts. I was a scoundrel. I’m not a scoundrel any more, thanks to Jesus. I’ve got a brand new life. I am now victorious in all things and they can be, too, just by deciding that they want to believe on the Lord, Jesus Christ.

    “You don’t have to put on a football helmet and run at the gates of Heaven. You don’t have to squall and bawl, have a fit and fall back in it.  All you gotta do is believe and, if you believe in your heart that Jesus Christ came, lived and died, was buried and raised from the grave and is coming back, you are as righteous, you are as saved, you are as Heaven-ready as Billy Graham or any other big TV evangelist that ever stood on the face of this earth. It ain’t gonna be perfect tomorrow but, with Jesus living in ya, it can get better and better and better. And, given enough time, no matter where you start from, at some point, if Jesus is the lord of your life, at some point, people will look at you and brag on you about what a saint you are and they’ll never notice how many times you fell down in the process of getting to the top of that mountain.

    “People look at me now and say, ‘Oh, Brother Sumner, you’re a true warrior of the cross!’ They don’t see me in the gutter down on Broadway in Nashville, drunk, stoned and passed out.  They don’t see me in all the places of ill repute that I found myself in during that time period. I got saved - came back home.  My life was still messed up. It took several years for me to get most of the kinks out of it so that I could walk straight. Over a period of years, people started calling me ‘sir’.

    “I tell you what: I’ve been drug free for 35 years or more and I have been an ordained minister since 1979 and I still break out in a rash when I police car behind me on the road. That’s the gospel truth!  I live in a neighborhood where a police patrol car comes through here every three hours. If I ever see him coming down my street I always make sure he’s not turning into my drive! God said that He wasn’t going to remember my sins. He didn’t say that I wasn’t!”

    As we were close to wrapping up our call, an unplanned question popped into my aging cranium about Sumner’s involvement in the “Elvis Lives” shows that occasionally tour the country and the world.

    “Only the big ones. I don’t do the little ones and I don’t go overseas. As a matter of fact, I’m debating right now as to whether I want to go to Hawaii in January for that big deal (the 40th anniversary of what is known as the “Aloha from Hawaii Concert”). When I left Elvis and got sober, the first time I ever went to an airport, I saw a big red sign that said, ‘Terminal’ and I don’t fly unless it’s an absolute necessity. Jesus said, ‘Lo, I am with you’ and that’s where I’m gonna stay!”

    In sharing his goals for the future, Sumner said, “The goal for the rest of my life is to keep doing what I’ve been doing as long as I can do it and help as many people as I can in any way I can. And if I can’t do that no more, I’ll be in Heaven.”

    Since he brought up the end of his life, I asked Donnie what, when he’s joined Elvis in leaving this building called “earth”, he hopes his legacy is and how does he want to be remembered.

    “Well, I’ll start by telling you my brother-in-law was terminal. He was in hospice and he got all inspiration one day and he’s talking about all the things he wanted people to say about him at his funeral when they pass by and look at him in the coffin. He said, ‘Donnie, what do you want them to say about you when they pass by and look at you?’ I said, ‘Ed, I truly hope that somebody looks down at me and says, ‘Golly! He’s alive!”

    Then, in a more serious tone, he added, “Nah, I’ll be truly delighted – I don’t care what they say about me, as long as they close it with – when they leave the head of my coffin – ‘I’ll see you in the mornin’’ If they say that, I’m happy with everything else they say.”

  • In The Shadow of Kings

    In The Shadow of Kings
    Author: Donnie Sumner
    Publisher: Life Line Books
    Release Date: April 3, 2012
    Review Date: May 20, 2012

    As an Elvis fan – as well as being an avid reader – I have an arm load of books about the man.  The ones I have enjoyed the most are the ones written by those who actually knew him.  The latest book in that category of Elvis related books is In The Shadow of Kingsby Donnie Sumner who sang back-up for the King up until less than a year before his death.

    While Kings does share a lot of stories about his relationship with – and stories about – Elvis, this book is Donnie Sumner’s story. It’s written in the southern, folksy tone of a grandpa sharing stories with his grandkids which is exactly why Sumner wrote the book. Sumner tells of his upbringing in a Pentecostal pastor’s home, joining his famous southern gospel singing uncle, J.D. Sumner, in his quartet, The Stamps and how that led to working with Elvis Presley.

    Sumner shares the good, the bad and the ugly of his own personal life – from the excitement and fame of singing with Elvis to Sumner’s personal battle with drugs and how he overcame his additions over 35 years ago. And, yet while he shares those warts-and-all stories about himself, he tells only some of the many, many positive memories of working with Elvis.  Make no mistake about it: This is not a whitewashed view of Elvis as seen through rose-colored glasses.  It’s the story of a dear friend as told by a dear friend who has the class and integrity of sharing only good memories of his late friend.

    The book is comprised of thirty-seven short chapters covering 159 pages (not counting photos).  At the end of each chapter, witty sayings and relative Scriptures are shared to drive a finer point to the meaning of Sumner’s stories.

    Presley fans will definitely want this book as part of their reading library as will those who love southern gospel quartet music and stories by and about people who have successfully overcome addictions  and are helping others do the same.

    Catch the Boomerocity interview with Donnie here.

