May 24, 1963 – Elmore James was born Elmore Brooks on January 27, 1918 in the old Richland community in Holmes County, Mississippi, the illegitimate son of 15-year-old Leola Brooks, a field hand. His father was probably Joe Willie “Frost” James, who moved in with Leola, and Elmore took his surname. He began making music at the age of 12, using a simple one-string instrument (diddley bow, or jitterbug) strung on a shack wall. As a teen he performed at dances under the names Cleanhead and Joe Willie James, before playing with the likes of Sonny Boy Williamson, and the legendary Robert Johnson.
James was strongly influenced by Robert Johnson, Kokomo Arnold and Tampa Red. He recorded several of Tampa Red’s songs. He also inherited from Tampa Red’s band two musicians who joined his own backing band, the Broomdusters, “Little” Johnny Jones (piano) and Odie Payne (drums).
His solo hits include “It Hurts Me Too”, “The Sky Is Crying”, “My Bleeding Heart”, “Stranger Blues”, “Look On Yonder Wall”, “Done Somebody Wrong”, and “Shake Your Moneymaker”.
During World War II, James joined the United States Navy, was promoted to coxswain and took part in the invasion of Guam. Upon his discharge, he returned to central Mississippi and settled in the town of Canton with his adopted brother Robert Holston. Working in Holston’s electrical shop, he devised his unique electric sound, using parts from the shop and an unusual placement of two DeArmond pickups. Around this time James learned that he had a serious heart condition.
He began recording with Trumpet Records in nearby Jackson in January 1951, first as a sideman for Sonny Boy Williamson II and for their mutual friend Willie Love and possibly others. He made his debut as a session leader in August with “Dust My Broom”, which was a surprise R&B hit in 1952. His backing musicians became known as the Broomdusters. There is a dispute about whether Johnson or James wrote James’s signature song, “Dust My Broom”.
Known as the “King of the Slide Guitar”, he was one of the first guest stars on the popular “King Biscuit Time” radio show on KFFA in Helena, Arkansas, and made early appearences on the “Talaho Syrup Show” on Yazoo City, Mississippi’s WAZF and the “Hadacol Show” on KWEM in West Memphis, Tennessee. At Trumpet Records in Jackson, Mississippi, Elmore was recorded at the tail end of a Sonny Boy session doing his signature tune, “Dust My Broom”. The record became the surprise R&B hit of 1951, making the Top Ten and making a recording star out of Elmore. Over the next 12 years he would record more than 100 songs for Modern, Chess, Chief, Fire, Fury, and Enjoy Records, and helped define the modern electric Chicago Blues Sound of today.
James broke his contract with Trumpet Records to sign with the Bihari brothers through their scout Ike Turner, who played guitar and piano on a couple of his early Bihari recordings. His “I Believe” was a hit a year later. During the 1950s he recorded for the Bihari brothers’ Flair Records, Meteor Records and Modern Records; he also recorded for Chess Records and Mel London’s Chief Records. He played lead guitar on Joe Turner’s 1954 top 10 R&B hit “TV Mama”.
In 1959, he began recording for Bobby Robinson’s Fire Records, which released “The Sky Is Crying”, “My Bleeding Heart”, “Stranger Blues”, “Look on Yonder Wall”, “Done Somebody Wrong”, and “Shake Your Moneymaker”, among others.
His best-known song is the blues standard “Dust My Broom” (also known as “Dust My Blues”). The song gave James’s band its name, the Broomdusters. Its opening slide guitar riff is one of the best-known sounds in all of blues. It is essentially the same riff that appeared in the recording of the same song by Robert Johnson, but James played the riff with electric slide guitar. B. B. King used this riff to open his 1953 number 1 R&B hit “Please Love Me.” 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!”. It is also the opening riff of the Yardbirds’ “The Nazz Are Blue”.
James played a wide variety of “blues” (which often crossed over into other styles of music) similar to that of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and some of B. B. King’s work, but distinguished by his guitar’s unique tone, coming from a modified hollow-body acoustic guitar, which sounded like an amped-up version of the more “modern” solid-body guitars.
James died of a heart attack in Chicago on May 24, 1963, as he was about to tour Europe with that year’s American Folk Blues Festival.
Many electric slide guitar players will admit to the influence of James’s style. He was a major influence on such successful blues guitarists as Homesick James, John Littlejohn, Hound Dog Taylor, J. B. Hutto and many others. He also influenced many rock guitarists, such as the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones (Keith Richards wrote in his book that when they first met, Jones was calling himself Elmo Lewis and wanted to be Elmore James), Canned Heat’s Alan Wilson and in particular Fleetwood Mac’s Jeremy Spencer. John Mayall included “Mr. James” on his 1969 album Looking Back as an homage to James. James’s songs “Done Somebody Wrong” and “One Way Out” were covered by the Allman Brothers Band, who were influenced by James.
James was also covered by the 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 – bluesman Albert King recorded a cover of “The Sky Is Crying”, and Vaughan copied King’s version. 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 and Gary Moore.
The most famous guitarist who admired James was Jimi Hendrix. Early in his career Hendrix styled himself variously as Maurice James and subsequently as Jimmy James, in tribute to Elmore James, according to former bandmate and recording partner Lonnie Youngblood. A photo on the sleeve of his album Blues shows Hendrix in London, holding James’s UK LP The Best of Elmore James. (Hendrix was frequently photographed holding LP covers of musicians that influenced him.) He performed James’s “Bleeding Heart” at 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, and he recorded two versions of it in the studio.
James is mentioned in the Beatles‘ song “For You Blue”: while John Lennon evokes James’s signature sound with a Höfner 5140 Hawaiian Standard lap steel guitar, George Harrison says, “Elmore James got nothin’ on this, baby.” Frank Zappa was also influenced by James. Eric Burdon performed the song “No More Elmore” on the album Crawling King Snake (1982).
On the 1974 record Second Album, Roy Buchanan included an instrumental song he wrote titled “Tribute to Elmore James,” which begins with James’ classic slide guitar riff, and uses his soloing style throughout.
Considered the most influential slide guitarist of the postwar period, in 1980, he was elected to the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992, in the “Early Influences” category.
“What I love most about Elmore is his voice. It’s always sounded like a saxophone to me, the way it breaks at high volume, the way it vibrates around the words, the way it tails off rough at the end of every phrase. He’s not really singing. He’s blowing as hard as he can and moving it around slightly whenever he needs it to move sideways and break. When you listen to this song, especially once he gets onto the second verse, keep that in your mind and you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.
Then listen for that guitar solo just over two minutes in. It starts out rough but it progresses until it’s just a few picked notes, almost out of the air. Goddamn, that’s good.
Here’s another one from the same year, showing the nastier side of Elmore with that ripping guitar up front and bludgeoning you with the simplest sort of shuffle behind him. Among his contemporaries, only Howlin’ Wolf could conjure up the same kind of street alley sound as Elmore.”