Elmore James – The Undisputed King of the Slide Guitar

You can’t think of the blues without thinking of the slide guitar.  And you can’t think of slide guitar without Elmore James, the legendary Chicago bluesman who hit it big in the early ‘50s with two amped-up covers of Robert Johnson standards.  These songs, “Dust My Broom” and “Standing at the Crossroads” may sound nearly identical, but are probably the best examples of James’ trademark guitar sound.  Well before loud electric guitar sounds became part and parcel of popular music, James was playing louder than anyone else on the scene.  This only served to underscore the passion that came with the music and the brilliance that made Elmore James one of the most recognizable names in the Chicago blues scene.

Elmore Brooks is yet another product of the Mississippi Delta, where he was born on January 27, 1918 in Richland.  He would use his mother Leola Brooks’ surname early in life, then adopt that of his stepfather, Joe Willie James.  He played local small-time events as a teenager, and counted Robert Johnson and Sonny Boy Williamson II as two of his biggest influences as a young man.  After serving for the US Navy in World War II, James learned of a heart problem that would eventually lead to his untimely death nearly two decades later.  That didn’t stop him from hitting the recording studios in the early ‘50s, starting out as Sonny Boy Williamson II’s lead guitarist then recording solo shortly thereafter.  His version of Johnson’s “Dust My Broom”, recorded in 1952, would do well on the R&B charts and give him both his signature song and signature guitar lick.

James moved to Chicago in the mid-’50s, after several recordings on Mississippi-based Trumpet Records and the Bihari brothers’ two labels, Flair and Meteor.  He would then become a regular in the Chicago club scene, with his new backing band, the Broomdusters ably providing support.  Upon the expiration of his contract with the Bihari brothers in 1957, James would record for Chief Records, then later Fire Records.  Some of these recordings are “The Sky is Crying”, “My Bleeding Heart”, “Look on Yonder Wall” and “Shake Your Moneymaker.”  Problems with the musicians’ union in Chicago would result in James’ frequent jumps from record label to record label, and also force him to record in so many different locations, including his native Mississippi.

Ever since the start of his career, James’ health had been a dicey proposition.  He had suffered two heart attacks prior to 1963, and it can be argued that his health was also a reason why he wasn’t as active gigging or recording as his contemporaries.  On May 24, 1963, James suffered his third heart attack, and this time it would prove to be fatal.  At the time of his death, he was set to embark on a tour of Europe as part of the 1963 American Folk Blues Festival.

Despite dying at a very young age, Elmore James lived long enough to influence some of the heavyweights of blues and rock.  These include Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones, who once used the stage name “Elmo Lewis” as a tribute to his idol, and Jimi Hendrix, who also adopted part of James’ name early on in his prestigious career as “Jimmy James and the Blue Flames.”  “Dust My Broom” was covered by numerous artists in the ‘60s, and “The Sky is Crying” would be covered by Stevie Ray Vaughan in the ‘80s.  Elmore James will always be remembered as the man who helped make the slide guitar a valuable part of the electric blues.