Saturday, October 16, 2010

Elmore James

Elmore James (center) with Homesick James (right) and Robert Plunkin (behind drums).

Elmore's death certificate

Elmore James, J.T. Brown on sax, on the bandstand, Chicago, '59.
Elmore with an admirer.
Just realized I got an extra one of these if anyone wants to trade.....
Elmore in color, late 50's.
Flair Records' promo shot, early 50's.
Near the end, early 60's.

 Elmore's grave, with the wrong dates for both birth and death. 

Barry Soltz' scan of an Elmore James 45, signed by Elmore to Hound Dog Taylor. 

I need to explain who Elmore James is to anyone who reads this blog? I should hope not, but since I've been playing his records constantly for the last forty years I thought I should do a bit of a round up, critical review of his recorded catalog, since, although he never really made a bad record, and about 70% of what he recorded were variations on the same song and the same riff (Dust My Broom), I think a run down of what he left us is in order. Truth is, I have no other ideas today, and I love the photos (above) and the music (below), my comments hardly matter.
Elmore James was born Elmore Brooks on January 27, 1916 on a farm outside of Richland, Mississippi in Holmes County. His mother was a fifteen year old unwed farm hand named Leola. She eventually hooked up with a man named Joe Willie "Frost" James who may have been Elmore's father.  Little Elmore was given Joe Willie's last name and grew up on a series of farms in and around Lexington and Durant,  Mississippi, also in Holmes Country. He managed to graduate from the fourth grade before quitting school. Starting out on a self built three string guitar, and influenced by the recordings of master slide guitarists Tampa Red and Kokomo Arnold, he taught himself to play the blues and by the late 1930's was remembered playing around Holmes county under the name of Cleanhead James. He may or may not have played with Robert Johnson, and may or may not have picked up his signature tune Dust My Broom from Johnson  (although Leroy Carr had recorded a very similar tune in 1933 called I Believe I'll Make A Change, the riff was adapted from a Kokomo Arnold tune). In his well researched biography of Elmore James-- The Amazing Secret History Of Elmore James (BlueSource Publications, 2003) Steve Franz makes a case that Johnson may have learned the tune from the younger musician.
By his late teens Elmore had fallen in with Sonny Boy Williamson #2 (Rice Miller) and can be heard playing guitar behind Sonny Boy on his early Trumpet sides (the master tapes of which have been lost on some of these, substituted by re-recorded versions without James).  Trumpet's owner Lillian McMurray signed Elmore to a record contract in 1951 but for some reason he refused to record anything for her, she was only able to get one side out of him, and this was done by secretly taping a rehearsal.  The original recording of Dust My Broom  (with Sonny Boy on harmonica) was issued under the name Elmo James in November of '51 and became a sizable blues hit.  Since she couldn't get a b-side out of Elmore, the flip, credited to Elmer James was a version of Catfish Blues done by one Bobo Thomas. These sides were later leased to Ace. Since the master tapes are long gone, and the price of a good condition Trumpet 78 has risen into the three figures in recent years, I'd recommend keeping an eye out for the Ace pressing which sounds better and will probably cost a lot less.  The idea of an exclusive recording contract seemed to figure lightly in Elmore's mind, since while still under contract to Trumpet, to whom he refused to record (a funny taped phone conversation between McMurry and Elmore was published in some blues mag years ago, unfortunately I can't remember which one), Elmore signed a second contract with the Bihari Brothers' LA based Modern/R.P.M/Flair/Kent family of labels, instituting a lawsuit from McMurry who eventually took a cash settlement from the Biharis.  Meanwhile, the Bihari Brothers gave Elmore's contract to their likable but hapless elder brother Lester who was attempting to launch the Meteor label in Memphis.  His first release was a re-recording of Dust My Broom, retitled I Believe (My Time Ain't Long), and it would be the best selling record the legendary, but short lived, Meteor label produced. Elmore put together the first version of the Broomdusters with J.T. Brown on sax, Little Johnny Jones on piano, and later his cousin Homesick James Williamson on bass and/or second guitar and hit the chitlin' circuit where he was always a popular draw. He traveled around the south, and often north into Chicago steadily for the next ten years. At one point Elmore was so hard to pin down, the Biharis sent Ike Turner out with a portable recording rig to find him. Turner finally tracked Elmore down in Canton, Mississippi and cut a session one afternoon at the Club Bizarre, with Ike himself on piano, it produced some of his finest recorded moments including 1839 Blues, Sho' Nuff I Do,  and Canton, Mississippi Breakdown.  