Blues singer, guitarist
Elmore James was a highly regarded blues musician who played regularly in the Mississippi Delta and later in Chicago. In 1992 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a precursor of rock and roll. Although James never played rock and roll as such, his music was admired and performed by such rock bands as the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds. Best known for his classic blues rendition of “Dust My Broom,” James developed a distinctive electrified slide guitar sound that was influenced by fellow Delta blues musician Robert Johnson. Rock critic Greil Marcus, in his book Mystery Train, described James’s rough and emotional vocal style as “a slashing vocal attack that traded subtlety for excitement.”
James was born in 1918 on a farm near the Mississippi Delta town of Richland. His mother was 15-year-old Leola Brooks. Although James was born out of wedlock, he was raised by his mother and Joe Willie James, the man who was thought to be his father and whose name he took as his own. With Elmore as their only child, his parents supported themselves as sharecroppers, moving about from plantation to plantation in Holmes County, Mississippi.
James’s interest in playing music reportedly began at an early age. According to Robert Palmer in Deep Blues, “Elmore taught himself to play by stringing broom wire on the wall of one of their cabins, and by the time he was nineteen, he was a reasonably competent young blues guitarist.” According to other sources, his first “guitar” was fashioned out of strings and an old lard can when he was twelve. Like other young boys in rural Mississippi, he learned to play guitar on an instrument made from spare materials at hand.
As a young man James fell in with legendary blues musicians Robert Johnson and Sonny Boy Williamson, whose real name was Rice Miller. Williamson was a noted harmonica player who used several other names as well, including Little Boy Blue. Since another blues musician also used the name Sonny Boy Williamson, he became known as Sonny Boy Williamson #2. After World War 11 Williamson would play on a variety of radio shows sponsored by various patent medicines, and James would occasionally appear as a guest on those shows. And it was Williamson who would ultimately lead James to the recording session that spawned “Dust My Broom.”
Influenced by Johnson, who is usually given credit for writing “Dust My Broom,” James developed a distinctive sound using a slide guitar. Playing slide guitar
For the Record…
Born January 27, 1918, near Richland, MS; died of a heart attack May 24, 1963, in Chicago, IL; buried in Durant, MS; son of Leola Brooks (a sharecropper); raised by Brooks and and Joe Willie James (a sharecropper); married Josephine Harris, 1937 (marriage ended); married Georgianna Crump, 1947 (marriage ended); married third wife, Janice, c. 1954; children: three, including Elmore James, Jr.
Blues musician, 1932-63. Played throughout the Mississippi Delta region; recorded “Dust My Broom,” 1951; formed group the Broomdusters, 1952; performed in Chicago, IL, Mississippi, and throughout the South, and recorded extensively for independent labels, during the 1950s; recorded more than 50 sides in Chicago, New York City, and New Orleans, LA, 1959-63.
Awards: Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 1992.
involved putting a piece of glass or metal—often a pocket knife was used—on the frets of the guitar to create a special sound. It was a popular style of playing guitar among many Delta blues musicians, and it survived into the later Chicago blues styles of the 1950s.
As early as 1939 James was playing and singing with a full band that played for dances in the Delta. According to Palmer, “It was one of a number of early attempts to fit traditional Delta blues into a band context.” Traditionally, Delta bluesmen were itinerant musicians who typically played and sang without accompaniment. Evidence exists, however, that some Delta bluesmen, notably Robert Johnson and Honeyboy Edwards, were experimenting with bands and performing with backup musicians in the late 1930s. Later, when the Delta sound, along with many of the Delta musicians, reached Chicago, it was necessary to adapt the traditional Delta blues to the electrified blues band sound the Chicago audiences demanded.
James served two years in the U.S. Navy during World War II, when he participated in the invasion of Guam. After the war he picked up again with Williamson. The two men played together over the next two years. When Williamson landed a local radio show in Belzoni, Mississippi, where both men were living, James would occasionally make guest appearances. “By this time,” wrote Palmer, James “was a formidable electric bluesman, crying out traditional lyrics in a high, forceful, anguished-sounding voice over his screaming, superamplified slide guitar leads.”