  • James Burton

    Posted June, 2011

    Photo Courtesy of James-Burton.net

    For many, if not most, Baby Boomers, the days of their youth are marked and heavily influenced by music.  Some have even referred to the music of those days as the “soundtrack of our youth”.

    I’ve said it before but I think that it’s worth repeating:  Many of us are instantly transported back in time as we hear a few notes or words of a song.  Music takes me back to my earliest memories.  It reminds me of school days and old flames.  It reminds me of dating and marrying my wife.  It takes me back to my daughter being born and watching her grow up.  It brings back memories of good times and not-so-good times.  I’m sure that music does the same to many of you.

    One man who has been an integral part of the “soundtrack of our youth” – or, at least min - is guitar legend, James Burton.  Think back to the country music of the 50’s and the early days of rock and roll and some of the people, places and shows that fostered the genre’s birth and growth. In those memories, you’ll see James Burton.  Don’t believe me?  Then check this out:

    Louisiana Hayride

    Burton was there as part of the show’s staff band at the tender age of fourteen playing behind Johnny Horton, George Jones and other greats.

    Dale Hawkins

    The teenaged James Burton wrote the famous guitar licks of the rock standard, Suzie Q, and recorded it with Hawkins.  The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame included this record on its list of 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.

    Ricky Nelson/Ozzie and Harriet

    Did you ever watch that show?  Well, that’s James playing in Rick’s band.  In fact, Burton lived with the Nelson’s for about two years.  The June, 2011, edition of Guitar Player magazine listed James’ solo on Nelson’s Hello, Mary Lou as one of the 40 Most Influential Rock Guitar Solos.

    Shindig

    Among the regulars on this popular hit TV show that aired on ABC was the house band that was ultimately called The Shindogs.  The band consisted of James Burton, Delaney Bramlett, Leon Russell, Glen Campbell, Larry Knechtel, Glen D. Hardin, Chuck Blackwell and Joey Cooper.  This show hosted some of the most legendary names in music – often with the Shindogs playing right behind them.

    The Wrecking Crew

    Burton and some of his Shindog band mates also became much sought after session musicians.  Along with some of the other biggest names in the business like Carol Kaye, Tommy Tedesco and Hal Blaine (to name but just a few), this band of merry musical men (and woman – sorry, Carol!) became known as the Wreaking Crew.  This group of highly talented musicians played on some of the biggest hits in music history.

    Some of the artists and bands that Burton played on back in the Wreaking Crew days are Dean Martin, Jackie DeShannon, The Crickets, Dick Dale & His Del-Tones, The Everly Brothers, Bobby Vee, Buck Owens, Jan & Dean, Merle Haggard, Buffalo Springfield and the Monkees (and that doesn’t name anywhere near all of them).

    However, it’s likely that you know James Burton more from his work as Elvis Presley’s lead guitarist from ’69 through his death.  Or, perhaps you know him from his work as John Denver’s lead ax man for 15 years. Then again, you might remember him during his days of backing up Emmylou Harris or from playing lead guitar on Roy Orbison’s last recorded performance film, Black and White Night.

    Regardless of where you might think you know Burton from, one thing is for certain: It’s no surprise that he’s a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer among many, many other honors bestowed on him.  It’s also no wonder that many of his fellow – if not equally as prolific – musician friends and industry insiders selflessly heap accolades on the man. Here is a sampling of what some of them had to say to me about Burton:

    Chuck Leavell – Keyboardist for the Rolling Stones

    “While I've never had the honor of playing with James Burton, I did have the honor of meeting him backstage on a Stones tour in Keith Richards' dressing room. He is certainly an icon of rock 'n roll, and is revered by every guitar player I know. James is the Real Deal.”

    Rick Derringer – Legendary Guitar Player and Producer

    “James Burton is one of the true innovators on the electric guitar. As a kid, I always looked forward to the OZZIE & HARRIET SHOW. When he was in his late teens, Rick Nelson would always perform his new music each week, and of course his guitarist was James Burton. Rick Nelson's records were alright, but the high point for me was hearing the guitar solos performed by James Burton. It was a real thrill when I finally had the opportunity to perform along with him at one of his benefits several years ago. I pray that he lives for many, many more years and I'll still look forward to hearing him every opportunity that I get.”

    Bruce Kulick – Guitarist for Kiss and Grand Funk Railroad

    “James Burton has always been a unique guitarist I think of whenever I hear Elvis Presley's name.  His biting attack on the Fender Telecaster was an important part of Elvis's later years of his career.  Although I am not the biggest fan of clean guitar tones, James made it magical working with The King and the other huge stars he recorded and performed with. Las Vegas era Elvis would not have been the same without his contribution.  Burton is a legend.”

    Terry Stewart – CEO, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum

    “There are only a few guitarist that you hear across the breadth and the landscape in the history of rock and roll and, certainly, James Burton is one of them.  Whether it’s that enormous, extraordinary riff on Suzie Q with Dale Hawkins to all the great Ricky Nelson records that we’ve heard like Hello, Mary Lou; the various sessions with Elvis Presley – how much better does it get.  And, on top of that, he’s one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet.

    Is it any wonder, then, that I would want to have a chat with this iconic man of the strings?  It was a pleasant surprise that I received word that I would get to have a lengthy chat with Mr. Burton.  He’s an incredibly youthful, vibrant and active 72 years young with a schedule that would exhaust many a teenager.  He’s still in huge demand all over the world and counts many of the biggest names in the business as his friends.

