Electric blues slide guitar and Elmore James long ago became synonymous.
Thanks to Elmore's massive contribution to his chosen musical field, the crashing fury of a glass bottleneck or steel tube aggressively applied to the fretboard of an amplified axe assumed precise and indelible characteristics that haven't changed too much ever since.
Elmore's eternal trademark lick-a stinging modernization of Robert Johnson, who had premiered Elmore's signature song "Dust My Broom"some 15 years earlier--quickly became part of the idiom's common vocabulary, so widely copied by his peers (J.B. Hutto, Hound Dog Taylor, Homesick James, Johnny Littlejohn, even B.B. King, who managed to effectively reproduce James' ringing sustain on his '53 hit "Please Love Me" minus the slide) and subsequent young blues-rockers (Fleetwood Mac's Jeremy Spencer could transform himself into a virtual James clone; Eric Clapton, Duane Allman, and Michael Bloomfield all paid heartfelt tribute, and George Thorogood's impudent attack is thoroughly steeped in Elmorian fury) that it's now difficult to conjure up a blues slide guitar solo that fails to reference Elmore's mighty ferocity early and often.
Though he recorded for several R&B indie labels during his all-too-brief career (he died at age 45 in 1963 of the heart problems that had plagued him off and on for much of his adult life), Elmore made many of his most important recordings for the Los Angeles-based Bihari brothers' Meteor, Flair, and Modern labels from 1952 to '56. No matter where he recorded-- everywhere from a juke joint in rural Mississippi to the classiest studio in Chicago and from Los Angeles to New Orleans-Elmore's gashing attack, coupled with a high-pitched, perpetually intense vocal delivery that at times grew strangled with raw emotion, cut through loud and clear.
Born January 27, 1918 in Richland, Miss. to unmarried mother Leola Brooks, Elmore eventually adopted the surname of his stepfather, Joe Willie James. He grew up in the Mississippi towns of Canton and Belzoni, stringing broom wire upside the wall and sliding a bottle up and down it as a youngster to achieve much the same slippery effect he would later unleash while standing on countless bandstands. As a teenager, he and his adopted brother Robert Earl Holston combined to play Belzoni's juke joints. At some point Elmore encountered the mysterious legend Robert Johnson, whose mind-boggling music clearly left quite an indelible impression on the youth.
James and harpist Rice Miller-renowned throughout the fertile Delta as Sonny Boy Williamson despite the existence of another harmonica ace by the same name up in Chicago--worked as a duo during the late '30s, but the guitarist's musical pursuits were interrupted when he was drafted into the U.S. Navy in 1943. Back in Mississippi in late '45 after reportedly seeing rugged action in the Pacific, Elmore resumed playing with Sonny Boy, occasionally broadcasting in tandem with the wily harpist on Williamson's KFFA King Biscuit Time program in Helena, Ark. as well as over KWEM in West Memphis, Ark. James also sometimes worked with pianist Willie Love's combo.
When Sonny Boy signed with Lillian McMurry's Jackson, Miss.-based Trumpet Records in 1950, he brought Elmore along as one of his trusty accompanists (Joe Willie Wilkins deftly manned the other axe). Sonny Boy's January 4, 1951 Trumpet debut date led off with the sly "Eyesight To The Blind," the first of his myriad recorded classics. Not only did a followup Trumpet date on August 5 produce several more gems by the harmonica wizard, the tail end of it resulted in Elmore's (or Elmo's, as Trumpet preferred it) debut as a leader. With Sonny Boy sticking around to blow harp and Leonard Ware on bass, James committed only one song to posterity that fateful day, the seminal theme that would render him a blues immortal: "Dust My Broom."
Robert Johnson had recorded his original solo acoustic version of the song in November of 1936 as "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom" (right after "Kindhearted Woman Blues," the very first song he ever waxed), and Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup had revived it for RCA Victor in 1949. Johnson's "stepson," guitarist Robert Jr. Lockwood, waxed a fine rendition for Mercury in November of '51, three months after Elmore's but well before James' Trumpet version cracked the national R&B charts. Apparently Elmore, who claimed to have written the song at the time, didn't have anything else worked up well enough to please McMurry that particular day, so she adorned the opposite side of "Dust My Broom" with "Catfish Blues," a traditional Delta piece cut a couple of weeks earlier by guitarist Bobo "Slim" Thomas, crediting both sides to "Elmo James."
In April of 1952, James' "Dust My Broom" made a one-week appearance on Billboard's "Best Seller" R&B chart in the #9 position, but by then James had made his move over to the Biharis' stable (where they would spell his first name correctly throughout his stay). In January of that year, Joe Bihari, in the midst of a field trip in search of fresh talent, had located Elmore in Canton working at Holston's radio repair shop. With Bihari's right-hand man Ike Turner hammering the ivories and a handful of local musicians rounding out the combo, Joe hooked up a portable machine at a Canton nightclub and proceeded to roll tape.