Palmer and others have noted that James was initially nervous or reticent about recording in the studio or performing over the radio. In 1951 James and a few other blues musicians accompanied Williamson to a recording session for Trumpet Records in Jackson, Mississippi. Trumpet was a recently established independent label that recorded blues, gospel, country, and rockabilly music. According to Palmer, James’s version of “Dust My Broom” was “celebrated throughout the Delta by this time, and Lillian McMurry [who ran the label] asked him to record it. He wouldn’t, but... he was tricked into rehearsing it in the studio with Sonny Boy... while McMurry surreptiously ran a tape.”
James didn’t know he was making a record, and his nervousness in front of a recording microphone prevented him from recording a b-side. Trumpet put a song by another artist on the other side of the record and released it. “Dust My Broom” surprised everyone by becoming a national rhythm and blues hit in 1952. As a result, James was sought after by other record labels. He went to Chicago in 1952 at the behest of the Bihari brothers, who owned Modern Records, and recorded a thinly disguised version of “Dust My Broom” under the title “I Believe” for their subsidiary label, Meteor. “I Believe” also became a top ten rhythm and blues hit for James.
While in Chicago, James put together a four-piece band that became known as the Broomdusters. The group included saxophonist J. T. Brown, drummer Odie Payne, Jr., and pianist Johnny Jones. This quartet, with a few changes and additions over the years, remained together for most of the 1950s. James had successfully adapted the Delta sound to an ensemble format that featured keyboards and horns. As Palmer wrote, “The music didn’t change much during this time, but it didn’t really have to. The Broomdusters rocked harder than any other Chicago blues band.”
As the 1950s progressed, James seemed to overcome his fear of recording, making numerous recordings with his band. These were heard on a variety of independent blues labels, including Chess, Checker, Meteor, Flair, and Chief. James and the Broomdusters also played the blues clubs of Chicago. When times were hard in Chicago, they went back to Mississippi and toured the South.
It was also during the 1950s that James developed a heart condition. Combined with his penchant for heavy drinking and fast living, it would eventually prove fatal. However, his music continued to progress from the rural sound that is evident on his first recording of “Dust My Broom.” As reviewer Ron Weinstock wrote in Living Blues, “James didn’t live to play to white audiences or record albums with rock heavyweights like Eric Clapton or Johnny Winter.... Unlike [Muddy] Waters, and more so than [Howlin’] Wolf, James was able to adapt his own down-home Delta blues to modern tastes.” Quoting blues authority Mike Leadbitter, Weinstock continued, “Towards the end, he was becoming better known for his slow blues and had reached his peak as a musician. The great thing about Elmore is that he progressed. Though his basic style remained unchanged he was adding to it and improving it. He seemed to grow more powerful session by session.”
James suffered a mild heart attack in the late 1950s and had temporarily retired to Mississippi. Chicago disc jockey “Big” Bill Hill contacted James and persuaded him to come back to Chicago to do some radio broadcasts. On his first day back in Chicago, James played in a small blues club and was heard by record producer Bobby Robinson. As Robinson told Living Blues magazine, “I was lucky, because Leonard Chess [co-owner of Chess Records] would have certainly grabbed him, no question about it.”
Robinson and James got together the very next day and recorded James’s band in the living room of the house where James was staying. As Robinson described the session, “It was raining that day, very nasty day outside.... I think the weather influenced us somehow. Elmore and I came up with the idea of doing a song called ‘The Sky Is Crying.’ And it was just a spontaneous kind of a thought and we started to kick it around a little bit there and I got a pencil and a pad, and we sat down by the window and we wrote it out.” “The Sky Is Crying” was released in 1960 on Robinson’s Fire label and became a top twenty rhythm and blues hit.
Robinson recorded James with a variety of backup musicians from 1959 until James’s death in 1963. Robinson told Living Blues, “Of course, Elmore being such a dominant kind of a personality and artist, it was the Elmore James sound wherever we recorded, but the background music was different in each place.” James recorded for Robinson with a band in Chicago, a larger ensemble with horns, in New York, and with his Mississippi band, which included harmonica, in New Orleans. Songs recorded at these sessions were released on Robinson’s Fire and Enjoy labels.