    I called up Mr. Burton at his offices in Shreveport, Louisiana, in the middle of a very busy, hectic morning there.  Despite the flurry of activity, with laser-like focus, he blocked out that commotion and zeroed in on my questions.

    Before I asked my first question, he apologetically told me, “It’s a mad house here right now. We’re changing things around. We already have ‘Studio A’ and we’re going to go for ‘Studio B’. There’s just a lot of stuff going on right now.  People like to come in on tours and see things.”

    I first asked James about his charity, The James Burton Foundation.

     “Well, I’ve always wanted to do ‘my show’.  All of my friends in the business that I’ve worked with, we’re like a big family. I’ve always wanted to do my own show and invite my friends. Well, in doing that, there was something missing – something that I really wanted to do. I discussed it with my family – my wife and I, my son and my daughter – and we decided that this would be a great opportune time to form a foundation.

    “So, we formed The James Burton Foundation because I wanted to give something back to the kids and work with the kids to give them the challenge of music in their lives.  In doing that, it was fantastic to be able to help the kids. We got music back in schools with teachers teaching kids how to play. It’s just unbelievable – and being able to go to places like St. Jude Children’s Hospital and furnish instruments to kids in Danny Thomas’s hospital there in Memphis is fantastic.

    “Also, to do things for the Shriner’s – to give guitars to the Shriner’s because they have a wonderful hospital for the children and to go to the V.A. Hospital for the veterans – to do all those wonderful things like that and to get music back in schools is unbelievable!  Fantastic!

    “And the show (the James Burton International Guitar Show in Shreveport, Louisiana) – the thing that we do for the kids, is non-profit - all volunteer.  Nobody gets paid. We don’t make a dime. The money goes strictly to the kids and music. That was a great thing about the studio – to get them in and do some recording and see how they’re progressing with their music and what they’re doing with their lives.  It’s just a great thing to invite my friends – the artists that came and performed at my show and donated their time for the kids and the foundation – it’s just unbelievable.”

    Quite the salesman, he got me so excited about the foundation, I asked when the next show was going to be.

    “Hopefully, we’re looking at next year.  This year is a very, very busy year. We’re going into (building) Studio B.  We’re going to have two nice working rooms. We’re going for that – to get that happening. Hopefully, if everything comes together the way we’ve planned, we’ll be able to have a wonderful show next year.”

    Burton excitedly shared the names of some of the artists who have performed in past shows.

    “Oh, yeah!  We’ve had some incredible talent. I mean, the list of talent we’ve had would just blow you away. You know, Steve Lukather and Eric Johnson, Brad Paisley, Steve Wariner, Dr. John, Steven Seagal – the list just goes on forever. The wonderful people that came and donated their time is just amazing. To continue what we’re doing to teach the kids through the foundation is just wonderful.”

     “One of my long term goals is – I’ve bought a building around the corner so we have the whole corner there – I want to put in a car museum.  It’s going to have cars, guitars and lots of memorabilia. It will be incredible.  The kids love stuff like that.  And then we have a lot of wonderful folks from around the world who come here – the tourists – they love it here.  We just had a group of people from Canada – from Ontario – walking around, taking pictures.”

    Putting on his Shreveport Chamber of Commerce hat, Burton plugs what the rest of the city has to offer. “We have a statue of Elvis and myself right in front of the municipal auditorium.  I played there when I was 14 years old with all the top artists. Elvis came there – performed there. Hank Williams.  You’re talking Jerry Lee Lewis.  All the top artists. Roy Orbison.  Everyone performed there.  All the great country entertainers, a lot of rock and roll entertainers.  Even Jimi Hendrix performed in that building. Oh yeah, it’s just incredible.”

    Continuing his sharing of the foundations goals, Mr. Burton says, “You know, though, the great thing is working with the kids, teaching the kids. Another goal we have is we’re having volunteers come in and teach the children how to play. We have a gentleman who volunteers his time to work on the guitars for the kids.  He works on professional people’s instruments, as well. That’s another part of the business . . . fix the instruments and put ‘em in top shape and to keep the ball rollin’. I’d like to record the kids and, hopefully, add a DVD to that, as well – of them sitting there playing so that they can see themselves doing what they’re doing and have a CD of what they played.

    “When we opened on January 8th – on Elvis’ birthday – we had some young kids come and play – we recorded them in the studio. We had some of the young singers and some of the young players – it was fantastic!”

    With such great work being accomplished by the foundation, I wondered if he is getting a lot of support from instrument manufacturers and artists.

    “Yes, yes, we are. We certainly are. A lot of companies, they’re just so blown away with what we’re doing with the kids.  They’ve offered their services in any way possible to make it happen. I think it’s wonderful along with the artists that come and do the shows and the manufacturers that furnish things that we need to make all of this possible.”

    With these great, lofty goals in mind for the future, I asked James what is the most memorable thing that the foundation has accomplished so far.

    “I think that working with the kids and bringing the studio into the function and getting the music in the schools, helping the kids – it’s truly an honor and blessing from God, to be able to pull this together and make it work.  You know, getting music back in schools was a wonderful challenge, and we did it! That was a great thing. I think, just to remember what we’re doing for the kids is very important. It gives them a new life.

