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Elmore James

No two ways about it, the most influential slide guitarist of the postwar period was Elmore James, hands down. Although his early demise from heart failure kept him from enjoying the fruits of the '60s blues revival as his contemporaries Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf did, James left a wide influential trail behind him. And that influence continues to the present time -- in approach, attitude and tone -- in just about every guitar player who puts a slide on his finger and wails the blues. As a guitarist, he wrote the book, his slide style influencing the likes of Hound Dog Taylor, Joe Carter, his cousin Homesick James and J.B. Hutto, while his seldom-heard single-string work had an equally profound effect on B.B. King and Chuck Berry. His signature lick -- an electric updating of Robert Johnson's "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom" and one that Elmore recorded in infinite variations from day one to his last session -- is so much a part of the essential blues fabric of guitar licks that no one attempting to play slide guitar can do it without being compared to Elmore James. Others may have had more technique -- Robert Nighthawk and Earl Hooker immediately come to mind -- but Elmore had the sound and all the feeling.

A radio repairman by trade, Elmore reworked his guitar amplifiers in his spare time, getting them to produce raw, distorted sounds that wouldn't resurface until the advent of heavy rock amplification in the late '60s. This amp-on-11-approach was hot-wired to one of the strongest emotional approaches to the blues ever recorded. There is never a time when you're listening to one of his records that you feel -- no matter how familiar the structure -- that he's phoning it in just to grab a quick session check. Elmore James always gave it everything he had, everything he could emotionally invest in a number. This commitment of spirit is something that shows up time and again when listening to multiple takes from his session masters. The sheer repetitiveness of the recording process would dim almost anyone's creative fires, but Elmore always seemed to give it 100 percent every time the red light went on. Few blues singers had a voice that could compete with James'; it was loud, forceful, prone to "catch" or break up in the high registers, almost sounding on the verge of hysteria at certain moments. Evidently the times back in the mid-'30s when Elmore had first-hand absorption of Robert Johnson as a playing companion had a deep influence on him, not only in his choice of material, but also in his presentation of it.

Backing the twin torrents of Elmore's guitar and voice was one of the greatest -- and earliest -- Chicago blues bands. Named after James' big hit, the Broomdusters featured Little Johnny Jones on piano, J.T. Brown on tenor sax and Elmore's cousin, Homesick James on rhythm guitar. This talented nucleus was often augmented by a second saxophone on occasion while the drumming stool changed frequently. But this was the band that could go toe to toe in a battle of the blues against the bands of Muddy Waters or Howlin' Wolf and always hold their own, if not walk with the show. Utilizing a stomping beat, Elmore's slashing guitar, Jones' two-fisted piano delivery, Homesick's rudimentary boogie bass rhythm and Brown's braying nanny-goat sax leads, the Broomdusters were as loud and powerful and popular as any blues band the Windy City had to offer.

But as urban as their sound was, it all had roots in Elmore's hometown of Canton, MS. He was born there on January 27, 1918, the illegitimate son of Leola Brooks and later given the surname of his stepfather, Joe Willie James. He adapted to music at an early age, learning to play bottleneck on a homemade instrument fashioned out of a broom handle and a lard can. By the age of 14, he was already a weekend musician, working the various country suppers and juke joints in the area under the names "Cleanhead" or Joe' Willie James." Although he confined himself to a home base area around Belzoni, he would join up and work with traveling players coming through like Robert Johnson, Howlin' Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson. By the late '30s he had formed his first band and was working the Southern state area with Sonny Boy until the second world war broke out, spending three years stationed with the Navy in Guam. When he was discharged, he picked off where he left off, moving for a while to Memphis, working in clubs with Eddie Taylor and his cousin Homesick James. Elmore was also one of the first "guest stars" on the popular King Biscuit Time radio show on KFFA in Helena, AL, also doing stints on the Talaho Syrup show on Yazoo City's WAZF and the Hadacol show on KWEM in West Memphis.

Nervous and unsure of his abilities as a recording artist, Elmore was surreptitiously recorded by Lillian McMurray of Trumpet Records at the tail end of a Sonny Boy session doing his now-signature tune, "Dust My Broom." Legend has it that James didn't even stay around long enough to hear the playback, much less record a second side. McMurray stuck a local singer (BoBo "Slim" Thomas) on the flip side and the record became the surprise R&B hit of 1951, making the Top Ten and conversely making a recording star out of Elmore. With a few months left on his Trumpet contract, Elmore was recorded by the Bihari Brothers for their Modern label subsidiaries, Flair and Meteor, but the results were left in the can until James' contract ran out. In the meantime, Elmore had moved to Chicago and cut a quick session for Chess, which resulted in one single being issued and just as quickly yanked off the market as the Bihari Brothers swooped in to protect their investment. This period of activity found Elmore assembling the nucleus of his great band the Broomdusters and several fine recordings were issued over the next few years on a plethora of the Bihari Brothers'owned labels with several of them charting and most all of them becoming certified blues classics.