After a few days of recording at the club, Bihari had captured what he envisioned as his first Elmore release on Flair, a blistering "Dust My Broom"-derived "Lost Woman Blues" (also known as "Please Find My Baby") that sported loads of raw juke joint ambiance enhanced by Elmore's heavily amplified slide attack. But McMurry quickly made it clear that she still had James under binding contract, so the riveting song's release was summarily canceled, only to emerge on Flair in 1954. The ragged but thoroughly exciting "Rock My Baby Right" from the same marathon proceedings, anchored by Elmore's perpetually underrated single-string picking and chunky chording, similarly saw light of day on Flair after all the legalities were finally straightened out.
No such snafus plagued Bihari's next studio rendezvous with James that November at Chicago's top-of-the-line Universal Recording Corporation (no doubt a cushier location in which to cut than the Club Bizarre in Canton). In the interim, Elmore had assembled a splendid coterie of veteran Windy City musicians as his Broomdusters: braying tenor saxist J.T. Brown, who had recorded under his own name for United in 1951-52; pianist Little Johnny Jones (he'd waxed "Big Town Play Boy" for Aristocrat in '49), bassist Ransom Knowling (long a fixture on Crudup's RCA dates), and cowbell-toting drummer Odie Payne, Jr. Modern got extra mileage out of the Broomdusters by simultaneously waxing a pair of Meteor singles by Brown featuring Elmore in a sideman role (Little Johnny's ribald "Sweet Little Woman" was an absolute gem).
James cut four sides at that initial Chicago session, including a slide-soaked "I Believe," a thinly disguised "Dust My Broom" takeoff. Issued as the very first offering on brother Lester Bihari's spanking-new Meteor logo, the scorching shuffle vaulted to #9 on the same "Best Seller" list in February of '53 during a three-week run, fulfilling Joe Bihari's faith in Elmore. The inexorably jumping non-slide outing "Baby What's Wrong" (James hints at T-Bone Walker on his torrid solos and Brown wails like a nanny goat for three echo-laden choruses midway through) and the downbeat grinder "Sinful Woman" (another number abandoning the slide), both from the same date, were pressed back-to-back as his Meteor followup, which misspelled the latter title as "Sinful Women." Elmore engaged in a little moonlighting for Checker in January of 1953, but his "She Just Won't Do Right" was squelched after the Biharis complained (the two labels had previously quarreled over the rights to Rosco Gordon and Howlin' Wolf).
After that, James reverted to Flair. In April of '53, another session at Universal with the same spirited cast produced the savage slide instrumental "Hawaiian Boogie," Brown darting and Jones swooping behind Elmore's crashing barrages (he had waxed a coarser version back in Canton that laid unissued at the time), and the clattering Payne-driven vocal rhumba "Can't Stop Lovin'." This time, Little Johnny was handed a chance to a Flair single of his own, the Broomdusters playfully masquerading as the Chicago Hound Dogs in support; his ribald "Sweet Little Woman" was an absolute gem.
With Boyd Atkins doubling the size of the sax section, the Broomdusters reconvened at Universal that August to lay down four titles that included the robust up-tempo effort "Make My Dreams Come True" and the relaxed "Dark And Dreary," which boasted a nice single-string solo from James. Elmore's outfit didn't confine their talents solely to the Biharis' family of labels. In October of '53, the same hearty lineup laid down marvelous backing on a Chicago session by leather-lunged Kansas City blues shouter Big Joe Turner for Atlantic that included "T.V. Mama" and "Oke-She Moke-She-Pop," and two days later Jones copped the vocal spotlight on the rollicking "Hoy, Hoy" and three more memorable titles for the same New York firm.
Marvelous though they were, none of Elmore's singles managed to crack the R&B hit parade after the success of "I Believe." So Joe Bihari invited James out to Modern's newly established in-house studio in Culver City, Calif. for a session in the late summer of 1954. Bihari recruited an excellent sextet for the occasion consisting of Modern's in-house arranger Maxwell Davis on tenor sax, baritone saxist Jewel Grant, trumpeter James Parr, pianist Willard McDaniel, bassist Ralph Hamilton, and drummer Jesse Sailes.
