Elmore James (January 27, 1918 – May 24, 1963) was an American blues singer and guitarist. He was known as The King of the Slide Guitar. Born in Mississippi, he joined the Navy as a young man, and had his first hit record, "Dust My Broom," in 1952. Later settling in Chicago, he recorded several more classic blues hits, including "Look on Yonder Wall," "The Sky Is Crying," "Standing at the Crossroads," "Shake Your Moneymaker," and "It Hurts Me Too." James' music was characterized by his intense, high-pitched vocal style and driving guitar riffs. He was a pioneer of the fast-paced rhythmic style that influenced the early rock musicians, and his electric slide guitar technique is still much imitated by guitarists today.
James was born Elmore Brooks in Richland, Mississippi, 50 miles north of Jackson. He was raised by his parents, who worked as sharecroppers on several farms in the Durant area. Like several other blues players of the era, his first instrument was the "diddley bow," made by stringing a strand of broomwire from a nail attached to his front porch. He began playing semi-professionally under such names as "Cleanhead" and "Joe Willie James," alongside musicians such as the first Sonny Boy Williamson, Howling Wolf, and the legendary Robert Johnson. During World War II James joined the United States Navy and was stationed in Guam.
Upon his discharge Elmore returned to central Mississippi and eventually settled in Canton. He began recording with Trumpet Records in nearby Jackson in January 1951 as sideman to the second Sonny Boy Williamson and others. He first recorded as a lead singer in August of that year with what became his signature song, "Dust My Broom." A quiet, shy man, James was reticent to record his voice. His producer reportedly tricked him by recording what James thought was merely a jam session. The single was released without James' approval, reaching the number 9 position on the R&B charts in 1952.
Suddenly, the bashful Elmore James was a star. His "I Believe" was another hit a year later. Over the next seven years he recorded for the Bihari brothers' Flair Records, Meteor Records, and Modern Records labels, as well as for the better known Chess Records. His backing musicians were known as the Broomdusters. During this period he lived both in Chicago and Mississippi.
In 1957, James was diagnosed with heart disease. He also took a job as a DJ in Mississippi for a time, when not recording or performing on the road. In 1959, he began recording some of his best sides for the Fire Records label. These include "The Sky Is Crying," "Stranger Blues," "Look On Yonder Wall," "Done Somebody Wrong," and "Shake Your Moneymaker," all of which are among the most famous of blues recordings.
James recorded for the Fire label until 1962, when he was forced to temporarily retire because of a dispute with the musicians' union. After the dispute was resolved, James was preparing for a recording date in May, 1963, when he succumbed to his heart attack at the age of 45.
Record companies continued releasing James' singles until 1966, and various compilations of his "greatest hits" and "best of" albums continue to be released to this day. He was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980, and his grave site is listed by the National Parks Service.
- "Elmore kept playing the same lick over and over
- but I get the feeling he meant it."—Frank Zappa
While Zappa's characterization is a hyperbole, Elmore James' was indeed famous for a few particularly memorable riffs, played with remarkable effectiveness. His playing style won him the monniker "King of the Slide Guitar." James' passionate, high-pitched vocals also made him one of the most recognizable blues performers on record. His no-nonsense, driving style on both guitar and vocals expressed tremendous intensity, incongruous from this shy, unimposing man.
Many of James' most popular songs featured a fast, 12-bar blues shuffle with a heavy back-beat typical of what later became known as rock and roll. His use of the electric guitar enabled him to amplify the other-worldly slide guitar riffs learned from such Mississippi Delta masters as Robert Johnson, putting them to powerful effect together with drums, bass, piano, harmonica, and occasionally horns. While his voice was not nearly so powerful as other Chicago bluesmen such as Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf, James more than made up for this by an unmatched intensity. If other singers could use their voices to hit their listeners in the solar plexus, James could use his to make his audience's hair stand on end.
As a guitarist, he opted for simplicity over virtuosity. His riffs were designed to be more memorable than technically impressive. This made him all the more effective both as a live performer and a recording artist.
