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Elmore James (January 27, 1918 – May 24, 1963) was an American blues guitarist, singer, song writer and band leader. He was known as The King of the Slide Guitar and had a unique guitar style, noted for his use of loud amplification and his stirring voice.
Elmore began making music at age 12 using a simple one-string instrument ('diddley bow' or 'jitterbug') strung up on a shack wall. As a teen he was playing at local dances under the names Cleanhead and Joe Willie James. His first marriage was to Minnie Mae in c.1942 (whom he apparently never divorced). He subsequently married twice, to Georgianna Crump in 1947 and to a woman called Janice in c.1954. (Another reported marriage of Elmore to a Josephine Harris has been found to be a mistaken record; a different Elmore James.
Other well-known musicians of that time, with whom he played, included the 'second' Sonny Boy Williamson, and the legendary Robert Johnson. Although Robert Johnson was murdered in 1938, James (like many other musicians) was strongly influenced by him, and also by Kokomo Arnold and Tampa Red. Elmore recorded several of Tampa's songs, and even inherited from his band two of his famous 'Broomdusters', 'Little' Johnny Jones (piano) and Odie Payne (drums). There is a dispute as to whether Robert Johnson or Elmore wrote James's trademark song, "Dust My Broom".. Elmore was still under 20 when Johnson had recorded his version of the song.
An important side to Elmore's character which may have hastened his demise was his lifelong taste for, and manufacture of, moonshine whiskey, to which he was introduced at an early age. Alcohol killed his band mates and friends Willie Love and Johnny Jones at an early age, and probably others too. His regular rhythm guitarist Homesick James maintained his longevity was due to his not partaking of the heavy drinking sessions after — and often during — gigs, a refusal that was unpopular with the rest of the band. Elmore was also reportedly an extremely fast driver who also loved hunting with guns and dogs down in Mississippi, whence he would head off for protracted periods.
During World War II James joined the United States Navy, was promoted to coxswain and took part in the invasion of Guam against the Japanese. Upon his discharge, Elmore returned to central Mississippi and eventually settled in Canton with his adopted brother Robert Holston, it was at this time he learned that he had a serious heart condition. Working in Robert's electrical shop he devised his unique electric sound, using parts from the shop and an unusual placement of two D'Armond pick ups. He began recording with Trumpet Records in nearby Jackson in January 1951, first as sideman to the second Sonny Boy Williamson and also to their mutual friend Willie Love and possibly others, then debuting as a session leader in August with "Dust My Broom". It was a surprise R&B hit in 1952 and turned James into a star. He then broke his contract with Trumpet Records to sign up with the Bihari Brothers through Ike Turner (who played guitar and piano on a couple of his early Bihari recordings). James' "I Believe" was another hit a year later. During the 1950s he recorded for the Bihari Brothers' Flair Records, Meteor Records and Modern Records labels, as well as for Chess Records and Mel London's Chief Records for whom "It Hurts Me Too" was a hit. His backing musicians were known as the Broomdusters. In 1959 he began recording what are perhaps his best sides for Bobby Robinson's Fire Records label. These include "The Sky Is Crying" (credited to Elmo James and His Broomdusters), "My Bleeding Heart", "Stranger Blues", "Look On Yonder Wall", "Done Somebody Wrong", and "Shake Your Moneymaker", all of which are among the most famous of blues recordings.
Elmore James died of his third heart attack in Chicago, Illinois in
1963, just prior to a tour of Europe with that year's American Folk
Blues Festival. He is buried in the Newport Baptist Church Cemetery,
Ebenezer, Holmes County, Mississippi. His headstone was provided for by
Phil Walden and Capricorn Records through a grant to the Mt. Zion
Memorial Fund. The bronze and granite memorial features a statuary
likeness of James playing the guitar. The memorial unveiling took place
on December 10, 1992 with several members of the Mississippi State
Legislature in attendance along with Dick Waterman, Phil Walden,
musician Marshall Crenshaw, members of James' family, and many others.
Muddy Waters took the Belgian blues fan (Georges Adins) to see Elmore play in Chicago in 1959, Adins recalled,
"Elmore will always remain the most exciting, dramatic blues singer and guitarist that I've ever had a chance to see perform in the flesh. On our way we listened to him on the radio as Big Bill Hill ... was broadcasting direct from that place. I was burning to see Elmore James and before we even pushed open the door of the club, we could hear Elmore's violent guitar sound. Although the place was overcrowded, we managed to find a seat close to the bandstand and the blues came falling down on me as it had never done before. Watching Elmore sing and play, backed by a solid blues band (Homesick James, J.T. Brown, Boyd Atkins and Sam Cassell) made me feel real fine. Wearing thick glasses, Elmore's face always had an expressive and dramatic look, especially when he was real gone on the slow blues. Singing with a strong and rough voice, he really didn't need a mike. On such slow blues as "I'm Worried - "Make My Dreams Come True" - "It Hurts Me", his voice reached a climax and created a tension that was unmistakably the down and out blues. Notwithstanding that raw voice, Elmore sang his blues with a particular feeling, an emotion and depth that showed his country background. His singing was... fed, reinforced by his own guitar accompaniment which was as rough, violent and expressive as was his voice. Using the bottleneck technique most of the time, Elmore really let his guitar sound as I had never heard a guitar sound before. You just couldn't sit still! You had to move..."