Elmore's discs were issued not only on Meteor, but Flair, Modern, and Kent in a rather bewildering discography which can be found in Les Fancourt and Bob McGrath's Blues Discography: 1943-1970 (Eyeball Productions, 2006) or the aforementioned bio by Steve Franz.  While under contract to the Bihari's he cut sessions for the Chess Brothers in Chicago in '53 (issued on Checker), and Chief also in Chicago in '57 (these sides were later leased to Vee Jay and include the amazing 12 Year Old Boy). The Biharis cut Elmore where ever they could find him, sessions were held in Chicago, New Orleans and possibly L.A., sometimes they recorded Elmore solo and dubbed the rhythm section onto the masters later in L.A. Some of the highlights of his years with the Biharis include Dark and Dreary, Hand In Hand, Hawaiian Boogie, One More Drink, Long Tall Woman,  and Can't Stop Lovin'. He really never cut a bad side, but I think the Modern/Flair/Meteor sides might be his best, every thing he ever recorded for the Biharis can be found on the Ace three CD box set-- The Classic Early Recordings 1951-56 (Ace ABOXCD-4).
Having fallen out with the  musicians union at some point in the late 50's he was banned from playing Chicago for three years (1956-59) and returned to Mississippi where he played clubs and might have made moonshine to supplement his income. He can also be heard on Junior Wells' early States singles, Big Joe Turner's TV Mama on Atlantic, and discs by Little Johnny Jones (Atlantic and Flair), J.T. Brown (Meteor) and Willie Love (Trumpet).
 Sometime in1959, Harlem record hustler and label and record store owner Bobby Robinson tracked Elmore down in Chicago and would record over fifty sides with him in the next three years, recording him in Chicago and New York. These final sides, originally released on Fire (and later re-issued on Enjoy, Sphere Sound, Fury, Bell, Trip, Sue, and other labels) are uniformly excellent and include Bobby's Rock, a version of Rollin' and Tumblin' with Wild Jimmy Spruill on second guitar, Tampa Red's It Hurts Me Too (a sizable hit), Eddie Kirkland's Done Somebody Wrong,  Look On Yonder Wall, Pickin' The Blues,  and Elmore Jumps One as well as re-recordings of virtually his entire repertoire, most of it in stereo. Robinson also had the wherewithal to record Elmore talking about his early life (here). A double CD box of the complete Bobby Robinson recordings was issued in the 90's by Capricorn as King Of The Slide Guitar.  Elmore James also cut one  last session for Chess in 1960 which produced the classics I Can't Hold Out, The Sun Is Shining, and Madison Blues, these along with the 1953 Checker discs would be packaged with some John Brim sides on the essential Chess LP Elmore James/John Brim-Whose Muddy Shoes (Chess 9114).
  Virtually every bluesman interviewed on the subject had good memories of Elmore James. He was well liked and highly regarded by his peers. Howlin' Wolf kept Dust  My Broom in his set until the end of his life because-- "That was Elmore's song". He was remembered as a nice guy, albeit one who loved to drink and had a preference for home made moonshine, which is rather hard on the body. In his forties he had a series of heart attacks which slowed him down considerably. My late pal Jimmy Spruill who recorded with Elmore in 1960 remembered him as having to stop and rest between takes, but when he got up to play he'd get so excited he'd nearly give himself another heart attack. That excitement translated into his guitar sound which has never really been matched although over the years other musicians including Hound Dog Taylor, Johnny Littlejohn, J.B. Hutto, and Lil' Ed Williams have managed to made a living attempting to imitate it.
On May 23, 1963 Elmore James suffered his final, fatal heart attack in Chicago at the home of his cousin Homesick James. He was only 47 years old. He died before anyone bothered to interview him or even film him. Had he lived, he would have been one of the biggest stars of the 60's blues revival.  The year of his death, a young Keith Richard spotted a little blond guy sitting in with Alex Korner's band at a club in London's Soho. He was billed as Elmo Lewis and he was playing Dust My Broom. It was Brian Jones, and soon they'd join forces to form the Rolling Stones. In the years since Elmore James' death white musicians like Eric Clapton, the Yardbirds, Fleetwood Mac, George Thorogood, the Allman Brothers, and too many others to mention have taken Elmore's sound to the bank. While just about anyone with a guitar and a slide could learn the Dust My Broom riff in a half hour, nobody made it sound as good as Elmore James. That holds true to this day. 