While Elmore James' status as a slide guitarist is well known, his influence as a pioneer of rock and roll is not to be underestimated. James' records were listened to with rapt attention by a generation of young musicians who would go on to become the top early rock and roll artists. Early rock innovator Little Richard is quoted as saying: "There was just a few people doing real rock back when I was first starting out. Little Richard and Elmore James are the only two I know."
Most electric slide guitar players will gladly admit to being strongly influenced by Elmore James. "I practiced twelve hours a day, every day, until my fingers were bleeding, trying to get the same sound as Elmore James," said Robbie Robertson, guitarist of The Band. James was also a major influence on rock guitarists such as The Rolling Stones' Brian Jones, Fleetwood Mac's Jeremy Spencer, and Duane Allman of the the Allman Brothers Band. Another guitarist who admired Elmore James was Jimi Hendrix.
James' up-tempo cover of Robert Johnson's' "Cross Roads Blues," released as "Standing at the Crossroads," was for many years more well known than the original until Eric Clapton and Cream released their own famous version in the late 1960s, which paid tribute to both predecessors. His songs "Done Somebody Wrong" and "One Way Out" were covered by the Allman Brothers Band. Blues guitar prodigy Stevie Ray Vaughan also often performed his songs in concert.
- 1951 Dust My Broom b/w Catfish Blues [by Bobo Thomas] (Trumpet 146 )
- 1952 I Believe b/w I Held My Baby Last Night (Meteor 5000)
- 1953 Baby, What's Wrong b/w Sinful Women (Meteor 5003)
- 1953 Early In The Morning b/w Hawaiian Boogie (Flair 1011)
- 1953 Country Boogie b/w She Just Won't Do Right (Checker 777)
- 1953 Can't Stop Lovin' b/w Make A Little Love (Flair 1014)
- 1953 Please Find My Baby b/w Strange Kinda' Feeling (Flair 1022)
- 1954 Hand In Hand b/w Make My Dreams Come True (Flair 1031)
- 1954 Sho Nuff I Do b/w 1839 Blues (Flair 1039)
- 1954 Dark And Dreary b/w Rock My Baby Right (Flair 1048 )
- 1954 Sunny Land b/w Standing At The Crossroads (Flair 1057)
- 1955 Late Hours At Midnight b/w The Way You Treat Me (Flair 1062)
- 1955 Happy Home b/w No Love In My Heart (Flair 1069)
- 1955 Dust My Blues b/w I Was A Fool (Flair 1069)
- 1955 I Believe My Time Ain't Long b/w I Wish I Was A Catfish (Ace 508 [re-release of Trumpet 146])
- 1955 Blues Before Sunrise b/w Good Bye (Flair 1079)
- 1956 Wild About You b/w Long Tall Woman (Modern 983)
- 1957 The 12 Year Old Boy b/w Coming Home (Chief 7001 & Vee Jay 249)
- 1957 It Hurts Me Too b/w Elmore's Contribution To Jazz (Chief 7004)
- 1957 Elmore's Contribution To Jazz b/w It Hurts Me Too (Vee Jay 259)
- 1957 Cry For Me Baby b/w Take Me Where You Go (Chief 7006 & Vee Jay 269)
- 1959 Make My Dreams Come True [re-release of Flair 1031 'B'side] b/w Bobby's Rock (Fire 1011)
- 1960 Dust My Blues [re-release of Flair 1074] b/w Happy Home [re-release of Flair 1069] (Kent 331)
- 1960 The Sky Is Crying b/w Held My Baby Last Night (Fire 1016)
- 1960 I Can't Hold Out b/w The Sun Is Shining (Chess 1756)
- 1960 Rollin' And Tumblin' b/w I'm Worried (Fire 1024)
- 1960 Knocking At Your Door b/w Calling All Blues [by Earl Hooker/Junior Wells] (Chief 7020)