Elmore tapped into Robert Johnson's 1936 motherlode once again for an impassioned "Standing At The Crossroads," updated considerably to integrate a propulsive shuffle rhythm and a sawing horn riff as his voice resonated with emotion. Its deliberately paced flip side, "Sunny Land," was a decided departure from the "Dust My Broom" formula laid down during a very bountiful session that also elicited the easy-swinging "The Way You Treat Me" (alternately known as "Mean And Evil"), the glorious stop-time broomduster "Happy Home," and its alluring opposite side "No Love In My Heart," which alternated between spicy Latin and brisk jump tempos in a similar manner to labelmate B.B. King's 1953 smash "Woke Up This Morning."
The next studio stop for Elmore in August of '55 was Cosimo Matassa's fabled J&M Studios, where Fats Domino, Lloyd Price, Smiley Lewis, and Little Richard regularly held forth. Utilizing some of the same stellar session aces-pianist Edward Frank, bassist Frank Fields, drummer Earl Palmer, and surprisingly, no horns whatsoever-that played on so many Crescent City R&B classics, James faithfully revisited "Dust My Broom" under the flimsiest of retitles, "Dust My Blues."
The thundering rocker "I Was A Fool" provided a strong B side, Fields' walking upright bass furnishing a throbbing rhythmic thrust and Elmore unleashing one of his toughest non-slide solos while pacted to the Biharis. Elmore's last offering on Flair from the same session paired the similarly insistent "Blues Before Sunrise" with a comparatively mellow "Good Bye," the latter marking the first--and in all likelihood, the last--time the harmonies of a doo-woppish vocal group cushioned James' rough-edged vocal delivery (somehow it didn't come off as sounding incongruous).
After a last get-together in Chicago in January of '56 reuniting Elmore with a somewhat juggled lineup of Broomdusters that produced his final single for the Biharis (this time issued on the parent Modern logo), James was let go by the company. Other than perennial hitmaker B.B. King, Modern's talent roster was steadily becoming dominated by promising young rock and rollers such as Etta James, The Teen Queens, The Cadets, and Young Jessie, leaving precious little space to retain their veteran blues artists whose records were no longer selling in prodigious amounts. Elmore next turned up on Mel London's fledgling Chicago imprint Chief Records in 1957, tearing into the unusual London-penned "The Twelve Year Old Boy" in front of a full complement of Broomdusters that were augmented by lead guitarist Wayne Bennett.
The better-established Vee-Jay imprint picked up James' three Chief singles for national consumption, including the tortured "It Hurts Me Too," a revival of a 1949 Tampa Red chestnut (as "When Things Go Wrong With You") bearing an exquisite slide introduction that was similar to the one opening "Good Bye." "Cry For Me Baby," Elmore's third Chief/Vee-Jay biscuit, skipped along over a skittering West Side-styled guitar riff unlike anything Elmore had utilized previously.
Health problems began to exact more of a toll on James during the late '50s (he was said to have suffered two heart attacks). But the veteran guitarist was physically up to joining Bobby Robinson's Harlem-based Fire Records when the label boss excitedly came across him gigging inside a Chicago club in late 1959 and eagerly signed him on the spot (Robinson had been searching for him for years). Still fronting a hearty lineup of Broomdusters that included Brown, Jones, and Payne (with Elmore's cousin Homesick James on bass), the slide guitar great nailed his first national hit in seven years during May of 1960 when his evocative "The Sky Is Crying" climbed to #15 R&B on Fire.
That welcome burst of success didn't deter James from undertaking a solitary session for Chess that same spring, where his meteorological forecast took a decidedly brighter turn on "The Sun Is Shining" (Chess didn't think enough of its sessionmate "Madison Blues" to bother issuing it at the time). After that, Elmore remained firmly tethered to Robinson's labels. He recorded James extensively in the years preceding his death for Fire and its Enjoy subsidiary, utilizing studios in New York and New Orleans. Several of Elmore's Flair/Modern classics were duly revisited along the way, including "Standing At The Crossroads," "Sunny Land," and the ubiquitous "Dust My Broom."
The early '60s weren't easy on Elmore. Besides his coronary maladies, he was squabbling with the Chicago musicians' union over nonpayment of his dues and spending a fair amount of his downtime in the considerably less stressful environs of Jackson, Miss. Windy City deejay Big Bill Hill was attempting to help James straighten out his union problems during the spring of '63, when Elmore traveled north to headline Hill's new nightclub, the Copacabana. James was rooming with Homesick and his family when a final heart attack fatally felled him on the evening of May 24, 1963. Eloquently testifying to the perennial freshness of his approach was his posthumous R&B chart hit two years later: a Robinson-produced remake of "It Hurts Me Too" fought its way to #25 R&B in the spring of '65 while a new generation of British blues-rockers began to embrace his innovations across the pond.
Next time you hear the familiar slashing sound of a keening slide guitar igniting a contemporary blues record, embrace it as proof positive that Elmore James' legacy will never be forgotten.