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Mr. Telecaster : Rock's Foremost Sideman Honors His Maker, Leo Fender

August 08, 1991|JIM WASHBURN | Jim Washburn is a free-lance writer who regularly writes for The Times Orange County Edition.

Many folks in the early 1950s were hesitant to accept Leo Fender's radical new electric guitars, but James Burton wasn't one of them.

"The very first time I saw a Fender," he recalls now, "I was about 11 and downtown shopping with my mother in my hometown of Shreveport. We happened to walk by a music store, and I saw this guitar hanging in the showroom there. It was a blond Telecaster with the black pick guard. And I told mother, 'That's the guitar I want right there.' That guitar just knocked me out when I saw it, and after I played it I fell in love with it even more."

Burton's parents bought the guitar for him, and he and the Fender Telecaster remained inseparable through a career that has seen him become the foremost rock and country music sideman of his generation, recording and performing with everyone from Elvis Presley to Elvis Costello. "That guitar just seems to be a part of me," Burton says. Fellow musicians call him Mr. Telecaster.

When Burton got a chance to meet Leo Fender in the late '50s, he found that he liked the man as much as he did his guitar. The lasting friendship they formed, and Burton's respect for Fender's genius, are the reasons the guitarist has disrupted his ever-busy schedule to take part this Saturday (on what would have been the late guitar innovator's 82nd birthday) in a memorial concert to Fender at the Bren Events Center at UC Irvine. (Fender died March 21 in his Fullerton home of the complications of Parkinson's disease.)

Other guitarists paying tribute include Yngwie Malmsteen, Albert Lee, Dick Dale, Albert Collins, Robben Ford, Steve Lukather, Vivian Campbell, Dweezil Zappa, Randy Hansen, Gary Myrick, Robbie Krieger, C.C. DeVille, Jeff (Skunk) Baxter and others. Proceeds benefit the Newport Beach-based PEP-USA, or the Parkinson's Education Program.

Burton spoke by phone last Friday from a Utah tour stop with John Denver. After his performance Saturday, he will immediately flying to Memphis to take part in an Elvis memorial at Graceland. It's his lot that he's always in-demand somewhere.

When he was merely 15, Burton's snaking rhythms and stinging solos on Dale Hawkins' 1956-recorded "Suzie-Q" set the standard for rockabilly guitar. He came to California with rockabilly singer Bob Lumen's band, and here Ricky Nelson was awed by his playing and got father Ozzie to hire him to back Nelson on his singing spots on "The Ozzie and Harriet Show." On TV and on Nelson's records, Burton's lean, inspired picking influenced a whole generation of rock and country players.

It was shortly after joining Nelson in 1957 that Burton first met Fender.

"Leo was just the greatest," Burton recalled. "He was a very quiet, generous man from all my experiences. We just became friends. That I played a Fender Telecaster sort of excited him, that I was interested in his instrument, and he just offered to help me in any way he could.

"Meanwhile, I was a little in awe of him because I thought he was a genius. I think he built the greatest guitars that have ever been built, the Telecaster and the Stratocaster. He created the guitar for me, and I think there're lots of others who feel the same way."

Despite his brilliance, Fender never acted like a know-it-all, Burton said. Rather, Fender had a great affection for music and musicians, and was glad to participate in the music, in his way, by providing players with the best tools possible.

"He was always concerned with talking to musicians, learning what they were really looking for in an instrument, and then working real hard, experimenting, until he came up with it," Burton said.

Whenever Burton went to Fender's factory in Fullerton, the guitar maker would give him his latest guitars and amps to try. Burton, in turn, was glad to help promote Fenders by using the instruments on Nelson's TV spots, and, later, when he was bandleader of the Shindogs on the '60s rock program "Shindig."

Today such manufacturer sponsorship/artist endorsements are big-money deals negotiated by lawyers. Fender, though, gave out his instruments with no strings attached, so to speak. "He really didn't care for endorsements," Burton said. "He just wanted his equipment out there, for people to use it and be happy with it."

Although Burton admires the way Fender kept working on new instruments up until the day he died, his own affection remained with the Telecaster. The same 1952 model his parents bought him saw him through Nelson's hits and an incredibly varied array of sessions.

A sampling of his thousands of recording credits include work with Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, the Supremes, Ray Charles, the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Judy Collins, Nat (King) Cole, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin, Johnny Rivers, the Fifth Dimension, and Kenny Rogers.

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