Genesis of a Bluesman

Elmore James, a legendary blues slide guitarist and singer, was born Elmore Brooks in Richland, near Pickens, Holmes county, Mississippi to 15 year old Leola Brooks, on January 27, 1918. Raised in the farm and sawmill area of Canton, MS, he took his stepfather, Joe Willie "Frost" James' last name. Before he was 12 he made music on stretched broom wire across a shack wall, this during his Goodman, MS years. He continued this budding music experimentation when he created a two or three string, broom handle and lard can device to learn bottleneck. By 14 he now, Elmo' was working "country suppers and juke joints" taking the pseudonym of "Cleanhead" (because of a shaved head) or he used his stepfather's name. He is remembered playing "Smokestack Lightning" barehanded on a cheap 6 string guitar in Goodman, played at Mr. Victor Samples' place in Franklin. In 1937, the family made a move to the Delta, one of their many, the first being in Belzoni, at the Turner Brothers' Plantation.

Vocational Blues Education

This 18 year old, who started his love for moonshine now, too, joined ensembles that would be his 'University of the Blues' coming through Belzoni from this time, such as "Dusty" Robert Johnson, ("Crossroads" made famous by Cream) Howlin' Wolf and John Lee Sonny Boy Williamson. He also worked with Aleck "Rice" Miller was one of the best and influential pre-war harmonica players, {who got his chance to replace the real Sonny Boy, whom he impersonated, after Williamson's murder in 1948.) He is purported to have married a Josephine Harris at this same time when he bought his first "real" guitar for 20 bucks.

Kokomo Arnold records provided inspiration for Elmo, but, Robert Johnson's open E tuning metal pipe slide style was what was carried on by James -- after that author of "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom" died in 1938. It was at this time he hooked up with guitarist and close friend, Robert Earl Holston. They would sing songs like, "Black Matties' Face", and "Shine Like the Rising Sun" If they weren't working around plantations, or out of the back of truck, they would be earning money at places owned by Jake Thomas and Percy Simpson. By 1939 working "suppers" at the Daybreak plantations, he would be joined off and on by Aleck Miller, pianist Carter Brown, guitarist Peter Brown. When he played at Osborne's Harlem theaters, for the "dancers," he had for a regular band, Precious White on Saxophone, Tutney Moore blowing trumpet, and "Frock" O'Dell drumming. They played at Willie James', the Peacock Inn, Big Boy McCray's and during winter played dances at his own house, now with an amplified acoustic instrument. When he got hard up, financially, he would even play the role of the itinerant preacher, earning whatever was in the collection plate, some thought his long disappearances were when he was "hoboin'." The band started dismantling, with Miller going to his radio show, but now, 1943 he enlisted and served honorably in the Navy at Guam for three years in World War II.

Post War Blues Scene

He discovered his family had moved from Belzoni when he returned there after the war. He found an opportunity as a repairman In Holston's radio repair shop in Canton. This is where, with the beginnings of heart trouble made medical trips to Jackson necessary, staying also in Peck Curtis', where he saw Miller occasionally. Kept money flowing while not playing, and here he tweaked the electric guitar amplifiers to produce distortion -- that emoted passionate tones that was decades ahead of its time.

In 1947, back in Belzoni, living in Henry Flower's rooming house, and part timed at Silver Creek Plantation, and married Georgiana Crump. This was the year he resumed playing again becoming a local phenomenon in Cornelius' Horton's Webber's Inn. He guest starred on the King Biscuit Time radio broadcast out of Helena, Arkansas, (but still not getting national fame, though). His old friend Aleck Miller invited Elmore for several times on the Talaho Syrup show, (this patent medicine -pronounced "tally-ho" - selling well from this exposure) sponsored by O. J. Turner Drug Store (where he sometimes recorded his 30 minute spots) at the closest station in Yazoo City. He had exposure on a Belzoni Radio Show as well, where his "Broom" gained notoriety. He played many gigs in Mississippi and Arkansas joined by Willie Love, "Big Boy" Crudup, Charlie Booker, Johnny Temple and Boyd Gilmore.

In 1949 he was occasionally a guest in West Memphis, where Miller had departed, playing on the Hadacol show , (and doing a gospel show on Sundays) this pretender, "Sonny Boy Williamson," making his fame with his modified Hohner. Now, Elmore was working with Eddie Taylor and cousin rhythm guitarist Homesick James in Memphis, Tennessee clubs. James worked with Love's Three Aces, that included Frock O'dell and bassist Little Bill, and sometimes joined by their common friend, Aleck Miller even on the Eddie Williams radio show out of Greenville. The next year he had to move to Arkansas, as his health did not allow the travel, anymore, and then moved back to Jackson near the radio repair shop and Diamond Record Company studio to record there.

Big Time

In January of 1951 he was invited to witness: Willie Love, Joe Willie Wilkins, and Miller/Williamson recording the Trumpet Records' hit, "Eyesight to the Blind." He couldn't muster enough bravery to record his own songs, but he did rehearse there. Elmore James's hit of 1951, (actually, early 1952) was the result of a secret recording done at the end of A Sonny Boy Trumpet Records studio session, (as one story goes) where James played his signature "Dust My Broom." (It was a revision of the Robert Johnson piece.) Bo Bo Thomas' flip side recording that Lillian McMurray put Elmore's sneakily acquired jam rose as a "sleeper" on the Top Ten list. His royalties allowed him to buy a car to commute to medical facilities. The actual account has discrepancies as there has been evidence of payment for the recording. It has been written that a Tiny Jesse Kennedy did the flip side. (There was more controversy that arose concerning another 1955 release, involving Lillian, "Dust My Blues.") By late 1952 Elmore ignored recording offers form Modern and Chess Studios, and opted to go to Chicago.