Kevin said...

"my comments hardly matter"
Nope, sorry, they do. Great retrospective and great music.
As always, thanks for what you do. I've been aware of Elmore's music and have a couple of comps, but he's another one of those whose reissues muddy the waters so that some choice cuts fall through the cracks. Thanks for highlighting some of them.
I love to play slide, and of course wailing away on his signature lick is always a blast.
"Yonder Wall" is great as, are the first half dozen cuts you highlight.
Like Bo Diddley, he could play the same riff for hours, and I wouldn't get bored.

Nick said...

No matter how familiar I think I am with a musician's work you always manage to find at least a side or two I've never heard. That 12 Year Old Boy is intense.

Anonymous said...

Elmore is like a god to me - although I prefer the Chief/VeeJay sides and the early 60s stuff for Fire and Chess. Whose Muddy Shoes was my first blues album - purchased when I was about 17. George Thoroughgood owes his entire existense to Elmore...

Anonymous said...

I have his Crown LP, the cover with the vamp leaning on the bar stool -
early Bihari recordings, right?

The Hound said...

"I have his Crown LP, the cover with the vamp leaning on the bar stool -
early Bihari recordings, right?"

Right, most were originally issued on Flair. One of my all time favorite LP's.

Jerry Lee said...

Great music, great article. Nobody who copied him comes close. Thanks, Hound.

Eric the Red said...

One of my favorite albums when I was a teenager was an Upfront Records reissue of early Elmore James sides, including Catfish Blues and another song, Gotta Find My Baby, that both were clearly not Elmore's songs. You've ID'd Catfish, and explained why it was included on the Elmore album, but do you know anything about the other song?

The Hound said...

" including Catfish Blues and another song, Gotta Find My Baby, that both were clearly not Elmore's songs. You've ID'd Catfish, and explained why it was included on the Elmore album, but do you know anything about the other song?"

Gotta Find My Baby was originally issued in 1952 on Trumpet (Trumpet 186) under the name Elmer James but was acutally Arthur 'Big Boy' Crudup (then under contract to RCA Victor) along with Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller) on harmonica and Joe Willie Wilkins playing guitar, or else Crudup is playing guitar and Wilkins is playing the bass line on a 2nd guitar. Upfront was a budget subsidiary of Vee Jay so when they leased Dust My Broom from Lillian McMurray to fill out their Elmore James tracks (the ones originally issued by Chief in '57), the also got two different fake Elmore tracks in the package.

Ken in NJ said...

Best use ever of an Elmore James tune in an awful movie:

Starts at 0:10


ana-b said...

I see no mention of the "fast" version of "Sunnyland" [not the piano heavy 45 issued by Kent]....absolutely the fastest, most concise variation of "Dust My Broom" ever.

I only know it from an early seventies comp called, "The Story of the Blues"....any idea if it was issued as a single?...if not, then wtf is it?

And then there are the two live recordings on a pink Trip [?] label Lp, one of which should be cited for child abuse. I couldn't have been more than ten the first time I heard it, and I haven't played the record as an adult because it scares me almost as badly as Sir Cyril Richard reading "Alice in Wonderland".

The Hound said...