In the early 1960s James was in trouble with the musicians union in Chicago. When he didn’t pay his union dues, he was blacklisted. He was also very ill, and his heart condition appeared to worsen. In the spring of 1963 James was in Chicago to perform at the opening of Big Bill Hill’s new establishment, the Copa Cabana Club. He was staying with his older cousin, Homesick James, and his family when he suffered a fatal heart attack on the night of May 24.
“Dust My Broom,” Trumpet, 1951.
“I Believe,” Meteor, 1952.
“The Sky Is Crying,” Fire, 1960.
“It Hurts Me Too,” Enjoy, 1965.
Original Folk Blues (includes early sessions recorded 1952-56 for Meteor and Flair), Kent, 1964, reissued, United, 1975.
The Legend of Elmore James (includes early sessions recorded 1952-56 for Meteor and Flair), Kent, 1964, reissued, United, 1975.
The Resurrection of Elmore James (includes early sessions recorded 1952-56 for Meteor and Flair), Kent, 1964, reissued, United, 1975.
One Way Out (includes 1951 recording of “Dust My Broom”), Charly, 1980.
The Complete Fire and Enjoy Sessions, Parts 1-4, Collectables, 1989.
The Last Session: 2-21-63, Relic, 1990.
Let’s Cut It: The Very Best of Elmore James, Flair, 1991.
Elmore James—King of the Slide Guitar—The Fire/Fury/Enjoy Recordings (recorded from 1959-1963), Capricorn Records, 1992.
(With John Brim) Whose Muddy Shoes, Chess.
Bottleneck Blues, Crown.
Red Hot Blues, Intermedia.
Finn, Julio, The Bluesman, Quartet Books, 1986.
Guralnick, Peter, Listener’s Guide to the Blues, Facts on File, 1982.
Harris, Sheldon, Blues Who’s Who, Da Capo, 1979.
Marcus, Greil, Mystery Train, Dutton, 1975 and 1982.
Palmer, Robert, Deep Blues, Viking, 1981.
Blues Unlimited, June 1970; September 1971; October 1971; November 1971.
Goldmine, March 20, 1992.
Guitar Player, April 1992.
Living Blues, number 54, 1982; number 66, 1985; number 67, 1986; January/February 1988; March/April 1989.
Rolling Stone, November 14, 1991; February 6, 1992.
Liner notes, The Complete Fire and Enjoy Sessions, Parts 1-4, Collectables, 1989.
The career of blues pianist Pinetop Perkins recapitulates the entire history of the blues, from its origins in Mississippi in the early part of the twentieth century to its modern status as a classic form of American music. Perkins migrated with the blues itself, first to the Memphis, Tennessee, area and then to Chicago, where he performed in the band of blues great Muddy Waters at the height of Waters's fame. After striking out on his own, Perkins drew on a great wave of late-life creativity, becoming not just a living legend of the blues but a force driving the genre forward.
Pinetop Perkins was born Bob Perkins on July 7, 1913, on Honey Creek Plantation near Belzoni, Mississippi, and was later renamed Joe Willie Perkins. Some sources list a July 13 date, but Perkins himself gave July 7 as his birthday in a 2003 St. Louis Post-Dispatch interview. His father was a Baptist minister, his mother a Native American who bought him his first cigarette at age 10. "I came up the hard way," he told the Post-Dispatch. "My grandmother hit me upside the head with a board. Knocked me out. When I came to, she was still hitting me. I left there running."
Growing up in the heart of the Mississippi River delta, Perkins heard the music of guitarist Blind Lemon Jefferson and of his two cousins, Elmore James and "Homesick" James. His parents also collected 78 rpm blues and jazz records, and he heard an unrecorded but beautifully named blues piano player named Tubba Sludge. Before long, Perkins was playing and singing in juke joints himself. Also, he told Stephen Kinzer of the New York Times, he played at chicken fights, "where your only pay was the dead chicken." During the day Perkins operated a mule-drawn plow on the Hopson Plantation near Clarksdale, Mississippi, later a blues historic site. He spent several years in St. Louis in the 1930s.