    “It’s amazing the e-mails the letters and the phone calls that I get from all the kids, the parents and all the people that are involved in music, what it’s doing for the kids and what it’s doing for them in school. It’s just amazing. Teachers call and tell me what a wonderful thing it’s done for the kids. They want to go to school. They can’t wait to get there and play their instrument, do their homework and make good grades. It’s wonderful what’s happening.”

    Knowing that many Boomerocity readers from around the world would want to be a part of what all the James Burton Foundation has going on, he shares, “We have the website, www.jamesburtonfoundation.org, that people can go to and make donations.  People can also send checks to:

    James Burton Foundation

    714 Elvis Presley Avenue

    Shreveport, LA 71101

    In 2001, James Burton was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame along with such huge names as Aerosmith, Chris Blackwell, Solomon Burke, The Flamingos, Michael Jackson, Johnnie Johnson, Queen, Paul Simon, Steely Dan, Talking Heads and Richie Valens.  To add to that honor, Burton’s induction was presented by none other than Keith Richards.

    I asked Burton what were his thoughts when he learned that he was being inducted.

    “It was incredible, man!  The excitement and - I mean, what an honor!  Truly an honor!  I believe that any award that you accomplish in your career – music or whatever you’re doing – it’s truly an honor and it proves the hard work that you’ve done and the hard work that you’ve accomplished over the years and how it’s accepted and appreciated, you know?  And, either way you look at it, it’s an honor. Incredible!”

    I asked if Burton and Richards were friends before that or if that was a relatively new friendship.

    “Yeah, Keith and I go back to 1964 – Shindig!  I had a group called the Shindogs.  Keith and the Rolling Stones came and they brought a singer that was on the show – Howlin’ Wolf – and I was nominated to play guitar for Howlin’ Wolf on the show. It was great.  Keith and I have been friends forever. He has been wonderful and has helped us with the foundation in all kinds of ways – like making donations. He’s a very busy person – one of his goals and one of my goals is to play together on my show – the show we do here – the guitar festival. Of course, Keith and I have worked together on the Gram Parson taping that we did up in Santa Barbara and in Universal City in California there. We’ve played together so it was an incredible honor to have him induct me into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I don’t know if you know some of the other people that were inducted at the same time: Michael Jackson, Aerosmith, Queen, Solomon Burke, Paul Simon and the list goes on from there.”

    When I asked James if he and Keith were going to work on anything in the future like, say, at the guitar show, he gave me his signature “awe, shucks” tone as he said, “Ah, well, we hope so. I’m hoping to get him down here in my studio and do some recording together and have some fun.  He’s always there with me in the foundation for the kids because he believes in the same thing that I believe in – in helping the kids and doing all of those good things like that.  It’s all a blessing from God that we can do this.  He (God) makes all of these wonderful, great things happen.”

    In addition to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Burton was inducted into the Musician’s Hall of Fame in Nashville, the Rock Walk in Hollywood, the Fender Hall of Fame, countless Country Music Award nominations with 7 awarded, a statue the aforementioned statue in his honor in Shreveport, a Grammy for your work on “Cluster Pluck” with Brad Paisley, and ranked 20th on Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of top 100 guitarists of all time, among many other awards.  I put James on the spot by asking him, out of all of those awards, is there one that makes him keep pinching yourself and say, ‘Look, Ma!’.

    With what sounded to me as the utmost in humility and sincerity, he said, “You know, I pretty much look at all of my awards like that. To me, it’s an honor to accept any award. I do have one coming up here real soon, matter of fact. On September the 10th, they’re going to induct me into the Delta Music Museum Hall of Fame in Ferriday, Louisiana, with Jerry Lee Lewis, Mickey Gilley and I don’t know who all else is there. But I’ve had the call and they’re going to present me with the induction there.

    “Again, all of these awards show the work that you’ve done through your career – all these awards to me are truly an honor and a blessing from God because it proves that you’re working towards some goal to do good things and you’ve given 120 percent. I believe that that’s what it’s all about.”

    Despite the countless numbers of albums that he has played over his long career, Burton has come out with precious few of his own recordings.  His first was recorded with Ralph Mooney in 1969 and is entitled, Corn Pickin’ and Slick Slidin’.  His second album was a true solo effort in 1970 entitled, The Guitar Sounds of James Burton.  Recently, though, he released a family gospel project entitled, The Spiritual Strings of James Burton.  Since the interview took place before James sent me my own copy of the CD, I asked him to tell me about the album.

    “Yeah, you know, I came home off of a tour.  I love gospel music.  Elvis, after every show, he loved singing gospel music. After performing two shows a night in Vegas, he would want to go upstairs to his suite and sing gospel music the rest of the night which would go on for hours and hours and hours.” Burton said with an effortless laugh that comes from obviously very pleasant memories.  “I’ve always loved gospel. I like playing in church. I think it’s great. My wife had a great vision – God came to her in a vision of me doing a gospel album with family.  My son plays and sings and she (Mrs. Burton) has two nieces that are really good singers.

