Elvis Presley’s Bandleader Looks Back on His Wild Vegas Years: ‘Elvis Was Really Nervous’ squib
“I hadn’t actually met Elvis before I went to work with him,” says the legendary guitarist James Burton, who’d already worked with a veritable who’s who of rock stars when he picked up the phone one night in 1969 and found himself speaking to the King himself, Elvis Presley. “I’d played the Louisiana Hayride around the time he came through, when he was just starting out, but I didn’t actually meet Elvis until 1969. He called me on the phone at my home in L.A., and I talked to him for two or three hours on the phone. He asked me if I’d be interested in going to Vegas and putting a band together for him. So I did.”
Burton may seem matter-of-fact about the call, which began a creative partnership that lasted until Presley’s death in 1977, 42 years ago this week, but that band, and the shows at Las Vegas’ International Hotel, now immortalized on an 11-CD box set featuring 11 complete concerts, as well as a two-LP set featuring the incendiary opening-night performance, catapulted Presley, whose career had fallen dormant after a stint in the army and a series of increasingly awful films, back into the pop culture firmament on the heels of his 1968 NBC television special.
“We talked about everything,” Burton recalls of that first conversation with Presley. “Mainly, we talked about the Ozzie and Harriet TV show, because he remembered watching me play guitar alongside Ricky Nelson which, I have to admit, I thought was pretty cool. But then he said that when he told the people around him that he was getting ready to make some changes—to do some live shows and hopefully make some records—that everybody he had talked to mentioned me, and said, ‘You should call James.’”