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Elmore James biography



James was born Elmore Brooks in the old Richland community in Holmes County, Mississippi (not to be confused with two other locations of the same name in Mississippi, one in Humphreys County and the other in Rankin County). He was 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 so Elmore took this as his name. His parents adopted an orphaned boy at some point named Robert Holston. Elmore began making music at the age of 12 using a simple one-string instrument ('diddley bow' or 'jitterbug') strung up on a shack wall. As a teen he was playing at local dances under the names Cleanhead and Joe Willie James. His first marriage was to Minnie Mae around 1942 (whom he apparently never divorced). He subsequently married twice, to Georgianna Crump in 1947 and to a woman called Janice around 1954. (Another reported marriage of Elmore to a Josephine Harris has been found to be a mistaken record of a different Elmore James.) Becoming a well-known musician in those days, with the not-so-minor rewards of prestige, good free food, illicit free liquor, women's favours, the promise of escape from the hard agricultural work, etc., must have been as attractive to Elmore as it was to the other musicians of that time and earlier, such as the 'second' Sonny Boy Williamson, with whom he played and the legendary Robert Johnson with whom he also possibly played. An important side to James's character which may have hastened his demise was his lifelong taste for, and manufacture of, moonshine whiskey, to which he was introduced at an early age. Alcohol definitely killed his band-mates/friends Willie Love and Johnny Jones at an early age, and probably others too. His regular rhythm guitarist Homesick James maintained his longevity was due to his not partaking of the heavy drinking sessions after — and often during — gigs, a refusal that was unpopular with the rest of the band. James was also reportedly an extremely fast driver who also loved hunting with guns and dogs in Mississippi. During World War II James joined the United States Navy, was promoted to coxswain and took part in the invasion of Guam against the Japanese. Upon his discharge Elmore returned to central Mississippi and eventually settled in Canton with his adopted brother Robert Holston, it was at this time he learned that he had a serious heart condition. Working in Robert's electrical shop, he devised his unique electric sound, using parts from the shop and an unusual placement of two D'Armond pickups. James died of his third heart attack in Chicago in 1963, just prior to a tour of Europe with that year's 'American Folk Blues Festival.' He was buried in the Newport Baptist Church Cemetery, Ebenezer, Holmes County, 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 vastly more powerful sound (arguably only equalled in technical ability by King, although in a different style) unbelievably coming from a modified, hollow body traditional acoustic guitar, which sounded like the more modern solid body guitars. He most often played using a slide, but on several recordings he plays without. His voice and style was as instantly recognisable as King's, Muddy's and Wolf's and until he fell foul of the Chicago union, he and his 'Broomdusters' were as popular in the Chicago clubs as any of these musician's bands. James could be reportedly 'difficult' (drinking on the job, not paying out cash, abandoning musicians, double booking etc.) Due to his early death, just before the 1960s blues boom, and the silence of other famous blues performers, the then current music writers only being interested in 'the stars' not caring to interview his ex-band members, immediate family, children, friends etc. little is known about him. There are no known photos of James performing, apart from those taken (some at the following occasion, and some at a packed club with stylishly dressed couples dancing closely) by George Adins, and no other detailed descriptions or any live recordings. Muddy 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... George also witnessed James at 'Alex Club' in West Side 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 The nearest we have to a recording of a 'live' set by James is his last recorded session by Bobby Robinson, in New York City in 1963 shortly before James death. This session features several takes of Hand In Hand which was abandoned and James then played a 'live' set. His best known song is the blues standard Dust My Broom (also known as Dust My Blues). The song gave its name to James's band, The Broomdusters. The song's opening slide guitar riff is one of the best-known sounds in all of blues. It is essentially the same riff that appeared in the recording of the same song by Robert Johnson, but James played the riff with electric slide guitar. It was even transformed into a doo-wop chorus on Jesse Stone's Down in the Alley, recorded by The Clovers and Elvis Presley. Stone transcribed the riff as: Changety changety changety changety chang chang! Listen to this 8-second sample of the riff from Dust My Broom featured in this very different song, James – like most other performers who have a hit tune – was pressured into using this as a hit formula in many of his subsequent songs, although his later big sellers bore no semblance to this: Problems listening to this file? See media help. James was also covered by 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 - James' fellow bluesman Albert King recorded a cover of The Sky Is Crying, and Stevie Ray Vaughan copied King's version of the song. 