    “So we put this project together along with a friend, keyboard player and great singer and entertainer, Eddie Anders, a good friend who is up in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.  Eddie talked to my wife and they came up with an idea to do this project.  We went into the studio and cut that record.  It’s really great. I had some wonderful guests like Marty Haggard – Merle Haggard’s son and a great singer – he came on and performed a couple of songs with us. My son played and sang on it. It’s a great project. We had so much fun doing it. I want to do another one as soon as I can slow down enough to get back into the studio and do it.”

    As one might imagine, with countless Presley fans the world over, Burton’s time on the road is filled with Elvis related appearances and performances.  I asked about the demands on his time.

    “Sometimes I think that I’m busier now than when I started!  It’s just amazing. Yeah, it’s non-stop. What little time that I have off I try to spend it with my family here in Shreveport. When I’m not travelling then I’m here working and helping with all of these projects going on for the foundation and in the studio. Also, I’m starting up work on the museum thing that we’re putting together.  I travel a lot. As a matter of fact, I’ve got so much stuff coming up the rest of the year I couldn’t find the time to even do a foundation show this year because of my schedule. I know that next year is looking quite the same way but I’m going to try to fit it (a foundation show) in for next year if it works out.”

    “I’m doing a show coming up with Gunner and Matthew – Rick Nelson’s boys – we’re doing that up in Wisconsin – way up in that area. I’ve got a couple of shows that I’m doing with them.  The next day after that, I’m heading out to Vienna, Austria.”

    When I commented about how wore out I got from reading his schedule when he’s hot and heavy on the road, he replied with a laugh, “Now you know how I feel! Ha! Ha!  Nah, I’m just kidding.  I really love it. Once you get busy, you’ll always be nineteen.”

    Before the interview, I solicited some questions from Boomerocity readers for me to relay to Mr. Burton.  One question that I shared was: Who inspired you to pick up the guitar?

    “You know, my mother said that, ever since I was big enough to walk, I ran around the house singing, beating on stuff and pretending I was playing on a guitar. God blessed me with my talent. It’s pretty much born in me. I never had training or lessons or anything.  I just picked it up ‘by ear’.  The good Lord was my teacher.  I don’t think that you can get any better than that.

    “But being able to pick up an instrument and play by ear with whoever and any place and to love it and enjoy it and be right on, that’s truly a blessing.  I played the radio a lot. I pretty much was raised on country music and got into rhythm and blues, bluegrass, gospel, which turned into rockabilly then rock and roll. I guess that I was pretty much born at the right time. I got into music when the music was really good, simplistic and great.  You could understand the lyrics – good songs and good music. I was blessed with the right time – the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. It wound up changing quite a bit in the 80’s and 90’s.”

    I asked James if my research was accurate in saying that his first electric guitar was a 1953 Fender Telecaster.  He shared the story around the purchase of that guitar.

    “My mother and dad bought me my first Telecaster – a ’53 Tele. Oh, yeah!  I saw that guitar in a music store here – J&S Music here in Shreveport – I was walking down Milam Street and looked up and saw this guitar hanging in the showroom window there.  Boy! That guitar really caught my eye so I went home and told my mother about it. So, my dad comes home from work and she says, ‘Well, I think he’s found a guitar that he’s pretty much set on – one he really likes.’ So, my dad said, ‘Well, take him down there and get it for him.’ We went down the next day and looked at it. I played it and, aw, man!  That was me!  It had my name all over it!

    “So, mother and dad bought that for me. That was back in the 50’s – I guess around ’52, 3, something like that. Beautiful guitar, man!  I still have that guitar. It’s been on thousands and thousands and thousands of records.  It’s been with most of the top artists of the world. In ’68 – ’69, my ’68 paisley (Telecaster), I played with Elvis - it became very famous with Elvis, Emmylou Harris, the Hot Band and just a lot of great artists that I played that guitar with. Then, I did my signature guitar with Fender – the James Burton model – which everyone pretty much got what they call a “signature model” but I started that telecaster program with Fender – me and Dan Smith – the signature model, the JB model.  Of course, other guitar players – Eric (Clapton), Jeff Beck, Yngwie Malmsteen – everybody got signature models.  Fender started planning it out but I started that program – the signature model.”

    Since he brought up his signature model, I asked how sales have been with the line.

    “Fantastic!  I’ve done two or three different models – the black and gold paisley, the red and black paisley with some different colors – the solid pearl white, the solid red. Then, my latest one – the one with flames on it – they all sold really well and they’re still selling. It’s amazing. It’s a great guitar. I did a three pick up telecaster with a five-way switch. I put the flame paisley together for my show in 2005 – when I did my first show. I presented every artist on the show with a James Burton Signature Model – a flame guitar.  Eric Johnson looked at his – he was standing there, holding it – and he told me, ‘Oh my god! I don’t even own a Telecaster!  This is my first Telecaster!’  And then he told his tech guy, ‘Go set it up for me. I want to play it on the show!’ So, he played it on the show – as well as Brad Paisley and Dr. John.”

    When James mentioned Brad Paisley, I couldn’t help but blurt out what a huge fan of his that I am.  Burton conveyed the same kind of excitement when he commented about Paisley.

    “Oh, he’s a sweet man.  He’s just a wonderful talent.  He did my very first show.  Him, Eric Johnson, Dr. John, Steve Crawford, Gunner and Matthew (Nelson).  The list goes on forever– even my old buddy, Seymour Duncan played.  We just had a big line-up.  Johnny Rivers – I think we had 18 or 19 on the line-up for the first show. “

    I asked the Master of the Telecaster how he feels about how technology has impacted the construction of guitars today.

