Now, back in those days, "digging a little deeper" was not the simple task it has become over the past decade or so, with the internet pretty accessible either at home, in a library, or a place of business. Back in the day, at least when dealing with something music-related, it meant either going to the library and looking something up or maybe finding a recording of some sort at the local record store. In 1980, neither was a sure bet as far as searching for blues information, and true to form, I struck out. The only music books in our libraries were devoted to either early rockers like Elvis, Dylan, or the Beatles, so I couldn't even find enough information about Elmore James to even know where to look for him in a music store. My paper got written and I moved on to other things that 17-year-olds enjoy to do and forgot about Elmore James.
The first thing I noticed was that "Dust My Broom" was not on this collection. Instead, there was a slight variation called, "Dust My Blues," which James recorded a couple of years later on a different label. The second thing I noticed was that I could care less. From the opening notes of "Dust My Blues," I was hooked! I had heard the familiar guitar riff by now from numerous other blues artists (face it, any guitarist who's ever put a slide on his finger is going to play an Elmore James riff one way or another), but I had never heard it just like Elmore James played it.....with the fierce determination and fire he had. It was almost like the strings were being shredded sometimes.
And those vocals....loud, sometimes cracking, occasionally even hysterical-sounding. Whatever your feelings about him, everyone who ever listened to Elmore James knew......they KNEW.....that he felt the blues to the very core of his being. How many bluesmen over the years have stated that you can't fake the blues? When one listens to Elmore James perform, you know he ain't faking!!
Elmore James was born on January 27, 1918, in Richland, MS....there are several Richlands in Mississippi....this particular community is north of Jackson in Holmes County. He was born Elmore Brooks, taking his mother's last name, but later took the name of his stepfather, Joe Willie James. He began playing guitar at the age of 12, first playing a diddley bow and later making a one string instrument made out of a broom handle and a lard can. Pretty soon, he was playing dances at country suppers and juke joints, under the name Cleanhead or Joe Willie James.
James soon made it back to Canton, MS, where he began developing his signature sound, working in his adopted brother, Robert Holston's electrical shop. Using parts from the shop, he reworked his amps to the point where they produced the raw, distorted sounds that would later become such a part of rock guitar some fifteen or so years later.
Still nervous about his abilities, James recorded a single track for Lillian McMurray's Trumpet Records out of Jackson, MS in 1951. He had previously recorded for Trumpet as a guitarist on several Sonny Boy Williamson and Willie Love tracks and McMurray cut his song at the end of one of Williamson's sessions. James didn't even stick around long enough to record a "B" side for his single....McMurray ended up putting a local singer's track on the flip side, but the song, "Dust My Broom," became one of the biggest R&B hit of 1952 and catapulted Elmore James into the spotlight.
|L to R: Homesick James, J. T. Brown, Elmore James|
In the early 50's, James was diagnosed with a heart condition that sometimes put him on the musical sidelines. After he recorded several sides for Chief Records in 1957 (including the first version of "It Hurts Me Too"), his heart forced him to withdraw to Canton, MS, where he worked as a DJ and repairing radios for a time. Soon, he returned to Chicago and cut some more sides for Chess, then released some incredible sides for Bobby Robinson's Fire label that included "The Sky Is Crying," "Look on Yonder's Wall," and "Shake Your Moneymaker."
Though Elmore James didn't get to reap the benefits of blues recognition like Muddy Water, Howlin' Wolf, John Lee Hooker, and other contemporaries, he managed to influence blues guitarists like Homesick James Williamson, J. B. Hutto, Hound Dog Taylor, Lil' Ed Williams, and Johnny Littlejohn, rockers like Brian Jones, Eric Clapton, Duane Allman, Stevie Ray Vaughan, George Thorogood, and Jimi Hendrix (who billed himself as "Jimmy James" during his early career as a tribute). Even today, James' influence can be heard in the music of Derek Trucks via his connections with his own band and the Allman Brothers.
Let's Cut It: The Very Best of Elmore James. His Fire and Enjoy sessions have been assembled by Collectables (in three volumes), and his Chess sides have also been collected frequently. However, the disc that captures most of his best material and covers the entire length of his recording legacy is Rhino's The Sky Is Crying: The History of Elmore James. It's track after track of sheer brilliance and should be part of every blues fan's collection. I strongly encourage you to dig a little deeper though.