Around 1943, Perkins signed on with guitarist Robert Nighthawk and performed with him on the Helena, Arkansas, radio station KFFA. In the mid-1940s he participated in a practical joke, locking a chorus girl from the High Brown Follies troupe in the bathroom of a bar with a 55-gallon barrel of coal ashes. When the dancer finally escaped, she came out swinging a knife angrily, and Perkins's arm was the first thing the knife made contact with. "She did it to me, man," Perkins told reporter Dave Hoekstra of the Chicago Sun-Times, referring to the giant scar still visible on his arm 50 years later.
The incident damaged tendons in Perkins's arm, putting an end to his guitar career. But after he began concentrating on the piano, he bounced back quickly, joining a group of musicians led by Sonny Boy Williamson, who played on the King Biscuit Hour, a fabled blues radio program on KFFA. Perkins became an adept interpreter of a number called "Pinetop's Boogie Woogie," originally recorded in the 1920s by Clarence "Pinetop" Smith," and he recorded the piece for Memphis's Sun label in 1953. As Perkins became identified with "Pinetop's Boogie Woogie," he acquired the nickname of Pinetop himself.
In 1958 Perkins and his wife, Sarah, moved to Chicago after encouragement from Nighthawk. In the 1960s he played with Nighthawk's student, slide guitarist Earl Hooker, in blues clubs along Maxwell Street, one of the centers of Chicago's blues scene. Money was tight for several years, and Perkins was forced to live with Hooker's mother for a year. But things turned around in 1969, when Perkins got an invitation to join the band of Muddy "Mississippi" Waters, the dean of Chicago's electric blues guitarists. He accepted on the spot.
That job gave Perkins his first real measure of fame. Waters's band toured Europe, and Perkins appeared on Waters's classic later albums, such as Hard Again (1977) and I'm Ready (1978). Perkins recorded an album for a French label in 1976 and contributed tracks to the Alligator label's Living Chicago Blues compilations of the late 1970s. In 1980 Perkins and a group of other Waters sidemen formed the Legendary Blues Band and recorded several albums on the Rounder label. Perkins's singing was featured on those albums, and his characteristic piano style, with right-hand clusters evoking horn blasts, became familiar to blues fans. In 1988 Perkins made his belated United States solo album debut with After Hours, released on the Blind Pig label, with Little Mike and the Tornadoes, a group of young blues players, backing the septuagenarian pianist.
In the mid-1990s Perkins finally seemed to be on the brink of retirement. After the death of his wife in 1996, Perkins fell into depression and began to show the effects of decades of alcohol abuse. Maltreatment from his stepchildren didn't help. "Every time I went on the road they'd take something," he told the Sun-Times. "My clothes. My tools. My guns. … Anything salable, they got it. Those kids could steal all the sweeting out of a gingersnap—and not break the crust."
When he was well over 80, Perkins embarked on a 12-step program to break his addiction to alcohol. "Changing your life at 84 is quite unthinkable for most people," his friend Steve Tomashefsky told the New York Times. "It shows how intensely Pinetop wants to be out there playing." Perkins moved to La Porte, Indiana, where he was befriended by blues enthusiast and bar owner Buck Levandoski. Recording seven albums between 1995 and 2004, Perkins became a beloved audience favorite at blues clubs and big outdoor festivals. A ten-time winner of the blues world's annual W.C. Handy Award, Perkins picked up a $10,000 National Heritage Fellowship, the United States government's highest traditional arts award, in 2000.
In 2004 Perkins released Ladies Man, an album pairing him with a roster of leading female blues singers such as Ruth Brown, Odetta, Susan Tedeschi, and Angela Strehli. He maintained a busy performing schedule into 2005, showing up in person at the Grammy Awards ceremony to accept a lifetime achievement award; and his Grammy nomination for Best Traditional Blues Album at age 91 made him the oldest nominee in the award's history. After he turned 90, the Ottawa Citizen asked him if he ever planned to retire. "Hell, they're still paying me." Perkins answered. "Why would I?"
For the Record …
Born Joe Willie Perkins on July 7, 1913, on Honey Island Plantation near Belzoni, MS; married; wife's name Sarah (died, mid-1990s).