    “Well, you know, Leo (Fender) and I were talking and I told Leo one day – Leo Fender never stopped experimenting.  He felt like that if he handed a guitar to someone, that was the best guitar in their lives and they felt that there was nothing could be better on that guitar. I think they’ve made the best guitars.  I think making something different is what the manufacturer’s are trying to do – the technology they’re trying to change – the pick-ups, the different knob controls – you know there’s a lot of technology stuff.  The actual instrument is up to the individual.  When you pick up an instrument, how does it feel for you? Another person might pick up that instrument and say, ‘Nah, this is not for me’, you know? The technology is one thing but the actual playing – when a guy’s fingers – hands – touch that instrument, that’s when it happens. The instruments are all different. There’s hardly no two guitars alike, even though they came out of the same mold and they have same equipment on them and everything, there’s a difference.  Isn’t that amazing?

    “The actual playing of the instrument is in your hands and your touch and your feel and things that come from the heart and the soul. I mean, just like two people can pick up the same instrument and what you hear is two different people. Some of these questions are very hard to answer but I just think that technology is one thing and the actual person playing the instrument is another thing, you know? Every person playing an instrument has their opinion of that instrument and the way they play.”

    And just how many guitars does Burton own?

    “Oh, my god, I have no idea.  I’ve got a few guitars and I just want to play some of them. I don’t know. I couldn’t even put a figure on it. I know that it’s more than two or three because I like to play more than two or three different instruments” James said, laughing.  “And I enjoy playing different instruments, you know? And the thing that you’ll know about a studio player is that they’re pretty much required to play different instruments. I like playing a dobro, banjo, mandolin, slide dobro, acoustic dobro – most all stringed instruments. Most guitar players sort of fall into that bag. But when you go into the studio to cut with an artist, the producer might say, ‘Hey, how about playing 12 string today? Or acoustic or, hey, put some dobro on this today?’ That’s the thing that we do.”

    While even the casual observer can tell that Burton is just a tad partial to the Fender Telecaster, I wasn’t at all sure what his acoustic preferences were so I asked him.

    “Well, I play a lot of different acoustics. I love a Taylor.  Taylor Guitar is probably one of my most favorite guitars now.  Bob Taylor and Kurt Listug, these guys are my friends.  When these guys got started with their company, they were building , like, five guitars a day. They went from five guitars a day to, like, five thousand a day. Just unbelievable. And QUALITY !  First class quality instruments and they would not release an instrument unless it was inspected, perfected and ready to go. They were my friends and they gave me some Taylor guitars when they first got started that I played and I loved. I just think that it’s one of the finest guitars made today.”

    I try to remember to ask all guitar players if they have a guitar that they consider the “holy grail” that they either own or want to own.  I happened to remember to ask James. His answer was almost like peering into guitar history.

    “You know, I can’t think of what that would be.  What would that be? Hmmm.  You know, I can’t think of anything – you know, there’s a lot of old guitars that you want to get a hold of – that Jimmie Rodgers played or something that’s, like, Marty Stuart playing the Clarence White B Bender.  Clarence White and I were friends.  He brought me this guitar and said, ‘Tell me what you think about this.’ He started building the B Bender, right?  He did – and I took him to Fender to see if they might be interested.  Of course, at that time, they weren’t ready for the B Bender but Marty Stuart’s playing Clarence White’s B Bender which is, I thought, a pretty interesting deal. And there’s some other guys – Gene Parsons and a lot of different people that had put some of those together – the B Benders.  But I can’t really think of anything unless I could come up with an old Martin that is too good to be true or an old, old, old Gibson,  something like that.

    “You know, acoustic instruments are very, very fragile instruments and they’re very popular with the collectors to get, really, a good one, you know.  Like, if you can get the Stradivarius violin, that’s the one to have, you know what I mean? (Laughs) Of course, if you’re looking for a guitar or something like that, call George Gruhn, he knows guitars in and out.  He knows the real collector ones. I have several collector guitars and, you know, the pink paisley that I played with Elvis became very popular, you know, famous with a lot of the guitar players out there because they all wanted one. They didn’t make a lot – a lot of the originals.  The pink paisley – the one I played with Elvis – is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame up in Cleveland, along with one of my jump suits and some other stuff.”

    As often happens when I interview people, an off-the-wall question comes to my mind that I feel compelled to ask.  Such was the case when I asked Mr. Burton whatever happened to the famous black Gibson Dove acoustic guitar that Elvis was seen with on stage in the early 70’s.

    “Well, you know, I really don’t know but he went through a lot of different guitars. He played the Jumbo 200 – the blonde ones.  He threw two of those away one night, uh, in one show – the two blonde ones.  But then he played the Gibson guitar with the insignia – the karate insignia on it. I don’t know what happened to all of those guitars.  I’m sure they’re probably someplace in the collection at Graceland – I don’t know.

    “I tell ya, Elvis did not care about material things, you know? He would give you the shirt off his back. He enjoyed giving stuff away to people – cars and all that stuff. He enjoyed it. That was one of the things that made him real happy, doing that.”

