Elmore James - Biography

Though his recorded output was relatively small and he placed just four hit singles on the R&B charts in the ‘50s and ‘60s, Elmore James was among the most influential guitarists on the postwar blues scene. An insistent slide triplet he unveiled on his debut single, his 1952 cover of Robert Johnson’s “Dust My Broom” for Trumpet Records, was a figure that was copied endlessly by James’ acolytes, both black and white, and it remains part of the bedrock of the genre; though he was by no means a one-trick pony, James himself made a cottage industry out of the lick, replicating it time and again on record during his brief 12-year studio career.


While James was one of the most intense and powerful blues singers of his generation, it was as a guitarist that he served as a true role model. He inspired an entire school of performers who saw him play during his on-again-off-again residency in Chicago’s clubs, including JB Hutto, Hound Dog Taylor, Johnny Littlejohn, and his cousin and frequent band mate Homesick James.


More importantly, he served as a posthumous influence on a formidable line of blues-rock guitar stars. The Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones completely modeled himself after James; so did Fleetwood Mac’s Peter Green and Jeremy Spencer, who also incorporated the elder bluesman’s songs into their late-‘60s repertoire. The Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s explosive axe man Michael Bloomfield assumed James’ “Look On Yonder Wall” and “Shake Your Moneymaker” as his own showpieces. Southern rock progenitor Duane Allman took famous solos on “One Way Out” and “Done Somebody Wrong.” “Delaware Destroyer” George Thorogood covered “Madison Blues,” and his slide work owes an incalculable debt to James’ style. And Stevie Ray Vaughan would often feature a sizzling version of “The Sky is Crying” in his live sets. Clearly, James earned his 1992 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.


For a musician whose impact was felt so widely, surprisingly little is known about his life outside the studio — he was a private man, and he died too early to have been sought by the blues researchers of the ‘60s. Like many another important postwar bluesman, he grew up in the Delta: Born on Jan. 27, 1918 in Richland, Mississippi, he was the illegitimate son on Leola Brooks, and took the surname of the man believed to be his father, Joe Willie James. Like other Delta-bred guitarists, he got his start playing a one-string improvised “diddley bow.”


By his late teens, James was living on a plantation in Belzoni, Mississippi, where he would encounter the two musicians who would have the greatest personal and professional impact on him. The legendary Robert Johnson traveled widely through the region, and — while documentation is non-existent — it is believed that before Johnson’s murder in 1938, James met and may have played with the man whose song “Dust My Broom” became a lasting contribution to the younger musician’s set. It is certain that James met Alec “Rice” Miller, the singer-harmonica player better known as Sonny Boy Williamson II, at this point, and the men began working as a duo at regional dances and juke joints.


The relationship continued after James’ stint in the wartime Navy; the two bluesmen roomed together at times, and James sometimes appeared with Williamson on his regional radio shows. He also worked with vocalist Willie Love’s group the Three Aces. In the late ‘40s, he lived for stretches behind his half-brother’s radio repair shop in Canton, Mississippi; he began to experience the debilitating effects of the heart condition that would later kill him.


In early 1951, James accompanied Williamson to Jackson, Mississippi, where the harp player was set to record for Trumpet Records, a local independent blues label operated by record retailer Lillian McMurry; he appeared on Williamson’s noted recording “Eyesight to the Blind” (later covered by the Who).


If one wanted to anger Mrs. McMurry — as this writer did at a meeting not long before her death in 1999 — all one had to do was repeat the apocryphal story that she had clandestinely recorded James’ “Dust My Broom,” due to the guitarist’s extreme “mic fright.” She would happily supply a copy of her August 1951 contract with the guitarist, signed before the session, and would tartly note that James knew very well that he was being recorded. However, James cut nothing besides his career-making song for Trumpet; McMurry believed that there was nothing else in his repertoire ready for recording at the time of his session, and she backed the number with Bobo Thomas’ “Catfish Blues.” Both sides of the 78 were credited to “Elmo James.”