By this time James had established a beach-head in the clubs of Chicago as one of the most popular live acts and regularly broadcasting over WPOA under the aegis of disc jockey Big Bill Hill. In 1957, with his contract with the Bihari Brothers at an end, he recorded several successful sides for Mel London's Chief label, all of them later being issued on the larger Vee-Jay label. His health -- always in a fragile state due to a recurring heart condition -- would send him back home to Jackson, MS, where he temporarily set aside his playing for work as a disc jockey or radio repair man. He came back to Chicago to record a session for Chess, then just as quickly broke contract to sign with Bobby Robinson's Fire label, producing the classic "The Sky Is Crying" and numerous others. Running afoul with the Chicago musician's union, he returned back to Mississippi, doing sessions in New York and New Orleans waiting for Big Bill Hill to sort things out. In May of 1963, Elmore returned to Chicago, ready to resume his on-again off-again playing career -- his records were still being regularly issued and reissued on a variety of labels -- when he suffered his final heart attack. His wake was attended by over 400 blues luminaries before his body was shipped back to Mississippi. He was elected to the Blues Foundation's Hall of Fame in 1980 and was later elected to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as a seminal influence. Elmore James may not have lived to reap the rewards of the blues revival, but his music and influence continues to resonate. ~ Cub Kodak, Rovi
full bio

Selected Discography

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Track List: The Complete Chief & Fire Sessions

Disc 1
Disc 2
Disc 3

Comments

love me some elmore james every now and then
oh yeah
the inventor of rock & roll
dhunter0173
Gottfiemybab y
the master of slide guitar is back in the house!!! awright
awesome
yup
hahaha
lol
oh yeah this is my s**t
One of the GREATS in the blues genre.. Toooooo much Elmore You got it boy! R I P I luv u ! xo
This music hits the soul...from down in the Mississippi Delta where the knew goooood blues.
very good blues
ime499
Many of the old blues singers name I heard as a child. We were one of the few families that had a phonograph machine. This is what we grew-up on Muddy Waters , Howlin' Wolf and so many more. I learned to appreciate this music and I listen often , because the music remind meof my eighty -nine year old father , who has passed now.So you keep digging up these old artist and I will keep listening.
very good
One of the fathers of the blues. A good bio from Pandora too, I did not know that much about James other than who he influenced.
this is the type of blues i'm talkin 'bout
Elmore influenced many modern players including Duane, Eric, Stevie Ray et all.
The blues ain't got to be Bad, The Blues ain't got to be sad, to be understood The Blues just got to be had !!!! : )
he blueses!! yeah
david.june69
Dupid ¡!¡
david.june69
Stpid¡!¡
this man is the best i love him i would marry him
Does it bother anyone that the lyrics are terrible?
tedbujalski
...one of the tunes Brian Jones played the night mick and Kieth came to hear brian's band.....
ONE OF THE BEST*
I love the blues
Best Slide guitar player of his time, so much emotion
Love Elmore James' stuff and he was probably the most influential slide player post war but lets not forget that Duane Skydog Allman took slide playing to a whole new level. Just listen to Live At Filmore. Those who have heard the album know what I'm talking about. Those that haven't, and love the blues, are in for one helluva ride.
dust my broom
scottcampbel l 1 9 5 8
@johneslim3 - No live footage of James playing is known to exist and only a handful of still photos are out there, which is criminal. In my opinion he and Robert Johnson were the two most important bluesman ever. James *created* the electric blues sound and is the true father of rock & roll. His influence can't be overstated.
His music speaks volumes !! ~ John
Yea! one of my heroes!
This is an excellent biography; however, it has one error that I know of: the famous King Biscuit Blues Hour was out of Helena, Arkansas, not Alabama. There is still a King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena which is worth attending.
Is there any video with Elmore James
"The Sky Is Crying". Say no more........ . .
John Howard,
I used to know a John Howard at FT Benning and Germany. Is this the same person?
This is good music.
Willie
texasjoseph
Good, Young-One!
papajohnhowa r d
Elmore is a bad---bad Man
magruver
awesome,,,,, , , , , , , , , ,
cbwasher
I Have Learn alot about the Blues through this man history and his gift as a musician. I wish he was still around.
play more elmore james
grazy people dont make sence
lol lol lol lol
kev rox

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