James is the ‘King of the Slide guitar’ and one of the
most important guitarists in history; it could be that Duane Allman or Ry Cooder play better than him but
let’s put it like this, without Elmore James there wouldn’t be Duane or Ry. Or
if another example is preferred, Angus Young plays better than Chuck Berry, but certainly the
latter is ‘more important’ than the former. The importance of James is far
above his level of fame.
Jimi Hendrix called himself Jimmy James in his honour, Brian Jones pretended to be Elmo Lewis when he met Jagger and Richards, Jeremy Spencer, from early Fleetwood Mac, only wanted to play his music over and over, and Mick Taylor only has one piece of advice when he is asked about slide, “Listen to Elmore James!”. Nonetheless Elmore James’ fame is far from that of the great rock groups that he influenced so much, perhaps because his early death stopped him from enjoying the ‘rediscovery’ that many of the great blues figures had after the ‘British Invasion’.
For that reason it is important not to forget that he is, together with Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, the third key figure in Chicago blues, who electrified the blues of the Delta and put the cement for the advent of rock and roll. If the former were the alumni of the legendary Son House and Charley Patton respectively, Elmore James was taught by Robert Johnson himself from whom he learned at first hand a number of his songs, and that is almost like having received classes from the devil in person. When in the early 50s he electrified Johnson with Dust My Broom, James created the most important riff in the history of the blues (the equivalent of the intro of Johnny B. Goode in rock) but, despite what many think, his contribution did not stop at that, as he became a master in slow blues also. On each of his recordings Elmore gave so much, both with his guitar and his incredible voice, as if he knew that his time on earth was going to be cut short. In contrast to Waters or Wolf, James was not around when the British boys gave them a second opportunity to achieve fame, with an adaption of their music, but few in the field of the blues had trapped the spirit of rock and roll better than him.
Elmore James came to the world as Elmore Brooks on 27 January 1918 on the banks of the Mississippi. An illegitimate son of the 15 year old Leola Brooks, he adopted the name of Willie James, the man with whom his mother went to live. At 12 he was already playing music with one of those one string instruments that the poor black boys of the South made. By 18 he had achieved sufficient skill to be able to earn his living with the guitar. Soon he met the man who influenced him the most in his life, Robert Johnson, probably the man from whom he learned to play the slide and from whom he took a number of songs for his own repertoire. But his most important professional relationship would come with another blues giant, Rice Miller, better known as Sonny Boy Williamson II, one of the biggest harmonica legends. At the start of ‘39 James was already playing with a band, and broadening the music of the Delta.
In the 40s he served in the US Navy and fought in WW II’s Guam invasion. After the war he hooked up again with Williamson, and they played together for various years. By that time Elmore James had already gone electric, and he continued to perfect his singing style. Nonetheless he lacked confidence and was not too inclined to record. Everything changed when Williamson was offered the chance to record some songs for Trumpet Records in January 1951 and James accompanied him. On 5 August of that year they returned to a session and after Williamson had recorded Elmore decided to play Dust My Broom, one of the songs from Johnson’s repertoire. The company’s owner decided to record it and the blues was never the same again. To the ferocity of his voice he added aggressive use of the slide with the famous riff that would give him a place in posterity. He recorded live through a single microphone and there were no further takes or songs. It didn’t matter as rural blues had been transformed by an electric storm and the course of popular music had changed forever.
The song was released and became a great success. Suddenly the record companies were fighting over James, and he chose Ike Turner’s offer over the Bihari brothers. He moved to Chicago and there he found ‘electric blues paradise’. A short time later he formed a band that came to be known as The Broomdusters, in honour of their major hit, which consisted in saxophonist J. T. Brown, drummer Odie Payne, Jr., and pianist Johnny Jones. Shortly afterwards they became the only band capable of rivaling the Headhunters of Muddy Waters, the king of the city. They were the noisiest and they had a large number of fans. Once the fear of recording was overcome, James went into the studio for a number of companies like Chess, Checker, Meteor, Flair and Chief. Due to the success of Dust My Broom he made various versions of the same song, besides variations like I Believe and Dust My Blues; he also took a fresh look at Robert Johnson’s material with Standing At The Crossroads and he found time to add his unforgettable slide to one of Big Joe Turner’s hits, TV Mama. Regarding the gear he used there is a lot of controversy and little information, in some photos he can be seen with a Silvertone 1361, although it is more probable that he used a Kay on the recordings, possibly a Dreadnought, on which two pickups were added, one on the hole (it seems to be a 40s Gibson pre-P90) and a DeArmond Rhythm Chief 1000 on the bridge. Regarding his amplifiers it has been speculated that he used an old Gibson TwoTone (model GA-30) and also a Magnatone.
But his success was interrupted in the mid-50s when he was diagnosed with heart disease, which was not helped by his excessive love for alcohol. He subsequently suffered a heart attack and retired to his native Mississippi. But the mark that he had left in Chicago did not dissipate, and one of the most famous disc jockeys in the city, 'Big' Bill Hill demanded that he appear on his programmes. Supposedly James moved to simply help out the DJ, but the same day he returned to Chicago he was already playing in one of the night clubs. Shortly afterwards his ‘return’ was common knowledge and the producer Bobby Robertson pressurised him to sign up. There was no time to lose, everybody knew that Leonard Chess longed to have him on his label.
Their first session together could not have gone better, it was raining and Elmore felt the blues strongly, his slide caressed the neck and his passionate voice summed it all up: "The sky is crying, look at the tears rolling down the streets.” Recorded in 1960 The Sky Is Crying became another big hit. Albert King and Jimi Hendrix, in their own Red House, drew on his powerful influence. A short time later I Can't Hold Out, Rollin' and Tumblin' and Shake Your Moneymaker were released. Elmore James continued to grow as a musician and in his performances he was unstoppable, doing various covers of songs over 15 minutes long. However all that energy - that he never held back - would have to be paid for.
In Spring 1963 James was scheduled to inaugarate the new Big Bill Hill joint, the Copa Cabana Club, but he never arrived because this time the heart attack was fatal and the man who electrified the slide died on 24 May. In less than a year a bunch of white English boys were going to arrive in the country to help the general public rediscover one of the greats of the blues. Elmore James was not there to see how Brian Jones, one of his disciples, introduced the slide into the language of rock, nor to hear the Beatles honour him on For You Blue, nor a lot less to listen to Hendrix or The Allman Brothers do renditions of his songs. But that does not take away a single thing; it might be that he never recorded with Clapton or Johnny Winter, but we can only imagine what this man might have achieved if he was capable of pulling such marvels from a cheap electrified acoustic with one (or two) pickups alone.