    When I commented that there wasn’t enough people at that level who have a philanthropic heart like Presley’s, James is quick to add another icon to that list.

    “John Denver was a wonderful, generous man, too. A great guy to work with and a great talent. But, you’re right. Elvis, he loved his fans. He loved his God. He always took his Bible with him every place he went. He really enjoyed reading it. Once in awhile, we’d all sit down and he would quote scriptures out of the Bible. Everybody’s looking around and he would say, ‘Let me go to my room and get my Bible and check this.’ I mean, he could not even open a Bible and quote all these scriptures, man, almost word-for-word, man. Unbelievable!  He loved it. He was just a great guy, man. Put aside being a great entertainer, singer. He was a natural talent. He was another ‘God’s Gift’ to the music world – the industry. He became THE icon.”

    I mentioned to Mr. Burton that I’ve often wondered what would have happened if Elvis hadn’t gone into rock and roll and, instead, followed his passion for Southern Gospel music.  Mr. Burton shares a story that Elvis shared with him that took place before Presley broke into the music business.

    “Oh, absolutely!  Absolutely!  Can you imagine what he could do for the young folks today – bringing them into the love of God, being a Christian and all of the wonderful things goes with it?  Elvis told me stories about when the (southern gospel quartet) Blackwood Brothers would do shows and J.D. (Sumner) was singing bass for them.  Elvis loved bass. He loved gospel.  He would go to the back door and try to sneak in to see the show because he loved gospel and he wanted to be there. So, J.D. let him come in and be there.  It was great.  Of course, he loved J.D. and all the gospel groups and quartets around the world.  He talked about it a lot and he always wanted to sing gospel after the shows. As I said earlier, we would go up for hours and hours and sing and play gospel music.”

    When I asked James if the gospel singing was his most poignant memories of Elvis, he was quick with his answer.

    “No, no. Just memories of being with him in general. It was a wonderful nine years – just what a great man he was. He touched many people around the world and did so much to help people.  I just remember what an incredible, great person he was other than being an incredible entertainer, actor, singer, even just a wonderful, fantastic person. He loved his family and all of his cousins, ‘brothers’, uncles and aunts. When he called me and asked me to put a band together for him in ’69 – he called me in ’68 but I was doing an album with Frank Sinatra – but, when he called me in ’69, we talked for three hours on the phone. He wanted me to put a band together for him and open Las Vegas at the International Hotel, which is now the Hilton.

    “Incredible things happened through all of that. First off, it was a very hard decision I had to make because I had so many clients that I worked with in the studios, recording and that field.  It was a very tough decision on my part to say, ‘Okay, I’ll do this and I’ll go.’ But, I did do it and it worked out wonderful because I didn’t lose anything. I continued my career because I had a career before Elvis and a career after Elvis and this is all a blessing from God on me, you know what I’m saying?  To be able to work with so many great entertainers in the world – and I love it.”

    Since Burton has seen and done it all, I asked him if there was any new talent that has commanded his attention.

    “Well, you know, I think a lot of them sound alike, look alike.  I think that they’re all great. I still miss some of the old ones that aren’t being played on the radio. I think the radio has changed an awful lot in this business. I miss a lot of them. I miss Hank, Jr. I miss Merle Haggard. I miss a lot of the old Hank Williams. I miss some of the people that really made the music world opened up the lives of a lot of people. Of course, I appreciate a lot of the new talent, too. There’s a lot of great ones out there like the Keith Urban’s and the Brad Paisley’s – oh, wow!  These guys – they’re all fantastic.

    “They’re just a whole bunch of them out there that’s just fantastic. I like them all. Of course, I don’t get a chance to listen to a lot of radio because, when you’re in the studio creating music, you don’t get a chance to go back and listen to a lot of stuff. But I like a lot of stuff out there.

    “There’s a little girl out there, Christina Aguilera, she is fantastic!  I’m tellin’ ya, it’s unbelievable the things that she can do.  My wife and I watched her movie that’s out with Cher (“Burlesque”). Oh! You gotta see it, oh man!  That little girl – she can perform. She can get up there with the best and top of the line. She can lead the show. She’s just an AMAZING singer! I won’t say much about that (the movie) but you DO need to see that, if you can!”

    “I’m doing a book – my life story. There’s so many things that I could write about. I could do a whole book on Elvis and a whole book on Ricky.  But I’m going to get my story out there and I think everyone is going to enjoy it.”

    Any idea when it will be released? “Not at the moment. I’m ready to get rolling!”

    After the call, I was struck by something Mr. Burton said during our chat.  He said, “I’ve been wonderfully blessed and I have a wonderful family and all of the wonderful support from my family and my mother and father.  My father has passed away and my mother is 96 years old and she’s a wonderful lady, hanging in there. I go visit her every chance I get and we spend as much time together as we can. She’s here in Shreveport so we’re truly blessed.”

    On May 23rd, just a couple of weeks after our chat, James mother, Mrs. Lola Poland Burton, passed away at the age of 96 years young.  Among all the treasured memories that James and his family must have of Mrs. Burton, the world owes her a debt of gratitude for her fostering little James talent and making the sacrifice in purchasing that ’53 Telecaster.

