168. Elmore James

Elmore James was a guitarist and a singer/songwriter from Holmes County in western Mississippi. Although he started early, and was performing at local dances as a teenager, James was not recorded until he was thirty-three years old. By then he had served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, and returned to Mississippi, where he worked at his brother’s electrical shop. It was there he modified an acoustic guitar for electric amplification, and together with the use of a slide, Elmore James created his distinctive guitar sound. Beginning in 1951 with “Dust My Broom”, James recorded a series of minor rhythm and blues hit songs. Diagnosed with heart problems early in life, James died of a heart attack at the age of forty-five.

Elmore James’s raw electric sound influenced a generation of American and English rock musicians. Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones and Jeremy Spencer of Fleetwood Mac were enamored with his music. In their prime, the Allman Brothers Band regularly played two Elmore James songs (“Done Somebody Wrong” and “One Way Out”) in concert appearances. And Stevie Ray Vaughan is famous for his interpretation of “The Sky Is Crying”. James has been described as a loud and raucous performer, with a rough voice that crackled with emotion, halfway between yelling and screaming the words. Rock and roll legend Little Richard considered him one of the few authentic rockers. His greatest legacy may be as a songwriter; several of his compositions are now considered blues standards, recognizable to all aficianados of the blues genre.

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Elmore James (1918-1963), slide guitar player, vocals, songwriter

The Broomdusters – Noteworthy Support Musicians

Little Johnny Jones (1924-1964), piano
Odie Payne (1926-1989), drums

Primary Influences:

Robert Johnson (1911-1938), singer, guitarist, songwriter
Tampa Red (1904-1981), singer, guitarist, songwriter

John Peel Wikia Page for Elmore James

Frank Zappa on Elmore James

“Elmore James – even though Elmore tended to play the same famous lick on every record, I got the feeling that he meant it.”

— Frank Zappa, “Good Guitar Stuff or Stereotypifications?”, Guitar Player Magazine, January, 1977

“Well, Elmore James is an acquired taste, and I happen to really like Elmore James, and I like all blues-type guitar players and all that sort of stuff. I happen to think that what they play really means something, as opposed to most of what happens on most rock and roll records – it’s very calculated sound effects that fit the song. But to say that a person has to start with Elmore James before he graduates up to fire-breathing guitar playing status is stupid, because you really don’t need to. If you don’t have any feeling for that type of music, why involve yourself with it? I would rather see a guitar player totally ignore that realm of music in an honest way – saying, “That’s just not my stuff” – than get a cursory glance of it and say, “Now I understand it,” because they’ll just do a parody of it. You’ve really got to love that stuff. I really hope that one of these days that sort of blues comes back. Everything else comes back. And I think that kind of music is great.”

— Frank Zappa, “I’m Different”, by Tom Mulhern, Guitar Player Magazine, February 1983

A Late Addition To My Collection

It appears no videos exist of Elmore James performing. He died shortly before he was scheduled to participate in the American Folk Blues Festival, a yearly European tour of blues musicians, much of which was recorded for posterity.

Elmore James played a variety of blues styles. This one is called “Shake Your Moneymaker”.

Here is one of his most faithful disciples, Jeremy Spencer of Fleetwood Mac, channeling his inner Elmore James. Spencer’s contribution to Fleetwood Mac relies heavily on his devotion to James.

Elmore James music is a late addition to my music knowledge. Five years ago, there were only four Elmore James songs in the collection. Since then I added Elmore James’s original versions of songs I already knew, and my recent investigations prompted me to add several more. There are now eighteen worthy choices, and I imagine a few more of these simple, lively songs will be added to the list as time goes by.

Elmore James Song Notes:

1. There are two versions of “Standing At The Crossroads”.

Elmore James Songs:

Shake Your Moneymaker, Elmore James ★★★
Dust My Broom, Elmore James ★★★

Done Somebody Wrong, Elmore James ★★
The Sky Is Crying, Elmore James ★★
Standing At The Crossroads, Elmore James ★★
Dust My Blues, Elmore James ★★
Look On Yonder Wall, Elmore James ★★
Stranger Blues, Elmore James ★★
It Hurts Me Too, Elmore James ★★

Got To Move, Elmore James
Madison Blues, Elmore James
Standing At The Crossroads (Alt), Elmore James
Whose Muddy Shoes, Elmore James
Sunny Land, Elmore James
I Can’t Hold Out, Elmore James
Rollin’ And Tumblin’, Elmore James
Happy Home, Elmore James
My Bleeding Heart, Elmore James

Related Songs:

Crossroads Blues, Robert Johnson ★★★
Crossroads (Live), Cream ★★★★

Done Somebody Wrong (Live), Allman Brothers Band

For You Blue, The Beatles

Got To Move, Fleetwood Mac ★★
Got To Move (Live), Fleetwood Mac ★★

I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom, Robert Johnson

I Can’t Hold Out, Eric Clapton ★★

Madison Blues (Live), Fleetwood Mac

New Strangers Blues, Tampa Red

One Way Out, Sonny Boy Williamson II ★★★
One Way Out (Live), The Allman Brothers Band ★★★★

Rollin’ And Tumblin’, Muddy Waters ★★★
Rollin’ And Tumblin’, Cream ★★
Rollin’ And Tumblin’, Bob Dylan ★★
Rollin’ And Tumblin’, The Seldom Scene

Shake Your Moneymaker, Fleetwood Mac ★★★

The Sky Is Crying (Live), Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble ★★

TV Mama, Big Joe Turner ★★★★

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