"I only know it from an early seventies comp called, "The Story of the Blues"....any idea if it was issued as a single?...if not, then wtf is it?"

It was issued on the Ace box set.

"And then there are the two live recordings on a pink Trip [?] label Lp, one of which should be cited for child abuse. "

I assume you mean 12 Year Old Boy, that was the second recording of the tune, the first was for Chief and re-issued on Vee Jay, see posting to hear it.

Barry said...,+Chicago,+Cook,+Illinois+60610&gl=us&ei=pHG_TIvxFYT6lweFy9TmBw&ved=0CBUQ8gEwAA&ll=41.909597,-87.635662&spn=0.002268,0.003385&z=19&layer=c&cbll=41.90951,-87.635659&panoid=IF3byOS3Pm9S3Ex0lekQGw&cbp=12,89.84,,0,-2.33

Chris said...

That N. Wieland building is just a few blocks from the Days Inn Gold Coast where I stayed for the Mod Chicago weekend a few years back. Not anywhere near the 'South Side' and a very nice part of town nowadays.

The Hound said...

" Not anywhere near the 'South Side' and a very nice part of town nowadays."

Who said it was on the south side?

brujo said...

Elmore James was one of the most emotional blues singers and guitarists ever you failed to mention (Something inside me) on Fury I think ,what a performance.
regards brujo

Anonymous said...

Does anyone know what that flat top guitar with the tailpiece is? Usually I'm one of the people who correctly identify the guitars on this site, but this time I'm not sure what it is. My educated guesses are: private label built by Kay, Regal, Vega, or possibly something German (but not Hofner). Anyone have any better info?

The Hound said...

"Does anyone know what that flat top guitar with the tailpiece is? "

The motif on the headstock makes me think it's a Kay or even a Stella. I know I've seen that mark before.

Anonymous said...

The dots on the fingerboard look like Kay, and I've seen that headstock shape before (I think on Kay built guitars, but possibly on Vega, as well). The body shape sort of looks like Kay but I don't recall ever seeing a bound headstock on anything built by Kay. I can't see a logo on the head, only a design that I'm not familiar with and Vega didn't always put their name on, in big letters.
The cheap looking tailpiece may not be original and may have been added later, if the guitar top started to pull up. That's why I can't identify it. Maybe Matt Umanov or some other NYC guru would have a clue. I've seen pictures of EJ with a Kay electric.

Timmy said...

Thank you for an insightful posting of one of America's best Blues originals.

Dull Tool Dim Bulb said...

He only knew one song, but he was good at it. I've often said Elmore and Rick Danko were the only guys who gave the very, very best they had every single time a mike was on. Like about ten other bluesman, we are fortunate they left the mike running sometimes.

Anonymous said...

The guitar is an old Kay.

Richard said...

Hi there !
I have a Kay acoustic exactly like Elmore's.
It is a very rare model, especially as not many crop up with that headstock. It is also not a cheap&nasty Kay like later Kayseri. I have seen some Kay catalogues from the 1950's online, and this guitar first appears in 1956 - which confuses me as I thought he maybe had that guitar earlier than that. The tailpiece is not original to the guitar as mine never had one AND it has a standard pin-bridge anyway. It has Kluson Super tuners on it (aka Waffleback tuners) - an upmarket Kluson tuner. Elmore has a Dearmond sound hole pickup on the colour photos, from late 1959, but this pickup is not present on photos before and after the colour photos. The other pickup, present on all the photos of his Kay is the Dearmond Rhythm Chief Model 1000 pickup, usually hidden from view b his right hand, but you can see the Control Box or the pickup, dangling down from the bridge. See my guitar, with Dearmond pickups and hear it, on YouTube, searching my username : snakehips81

muebles madrid en stok said...

Quite helpful piece of writing, thank you for this article.

Anonymous said...

Great blog and site, thanks so much. I'm doing a profile of Elmore on my radio show, From The Other Side of the Mirror on October 10 at 9 am CT. Stream it at


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What a beautiful music and they're the masters in that area, I love jazz but lie them there are no others.

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