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.
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.