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. The most famous guitarist who admired Elmore James was Jimi Hendrix. Early in his career Jimi styled himself variously as 'Maurice James' and subsequently as 'Jimmy James.' This, according to former bandmate and recording partner Lonnie Youngblood, was a tribute to Elmore James. There is a photo of Hendrix (that can be seen in the sleeve of his :blues album) in London wearing his iconic military jacket and holding Elmore James's UK LP The Best Of Elmore James. (Hendrix was frequently photographed throughout his performing career holding LP covers of musicians that influenced him.) He performed James' Bleeding Heart during 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 as well as recording two different versions of it in the studio. Buddy Miles also sang lyrics along with Jimi playing some motifs from James' The Sky Is Crying during his famous jam session the Newport Pop Festival on June 22, 1969 (the video is now available in collector's circles) as well as quoting several lyrics and motifs from Elmore's catalogue throughout his career. James is mentioned in The Beatles' song For You Blue: while John Lennon plays the slide guitar (James' trademark), George Harrison says, Elmore James got nothin' on this, baby. Other artists influenced by Elmore James include Frank Zappa The Grateful Dead, John Primer (Blue Steel CD), Billy Gibbons and Eric Clapton are other notable artists to have recorded Elmore James covers. Eric Clapton actually recorded a song called Tribute to Elmore that appeared on a 1990 The Best of British Rock compilation CD. On the 1974 record Second Album, Roy Buchanan included an instrumental song he wrote titled Tribute to Elmore James, which begins with James' classic slide guitar riff, and uses his soloing style throughout. James's older cousin Homesick James Williamson, a regular companion from an early age, played with James in the Broomdusters from 1957 on. He was also a successful blues man who played electric slide guitar in James's style. He continued to record and tour until his death in 2006. Discography Singles Elmore recorded in an era when few blues artists recorded albums. The only LP released (after he had left their management) in his lifetime (in 1961) was a budget compilation of old singles recorded by the Bihari Brothers (in common with Howlin' Wolf and B.B. King) - Blues After Hours (Crown 5168) this was re-released several times after his death. 1951 Dust My Broom b/w Catfish Blues ) 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 1074) 1955 I Believe My Time Ain't Long b/w I Wish I Was A Catfish (Ace 508 ) 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 b/w Bobby's Rock (Fire 1011) 1960 Dust My Blues (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 (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 (Down Home 775/6) 1964 Dust My Blues b/w Happy Home (Kent 394) 1964 Dust My Blues b/w Happy Home (Sue 335) 1965 Bleeding Heart b/w It Hurts Me Too (Enjoy 2015 ) 1965 It Hurts Me Too b/w Pickin' The Blues (Enjoy 2015 ) 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 (Sue 392) 1965 Look On Yonder Wall b/w Shake Your Moneymaker (Enjoy 2022) 1965 The Sky is Crying (Flashback 15) 1965 Standing At The Crossroads b/w Sunnyland (Kent 433) 1965 Everyday I Have The Blues b/w Dust My Broom (Enjoy 2027) 1965 Cry For Me Baby b/w Take Me Where You Go (U.S.A. 815) 1965/6? Cry For Me Baby b/w Take Me Where You Go (S&M 101) 1966 Shake Your Money Maker b/w I Need You (Sphere Sound 708) Original albums1961 Blues After Hours (Crown 5168) 1965 The Best Of (Sue 918 ) 1965 The Sky is Crying (Sphere Sound 7002) 1965 Memorial Album (Sue 927 ) 1966 The Blues In My Heart, The Rhythm In My Soul (re-release of Blues After Hours) (United 716) and (Custom 2054) 1967 Original Folk Blues (Kent 5022) 1967 I Need You (Sphere Sound 7008) 1968 The Late Fantastically Great (another re-release of Blues After Hours)(Ember 3397 ) 1968 Tough (Chess recordings + tracks by John Brim) (Blue Horizon 7-63204 ) 1968 Something Inside of Me (Bell 104 ) 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 double album (Blue Horizon 7-66230 ) Compilation albumsCharly 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) The Final Sessions: New York - February 1963 (2006)