- 1960 Done Somebody Wrong b/w Fine Little Mama (Fire 1031)
- 1961 Look On Yonder Wall b/w Shake Your Moneymaker (Fire 504)
- 1962 Stranger Blues b/w Anna Lee (Fire 1503)
- 1962/3? The Sky Is Crying b/w Held My Baby Last Night [re-release of Fire 1016] (Down Home 775/6)
- 1964 Dust My Blues b/w Happy Home [re-release of Kent 331] (Kent 394)
- 1964 Dust My Blues b/w Happy Home [re-release of Kent 394] (Sue 335)
- 1965 Bleeding Heart b/w It Hurts Me Too (Enjoy 2015 [1st pressing])
- 1965 It Hurts Me Too b/w Pickin' The Blues (Enjoy 2015 [2nd pressing])
- 1965 My Bleeding Heart b/w One Way Out (Sphere Sound 702])
- 1965 It Hurts Me Too b/w Bleeding Heart (Sue 383)
- 1965 Bleeding Heart b/w Mean Mistreatin' Mama (Enjoy 2020)
- 1965 Knocking At Your Door b/w Calling All Blues [re-release of Chief 7020] (Sue 392)
- 1965 Look On Yonder Wall b/w Shake Your Moneymaker (Enjoy 2022)
- 1965 The Sky Is Crying [re-release] b/w Standing At The Crossroads [alt. take] (Flashback 15)
- 1965 Standing At The Crossroads b/w Sunnyland [re-release of Flair 1057] (Kent 433)
- 1965 Everyday I Have The Blues b/w Dust My Broom [# 4] (Enjoy 2027)
- 1965 Cry For Me Baby b/w Take Me Where You Go [re-release of Chief 7006] (U.S.A. 815)
- 1965/1966? Cry For Me b/w Take Me Where You Go [re-release of Chief 7006] (S&M 101)
- 1966 Shake Your Money Maker b/w I Need You (Sphere Sound 708)
- 1961 Blues After Hours (Crown 5168)
- 1965 The Best Of (Sue 918 [UK])
- 1965 The Sky Is Crying (Sphere Sound 7002)
- 1965 Memorial Album (Sue 927 [UK])
- 1966 The Blues In My Heart, The Rhythm In My Soul (re-release of Blues After Hours)(United 716)
- 1966 The Blues In My Heart, The Rhythm In My Soul (re-release of Blues After Hours)(Custom 2054)
- 1967 Original Folk Blues (Kent 5022)
- 1967 I Need You (Sphere Sound 7008)
- 1968 The Late Fantastically Great (re-release of Blues After Hours)(Ember 3397 [UK])
- 1968 Tough (Chess recordings + tracks by John Brim) (Blue Horizon 7-63204 [UK])
- 1968 Something Inside of Me (Bell 104 [UK])
- 1969 The Legend Of Elmore James (Kent 9001)
- 1969 Elmore James (Bell 6037)
- 1969 Whose Muddy Shoes (+ tracks by John Brim) (Chess 1537)
- 1969 The Resurrection Of Elmore James (Kent 9010)
- 1969 To Know A Man [2LP] (Blue Horizon 7-66230 [UK])
- Charly Blues Masterworks Volume 28: Standing at the Crossroad (1993)
- The Sky Is Crying: The History Of Elmore James (1993)
- Rollin' And Tumblin' (1999)
- Legends Of Blues, Pickin' The Blues ; The Greatest Hits (2002)
- King of the Slide Guitar: The Complete Trumpet, Chief and Fire Sessions (2005)
- A Proper Records Introduction to Elmore James: Slide Guitar Master (2006)
- Obrecht, Jas. Rollin' and Tumblin': The Postwar Blues Guitarists. Backbeat Books, 2000. ISBN 9780879306137
- Rubin, Dave. Inside the Blues, 1942-1982 - Updated Edition: Four Decades of the Greatest Electric Blues Guitarists. Hal Leonard Corporation, 2007. ISBN 9781423416661
- Rowe, Mike. Chicago Blues: The City & the Music. Westview Press, 2005. ISBN 9780306801457
- Sokolow, Fred. Elmore James—Master of the Electric Slide Guitar. Hal Leonard Corporation, 1996. ISBN 9780793535781
All links retrieved September 12, 2017.
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