    You can keep up with James Burton’s incredibly busy world and the tremendous work his foundation is doing by checking out his website, www.james-burton.net.  While you’re at it, why don’t you drop by his foundation’s website and make a donation to the worthy cause that James is pursuing?  You can make your donation by visiting www.jamesburtonfoundation.org/supportus/. 

  • Jerry Scheff

     Posted May, 2012

    As a huge Elvis fan, it’s always a huge honor and rush for me when I get to chat with anyone who has worked with the King in any way, shape or form – and I’ve chatted with quite a few of them.  Having recently reviewed his autobiography, Way Down, I was given the opportunity to ask former Elvis bassist, Jerry Scheff, a few short questions, I was absolutely delighted because not only did Mr. Scheff play bass for Presley but with other music icons such as Bob Dylan, John Denver and the Doors.

    However, in my mind, THE most memorable bass riffs in rock and roll history are those played by Scheff on Elvis’ live versions of Polk Salad Annie (especially on the Live from Madison Square Garden album) and on the Doors’ L.A. Woman.  Those riffs will be etched into the American psyche until the end of time.

    After complimenting Jerry on his outstanding book, I asked the legendary bassist how sales have been going with Way Down.

    “Thank you Randy. The book is selling nicely in the U.S. and Europe and, so far, I’ve received great reviews. The only negatives have been from fans of this singer or that, who complain that I didn't devote enough time to their favorite. Oh, I suppose I could have built six weeks working with the Doors into two or three chapters, but it would been a bunch of crap.”

    Many authors, after completing a book, will often second guess what they should or should not have included in their books.  One clear image of Jerry Scheff that I gleaned from Way Down is that, whatever he does, he does and moves on.  That said, I still asked him if there was anything he wished he had or hadn’t included in his book.  His answer was short, direct and to the point.

    “Being that I wrote the book as a musical history of my life I am satisfied with everything as it is.”

    Jerry is a monster talent and has played with and for some monster talent.  With such a long list of musical dignitaries who he has supported over his distinguished career, I was naturally curious who he wished he could have played with before they passed away.

    “There isn't enough disk space in my computer to list everyone I wish I had played with. Where would I start? Probably Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, Chopin, Louis Armstrong, etc.”

    In my interview with Scheff’s former band mate, James Burton, he spoke highly of John Denver.  In Way Down, while he was characteristically plain spoken about Denver, he ended his segment about him by saying, “. . . of all the musicians with whom I have been acquainted with who have since died, John is the one I miss the most.”

    When I asked Jerry if that comment wouldn’t come as a shock to Presley fans, he said, “I don't think so. Maybe I should have said 'personally missed the most.' I spent much more personal time with John than I did with Elvis.”

    Scheff’s  last line of the book says, “ . . . I don’t think I will dance on Elvis’ grave again” and comes after a scenario involving a European TCB tour.  I asked him to elaborate on that comment.

    “First of all, you have taken that line out of context. The pages leading up to that explain that line in a little more depth.  The 'Mr Potato Head', make-a-buck mentality had affected the shows to the point that music was taking second place. My bank account is lighter, but my heart is lighter too.”

    At the time of my questioning of Mr. Scheff, I was also working on an interview with one of Elvis’ former back-up singers, Donnie Sumner (who, coincidentally, has a new book out, too, entitled In The Shadow of Kings).  The comments Jerry made relative to Donnie reveal more of what the social structure of Presley’s massive musical support.

    “I didn't really know Donnie. I was from a different neck of the woods so to speak. He always seemed to be a happy, friendly guy. I spent a lot more time with Donnie;s uncle J.D. Sumner. On the other hand, Donnie was around Elvis a lot more than I was. I am sure he has some good things to say in his new book.”

    Scheff’s son, Jason, is quite an accomplished musician in his own right and plays for the group, Chicago, joining them in 1985 as Peter Cetera’s replacement.  I asked Jason’s proud dad what differences and similarities did he see between his and his son’s careers.

    “First of all, Jason is a great singer. I never have been. Jason writes much more music than I ever did. He certainly is a better business man than me. I have made my mark as a bass player playing many styles of music over a lot of years. I wish I could be around to see where his career takes him to when he's my age. In other words, it’s the old 'comparing apples and oranges' thing isn't it?”

    In discussing the state of the music business, I asked Jerry if he thought the music business needed fixing and, if he were made “Music Czar”, what would he do to fix it, if anything.  His answer revealed both the mind of someone who has watched it all happen as he was along for the ride as well as one who knows that things change and, in order to survive, you either adapt or die.

    “I would never take that job. However, I think the freedom of the internet is already doing a lot to expose new talent and the old style record business is on its way out.”

    My final question during our exchange focused on how the legendary bassist wished to be remembered and what he hopes his legacy will be. He deferred to an interview that his son gave and I thought the quote he used was incredible.

    “Back to my son Jason: Jason did a radio interview in Los Angeles on KROC I think it was, and the interviewer asked him, 'How have you been influenced by your father'. I am sure he meant as a bass player, but Jason said, 'My dad taught me to accept people no matter what color, nationality or religion.”

Featured Photo

 

 

george lynch

Our Featured Photo by Boomerocity friend and famed rock photographer, Rob Shanahan (robshanahan.com), is of Dokken's George Lynch! Check out more of Rob's work at RobShanahan.com!

 

 

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