With harp backup by Williamson and James’ ear-catching slide work, “Dust My Broom” was not dissimilar to such popular down-home blues singles of the day as John Lee Hooker’s “Boogie Chillen’” and Muddy Waters’ “Louisiana Blues.” After breaking out regionally around the country, it finally climbed to No. 9 on the national R&B charts in the spring of 1952.


Around that time, James attracted the interest of Joe Bihari, who ran the Los Angeles R&B label Modern Records with his brothers Saul, Les, and Jules. During a scouting trip, Joe Bihari and his A&R man, pianist Ike Turner, heard about James from Williamson, and they actually began recording the bluesman the night they met him, employing a portable disc cutter. The Biharis were all set to issue a single, but, after McMurry threatened a suit, it was withdrawn. Modern waited out the Trumpet contract, and by early 1953 James had moved to a new label.


James’ sides — usually cut under the “Broomdusters” rubric, in a nod to his first big hit -- for the Biharis were issued on the Meteor, Flair, and Modern imprints. His biggest single for the brothers was his Meteor debut, the “Dust My Broom” soundalike “I Believe”; backed with the powerful slow blues “I Held My Baby Last Night,” it matched its predecessor and peaked at No. 9 on the R&B charts in early 1953.


James recorded fairly prolifically for Modern through 1957. He had by now followed his mother to Chicago, and had established a Broomdusters line-up that included some former members of Tampa Red’s group, including pianist Johnny Jones and saxophonist JT Brown. He showed up as a sideman on Jones’ Atlantic single “Hoy Hoy”; Kansas City blues shouter Big Joe Turner’s Atlantic side “T.V. Mama”; and Chicago harp player Junior Wells’ “Hoodoo Man.” James couldn’t find another hit during this era, but sessions in Chicago, New York, and New Orleans did produce some punchy sides — “Hand in Hand,” the Robert Johnson-inspired “Standing at the Crossroads,” “Sunny Land,” “Wild About You Baby,” and the instrumental “Hawaiian Boogie.”


In 1957, James recorded some puissant material for Mel London’s small Chicago label Chief Records; the masters were purchased by Vee-Jay Records, the Windy City’s largest R&B independent and the home of blues stars Jimmy Reed and John Lee Hooker.  While none of these records was a hit, such tracks as “It Hurts Me Too,” “Cry For Me Baby,” and the staggering, almost surreal “12 Year Old Boy” are among the most enduring entries in James’ discography.


Sometime in late 1959, a chance encounter in Chicago set the stage for the remainder of James’ career. New York retailer and label operator Bobby Robinson was in town, promoting his artist Buster Brown’s hit-to-be “Fannie Mae.” Robinson had been impressed by James’ work since “Dust My Broom,” and so he was startled to discover the guitarist playing a small South Side club. He hurried initiated a recording session; in addition to remakes of some earlier James material, the date included a song inspired by a downpour that drenched Chicago that day. The moody, hyper-emotional “The Sky is Crying” was James’ first hit for Robinson’s Fire label, cresting at No. 15.


In 1960, James squeezed in a single session for Chicago’s Chess Records; the results, which went unreleased until the late ‘60s, included the stomping “Madison Blues” and “The Sun is Shining.” But James soon returned to Robinson, for whom he would record for the remainder of his life. His mature sides for the producer, who brought out the best in his artist, included many of the classics on which his reputation rests: “Done Somebody Wrong,” “Can’t Stop Loving My Baby,” “Shake Your Moneymaker,” “Talk to Me Baby,” “Look On Yonder Wall,” “One Way Out,” “Something Inside Me.” Many of these performances that give the lie to the idea that James was an artist who could play a blues shuffle and nothing more -- in particular, his slow blues were rarely equaled by his contemporaries.


On May 24, 1963, James — whose heart disease was exacerbated by a lifetime of hard drinking and road work — died in Homesick James’ Chicago apartment at the age of 45. His time was short, and his legacy was small but long-lived. Somewhere in America tonight — probably somewhere in your town — a slide guitarist will be playing that “Dust My Broom” lick.

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