Began performing as guitarist in juke joints in Missis sippi, late 1920s; performed with guitarist Robert Night-hawk, KFFA radio, beginning in 1943; switched to piano after arm injury; performed on King Biscuit Time radio program in Helena, AR, late 1940s; toured South with Earl Hooker, early 1950s; recorded "Pinetop's Boogie Woogie," 1953; moved to Chicago, 1958; performed in clubs along blues center of Maxwell St.; joined band of Muddy Waters, 1969; with other Waters band members, formed Legendary Blues Band, 1980; recorded debut solo album After Hours, 1988; continued to perform and record frequently, 1990–.
Awards: United States National Heritage Fellowship, 2000; ten consecutive W.C. Handy Awards; Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement, 2004.
After Hours, Blind Pig, 1988.
Pinetop's Boogie Woogie, Discovery, 1992.
Got My Mojo Workin', Blues Legends, 1995.
Live Top, Deluge, 1995.
Born in the Delta, Telarc, 1997.
Down in Mississippi, HMG, 1998.
Live at 85, Shanachie, 1999.
Back on Top, Telarc, 2000.
Live at Antone's, Antone's, 2000.
Ladies Man, M.C., 2004.
Chicago Sun-Times, August 13, 2000, p. Show-1.
New York Times, July 12, 2001, p. E2.
Ottawa Citizen (Canada), July 12, 2003, p. B2; July 14, 2003, p. B1.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 16, 2003, p. T1.
San Antonio Express-News, January 7, 2005, p. H16.
Seattle Times, March 25, 2005, p. H6.
USA Today, February 14, 2005, p. D2.
"Pinetop Perkins," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (March 27, 2005).
"Pinetop Perkins," Blind Pig Records, http://www.blindpigrecords.com (March 27, 2005).
Legendary piano player Pinetop Perkins came into his solo career relatively late in life, after playing with nearly every other famous name in blues, the raw, sorrowful musical form that came out of the Mississippi Delta. For years he played with such artists as John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters, developing a piano-playing style that was a "mixture of boogie-woogie and blues, by turns elegant and sly and blunt," wrote Jon Pareles in the New York Times. "Playing solos, or meshing with a stomping Chicago blues band … Perkins can sling big, churchy chords and riffle off barrelhouse tremolos; he can also sprinkle quick, deftly placed trills and runs that cap suspense with satisfaction."
Perkins was born in 1913 in Honey Island, Mississippi, a town where racism was so entrenched that forty years later it was still one of the most dangerous places in the South for civil-rights activists. Cotton was the primary crop, and most African Americans worked as sharecroppers, though in many cases their parents or grandparents had cleared the land for farming and received ownership as part of a settlement program—and then lost the property to wealthier white neighbors when the market price for cotton dipped. Perkins, who went by the name Joe Willie as a youngster, grew up working on a piece of farmland known locally as the Honey Plantation. His education ended at the third grade, but he was a skilled tractor driver by his teens. He met other blues musicians when he moved farther north to Clarksdale, where both Hooker and Waters had roots. Like them, Perkins played in bars to supplement his farmhand income of a dollar per day, which covered a weekly rent of $6.
Perkins joined the Great Migration north "after the landlord killed my dog in Clarksdale," he recalled in an interview with Richard Skelly on PinetopPerkins.com. "I was thinkin', ‘I might be next!’ I loved that dog. So I took off." He worked in Chicago for a time, but eventually returned to the Delta region and worked with slide guitarist Robert Nighthawk, who had a regular gig on radio station KFFA in nearby Helena, Arkansas. One of Nighthawk's musical rivals, Sonny Boy Williamson, became a frequent guest on the station's daily broadcast, King Biscuit Time, in 1941. Named after its sponsor, a local flour company, the fifteen-minute live blues show became one of the longest-running radio programs in U.S. history. Perkins played guitar with Williamson for three years. Then the tendons of Perkins's left arm got slashed in a bar brawl. "The doctors told me the only way they could save my arm was to sew the tendons back too short," he explained to Stephen Kinzer in the New York Times. "Couldn't play guitar after that."