Chicago and Back

In 1953, he recorded a song, "She Just Won't Do Right," for Checker, of which existing copies are rare, probably taken off the market. For the Bilhari brothers he recorded a 1953 hit, "I believe," that was a re-worked "Broom." November of this year, he made several recordings on the Flair label, and he filled in on Big Joe Turner's Atlantic release, "T. V. Mama. Taking his money back to Canton, health in question,he sporadically appeared to an enthusiastic hometown crowd at places like the Club Bizarre. Ike Turner would have to be sent looking for Elmore when Flair wanted to record, and an auditorium outside of town he recorded, "Please Find My Baby," and at the Club Bizarre he recorded, "1839 Blues" and Sho' Nuff I Do".

He hired a manager in 1954, Atlantan Otis Ealey, who got him a booking at the Elks convention in that City, as well as a room and some other employment. Sometime around now, he married a Jackson woman, and this relationship with Janice lasted maybe half a year before Otis was finding gigs in Chicago for Elmore. This year, too James did some work for Flair in better studios in New Orleans and Hollywood, releasing "Standing at the Crossroads", as well as " Dust My Broom, again. By 1956 his recording contract with them had expired.

Club work in Sylvio's in Chicago, Club Alex in Key Largo, and some in between was Elmore Jame's busy schedule, until 1957 he signed on Mel London's new label, Chief. He continued playing where he did sessions in New York and New Orleans. This year saw him return to Jackson, since his heart was troubling him, he kept working as a disc jockey and on radios, again. And then he headed back to Chicago to live with his cousin, "Homesick"; then after that, rest turned to restlessness. It was this period with his tremendous band, the Broomdusters (named after his hit song) that he played his classic blues numbers. This band could "battle" with any of the Windy City's greats such as Muddy Waters or Howlin' Wolf with the loud presentation; with a (changing often) drummer's driving beat -- keeping time for Elmore's "slashing" slide work, potent vocals, Sammy Myers, harmonica, Little Johnny Jones piano work, his sax man, J. T. Brown and his cousin's back-up guitar, Homesick Brown -- all giving more than an hundred percent always. He had help from J. T. Brown, "Sneaky Joe" Harris, and others. He would sit in with Otis Rush and his old friend "Sonny Boy" Miller. Bobby Robinson offered James a contract in 1959 with Fire Records in New York, he recorded "The Sky Is Crying" and the inter shifting band that James toured with had Chess's interest in 1961 ; the same year he was chased back from Chicago when the union was angered by his band's having non-union members. He lived with Johnny Temple in 1961 through 1962 and drove and flew to New York for Fire records, with his health continuing to deteriorate, still drinking against doctor's orders. He played the Hinds County area with Big Moose, King Mose, Sammy Myers (who had left the north back in 1956), and Robert Robinson with a great following.

 Triumph and Tribulation

His bottleneck slide work influenced Hound Dog Taylor, Joe Carter, and J. B. Hutto. His rare regular style were examples for none other than B. B. King and Chuck Berry! It is said that Robert Nighthawk and Earl Hooker had better virtuosity, but they never matched his passion. ( Somewhere during this time Brian Jones, {who was in Blues by Five with Charlie Watts} and Mick Jagger {in Blues Incorporated}, found a common love in Elmore James music, and is one of their main musical heroes, along with Muddy Waters, Slim Harpo and Jimmy Reed. Important when they finally got together to form what would become the Rolling Stones.

Finally Big Bill Hill got things straightened out and he was ready for many opportunities in Chicago, but sadly 1963 was the year his heart, which gave so much, gave out. He would have enjoyed the same blues revival started in the 60's had he lived: which with James Cotton, Albert and B. B. King, and Muddy Waters renewed their careers, some until the present.

Four Hundred of Blues' Royalty attended his wake (set up by Big Bill Hill) in Chicago before he was laid to rest in Mississippi.

Album Discography

 

     

  1. 1975 -- History of Elmore James
  2. 1980 -- One Way Out, Charley
  3. 1981 -- The Best of Elmore James, Ace
  4. 1986 -- King of the Bottleneck Blues
  5. 1986 -- Let's Cut It: The Very Best of Elmore James, Ace.
  6. 1986 -- Elmore James, John Brim, Floyd Jones, Vogue
  7. 1989 -- Come Go with Me, N/A,
  8. 1989 -- The Classic Early Recordings 1951 - 1956; The Complete Fire & Enjoy Sessions, Pt. 2; Pt. 3, Pt. 4. Collectables
  9. 1990 -- Dust My Broom {Tomato}, Relic
  10. 1990 -- The Last Session, Relic
  11. 1992 -- King of the Slide Guitar, Capricorn.
  12. 1992 -- Dust My Broom: The Best of Elmore James, Vol. 2, N/A
  13. 1993 -- Standing at the Crossroad, Charly.
  14. 1993 -- The Sky is Crying: The History of Elmore James, Rhino
  15. 1994 -- Early Recordings 51 - 56 {box}, Virgin
  16. 1996 -- Dust My Broom, Ronn
  17. 1999 -- Rolling & Tumblin': The Best of Elmore James, Recall
  18. 2000 -- Blues Masters: The Very Best of Elmore James, Rhino
  19. 2001 -- Shake Your Money Maker: Elmore James Fire Sessions, Buddha

Source:

  • AMG Biographyonline via MSN

  • Chasin' That Devil Music, Searching for the Blues Gale Dean Wardlow; MF 1998
  • Rolling Stones, D. Dalton; 1972

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