George also witnessed Elmore at 'Alex Club' in West Side Chicago where...
"...he always played for a dance audience and he made the people jump. 'Bobby's Rock' was at that time one of the favorite numbers with the crowd and Elmore used to play [it] for fifteen minutes and more. You just couldn't stand that hysteric sound coming down on you. The place was rocking, swinging!"
The nearest we have to a recording of a 'live' set by Elmore is his last recorded session by Bobby Robinson of Fire records & Enjoy records etc., in New York City 1963 shortly before his death, aged only 45. This session features several takes of 'Hand In Hand' which is abandoned and Elmo then plays a 'live' set.
His best known song is the blues standard "Dust My Broom" (also known as "Dust My Blues"). The song gave its name to James's band, The Broomdusters. The song's opening slide guitar riff is one of the best-known sounds in all of blues. It is essentially the same riff that appears in the recording of the same song by Robert Johnson, but James played the riff with electric slide guitar. It was even transformed into a doo-wop chorus on Jesse Stone's "Down in the Alley", recorded by The Clovers and Elvis Presley. Stone transcribed the riff as: "Changety changety changety changety chang chang!"
Listen to this 8-second sample of the riff from Dust My Broom featured in this very different song, Elmore – like most other performers who have a hit tune – was pressured into using this as a "hit formula" in many of his subsequent songs, although his later big sellers bore no resemblance to this:
Elmore James' songs "Done Somebody Wrong" and "One Way Out" were often covered by The Allman Brothers Band, who cited him as a major influence. James was also covered by blues-rock band Stevie Ray Vaughan. and Double Trouble many times in concert. The most famous of these covers is one that came by an indirect route: James' fellow bluesman Albert King recorded a cover of "The Sky Is Crying", and Stevie Ray Vaughan. copied King's version of the song. That song was also covered by George Thorogood on his second album, Move It On Over and by Eric Clapton on his album There's One in Every Crowd.
Perhaps the most famous guitarist who admired Elmore James was Jimi Hendrix. Early in Hendrix's career, he styled himself variously as 'Maurice James' and subsequently as 'Jimmy James'. This, according to former band mate and recording partner Lonnie Youngblood, was a tribute to Elmore James. There is a photo of Hendrix (that can be seen in the sleeve of his :blues album) in London wearing a military jacket and holding Elmore James's UK LP The Best Of Elmore James. (Hendrix was frequently photographed throughout his performing career holding LP covers of musicians that influenced him.) He performed James' "Bleeding Heart" during the Experience's Royal Albert Hall concert in 1969, and also with the Band of Gypsys at their New Year's concerts at the Fillmore East in 1969/70 as well as recording two different versions of it in the studio. Buddy Miles also sang lyrics along with Hendrix playing some motifs from James' "The Sky Is Crying" during his famous jam session at the Newport Pop Festival on June 22, 1969. Hendrix quoted several lyrics and motifs from Elmore's catalogue throughout his career.
In 1982, Eric Burdon wrote No More Elmore, a song about James' influence on him.
James is mentioned in The Beatles' song "For You Blue": while John Lennon plays the slide guitar (James' trademark), George Harrison says, "Elmore James got nothin' on this, baby." Other artists influenced by Elmore James include Frank Zappa and Jeffrey Evans of the band '68 Comeback.
In the Blues Brothers film(Landis-1980), Elwood Blues(Akroyd)
recollects Elmore James as one of the blues' artists that Curtis(Cab
Calloway) had played to himself and Jake(Belushi) in the orphanage that
had influenced their lives.
Mississippi Blues Trail
In his dedication of Hickory Street, Governor Haley Barbour said,
With his innovative contributions to the electric slide guitar style, legendary Elmore James is among the many reasons Mississippi is truly the birthplace of America’s music. Like so many others, Elmore’s work was greatly influenced by his childhood home in Canton, where he joined the ranks of musicians like B.B. King and Little Milton to play the blues on Hickory Street. Today’s blues trail marker not only recognizes the achievements of the talented Elmore James but also pays tribute to Canton’s colorful blues heritage.