Perkins took up the piano instead, teaching himself by playing along with records. After becoming proficient, he joined blues guitarist B. B. King's band in Memphis. It was there that Perkins and Earl Hooker—cousin of John Lee Hooker—made a recording of "Pinetop's Boogie Woogie," a song Clarence "Pinetop" Smith had recorded in 1928. Following the release of the new version in 1953, Perkins became known as "Pinetop" himself. Soon after that, he moved back to Chicago and played in blues clubs for a number of years before retiring from music. He was working as a mechanic in 1968 when Earl Hooker urged him to reconsider, and Perkins's return to the stage brought an offer from Muddy Waters to join his band as replacement for Otis Spann, another legendary keyboard artist. Perkins spent the next twelve years with Waters, who had an impressive following among rock-and-roll fans because of his influence on a generation of British rock acts, including the Rolling Stones (who took their name from a Waters song). The touring provided a steady, substantial income for Perkins, but it also brought new challenges. "I had to learn to play all over again," he told Pareles. "Muddy didn't play on the meter. You had to wait on him when he sang, and then get with him."
In 1980 Perkins cofounded the Legendary Blues Band with a few members of Waters's group: Willie "Big Eyes" Smith, on drums; Louis Myers on harmonica and guitar; Calvin Jones, on bass; and Jerry Portnoy, also on harmonica. Perkins, Smith, and Jones all appeared as members of John Lee Hooker's band in the 1980 film The Blues Brothers, one of the most successful musical comedies in movie history. For the rest of the decade Perkins played with the Legendary Blues Band and as a solo artist. Some of the live sessions were recorded, and Perkins began to visit the studio with more frequency, too. His releases include On Top in 1992; Portrait of a Delta Bluesman in 1993; Down in Mississippi, in 1998; the Grammy Award-winning Last of the Great Mississippi Delta Bluesmen: Live in Dallas in 2007; and Pinetop Perkins and Friends, in 2008. Eric Clapton, B. B. King, and a host of blues artists joined him for that recording, which celebrated his ninety-fifth birthday.
After his wife died in the mid-1990s, Perkins experienced serious depression, which was exacerbated by drinking. He gave up alcohol at age eighty-four, but was still driving at age ninety when his car collided with a freight train in La Porte, Indiana, where he had lived for a number of years. "I broke my arm and nearly busted my brains out, but I could've been gone," he told Paul Liberatore in the Marin Independent Journal. He left the Midwest and its cold winters permanently after that, settling in Austin, Texas. His management company received many offers from venues that wanted to host Perkins's 100th birthday concert. "I remember the days when I played at chicken fights, and your only pay was the dead chicken," he told Kinzer in the New York Times. "But now I can't retire even if I want to. Everybody's calling me."
At a Glance …
Born Joe Willie Perkins on July 7, 1913, in Honey Island, MS; married (his wife died in the mid-1990s).
Career: Farmhand in Belzoni and Clarksdale, MS, 1920s-1930s; guitarist with Robert Nighthawk's band, early 1940s; pianist for B. B. King, Earl Hooker, and others, 1940s-early 1950s; blues musician in Chicago after 1954; mechanic, late 1960s; pianist for the Muddy Waters Band, 1969-81; formed the Legendary Blues Band, 1980.
Awards: National Heritage Fellowship, National Endowment for the Arts, 2000; Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement, National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, 2005; Grammy Award, Best Traditional Blues Album, Last of the Great Mississippi Delta Bluesmen: Live in Dallas, 2007.
Addresses: Management—Blue Mountain Artists, 810 Tyvola Rd., Ste. 114, Charlotte, NC 28217.
On Top, Deluge Records, 1992.
Portrait of a Delta Bluesman, Omega Records, 1993.
Down in Mississippi, Hightone Records, 1998.
(With Hubert Sumlin) Legends, Telarc, 1998.
Back on Top, Telarc, 2000.
Ladies Man, M.C. Records, 2004.
(With David "Honeyboy" Edwards, Robert Lockwood Jr., and Henry James Townsend) Last of the Great Mississippi Delta Bluesmen: Live in Dallas, Blue Shoe Project, 2007.
Pinetop Perkins and Friends, Telarc, 2008.
Billboard, August 21, 2004, p. 37.
Marin Independent Journal (Marin County, CA), May 9, 2008.
New York Times, May 15, 1987, p. C19; July 12, 2001, p. B2.
Toronto Star, June 26, 2008, p. E7.
PinetopPerkins.com, http://www.pinetopperkins.com/papress.htm (accessed July 12, 2008).