January 27, 1918|
Richland, Holmes County, Mississippi, U.S.
|Died||May 24, 1963
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
Elmore James (January 27, 1918 - May 24, 1963) was an American blues guitarist, singer, songwriter and bandleader. He was known as "King of the Slide Guitar" and was noted for his use of loud amplification and his stirring voice.
James was born Elmore Brooks in Richland, 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. He married Minnie Mae about 1942. He subsequently married at least twice more.
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). There is a dispute about whether Johnson or James wrote James's signature song, "Dust My Broom".
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.
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.
James died of a heart attack in Chicago in 1963, as he was about to tour Europe with that year's American Folk Blues Festival. He was buried in the Newport Baptist Church Cemetery, in Ebenezer, Mississippi.
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. Waters took the Belgian blues fan George Adins to see James 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...
Adins also witnessed James at the Alex Club, on the West Side of 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 favourite 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!
Many electric slide guitar players will acknowledge the influence of James's style. He was a major influence on such notable blues guitarists as Homesick James, John Littlejohn, Hound Dog Taylor, J. B. Hutto and many others. He also influenced many rock guitarists, such as Brian Jones, of the Rolling Stones (Keith Richards wrote that when they first met, Jones was calling himself Elmo Lewis and wanted to be Elmore James); Alan Wilson, of Canned Heat; and Jeremy Spencer, of Fleetwood Mac. John Mayall recorded "Mr. James" for 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's compositions were 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: the 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. Another admirer of James was Jimi Hendrix. Early in his career Hendrix styled himself as Maurice James and subsequently as Jimmy James, in tribute to Elmore James, according to his 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."
Eric Burdon performed the song "No More Elmore" on the album Crawling King Snake (1982).
Roy Buchanan, for his Second Album (1974), recorded "Tribute to Elmore James", an instrumental piece Buchanan wrote, which begins with James's classic slide guitar riff and uses his soloing style throughout.