James Burton. Elvis Presley. A Fender Paisley Red Telecaster. “Johnny B. Goode.” How could that combo possibly get any better? If Burton played the guitar behind his head, of course.
Self-taught Telecaster master Burton gained notoriety as a session guitarist throughout the 1950s and ‘60s, starring on a host of landmark recordings such as Dale Hawkins’ “Susie Q” while enjoying a longstanding working relationship with American pop pioneer Ricky Nelson. By the late ‘60s, Burton had gained an enviable reputation and was in high demand, turning down gigs for both Bob Dylan and Elvis Presley.
Eventually, in 1969, Burton joined Elvis as guitarist and bandleader, staying with the group until Elvis’ untimely passing in 1977. A star of the show in his own right, Elvis would often call out Burton on stage, using the cue, "Play it, James," before he ripped into a solo using his Fender Paisley Red Telecaster.
In the late-60s, Fender further experimented with the form of the Telecaster and introduced a variety of striking new finishes. In ‘68, while attempting to embrace flower power, the company released two distinctly lysergic Telecaster finishes in tandem with the Telecaster Bass: Paisley Red and Blue Flower. It was, however, just a brief stop at the love in, as both finishes were discontinued the following year, making these models a rare sight.
“Paisley Red pulsates with every beat and swirls in a blinding carousel of color forms and tones. Fender shines again,” proclaims an advert for the Paisley Red Tele, while its Blue Flower counterpart reads, “Blue Flower bursts forth in a dazzling array of subtle purple and green patterns. Never before has such an exciting profusion of color been offered.”
Hey, it was the 60s!
Burton is one of few well-known electric guitar players to have embraced the Paisley Red Telecaster (albeit somewhat reluctantly to begin with) after Fender contacted him directly in '69, just prior to Elvis’ Las Vegas residency shows. “I took it to Vegas,” Burton told an interviewer for Musicians Hall of Fame. “It took me two weeks into the show to break it out and play it on stage. There was no telling what Elvis might say on stage and freak out or something.
“But anyway, I took it out and he loved it. He never said anything on stage but in between shows he called me and asked me about that guitar. He said, “Where did you get that?” you know, and I said, “Well, Fender called me and gave it to me, and it took me a while to break it out and play it.” He said, “No, it’s great; sounds great, looks great.” He loved it."
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Rod Brakes is a music journalist with an expertise in guitars. Having spent many years at the coalface as a guitar dealer and tech, Rod's more recent work as a writer covering artists, industry pros and gear includes contributions for leading publications and websites such as Guitarist, Total Guitar, Guitar World, Guitar Player and MusicRadar in addition to specialist music books, blogs and social media. He is also a lifelong musician.