James, Elmore (originally, Brooks, Elmore)

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James, Elmore (originally, Brooks, Elmore)

James, Elmore (originally, Brooks, Elmore), one of the most influential post war blues guitarists; b. Richland, Miss., Jan. 27, 1918; d. Chicago, May 24, 1963. Elmore James’s first guitar had a broom handle for a neck and a lard can for a resonator, one string played with a bottleneck slide. It was a sound he sought to emulate when he started hooking his electric guitar to amplifiers in the 1930s.

He was born with his mother’s name of Brooks, but took his stepfather’s name as a boy. By his early teens, he would play suppers, fish fries and juke joints, sometimes as Cleanhead James, and sometimes under his stepfather’s name, Joe Willie James. While he continued to stay close to his home base, he got the opportunity to play with Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson through his youth. Like so many others of his contemporaries, he also plied a trade. James was a radio repairman and thus had a good sense of how amplifiers worked. By the mid-1930s, he had joined Williamson on the road, touring the South and perfecting his slide style and scabrous sound. Then World War II broke out and he was called up in the draft.

After a three-year hitch in the Navy, he moved to Memphis and worked the clubs with his cousin “Homesick” James and others. He became a regular on local radio, but was unsure of his skills in the recording studio as a leader, though he did accompany several other musicians on recording dates. It was during one such date with Williamson that he was encouraged to play Robert Johnson’s “Dust My Broom.” The session was recorded and became a Top Ten R&B hit in 1951 on a small indie called Trumpet records. He was quickly signed by the larger L.A. company Modern, and moved to Chicago. There, he assembled a remarkable band featuring Johnny Jones on piano, J. T. Brown on sax, and Homesick James Williamson on rhythm guitar, though he recorded “Hand in Hand” with Ike Turner on piano. Between 1953 and 1955, he also recorded such notable tunes as “Hawaiian Boogie,” “Early inthe Morning” and “Wild about You Baby.” Other well known James tunes include “The Sky Is Crying.”

Through his forties, James had a bad heart, and he would take frequent breaks from work to recover in Miss. He died while visiting his cousin Homesick James in 1963, but left behind a musical legacy that would inspire artists from Duane Allman to George Thorogood and beyond. Jimi Hendrix recorded his song “Bleeding Heart” and Fleetwood Mac did a version of “Shake Your Moneymaker.”


Blues after Blues (1960); Blues after Hours (1961); Original Folk Blues (1964); / Need You (1965); Something inside of Me (1968); Tough Blue (1968); The Late Fantastically Great (1968); Blues in My Heart, Rhythm in My Soul (1969); To Know a Man Blue (1969); Whose Muddy Shoes (1969); The Resurrection of Elmore James Blues (1969); The Sky Is Crying (1965); Elmore James (1970); Cotton Patch (1 Side; 1974); Street Talkin’ (1975); All Them Blues (1976); Blues Screaming (1977); Got to Move (1981); Red Hot Blues (1983); King of the Bottleneck Blues (1986); Let’s Cut It (1986); Pickin’ the Blues (1986); Shake Your Money Maker (1986); Come Go with Me (1989); Dust My Broom (1990); The Last Session (1990); Rolling and Tumbling (1992); King of the Slide (1996).

—Hank Bordowitz