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Elmore James

His signature slide electric guitar opening laid the foundation for his eleven-year recording career, with nearly 80 titles released on seven record labels. James’ musical legacy lasted far beyond his time, inspiring Fleetwood Mac, The Rolling Stone, The Beatles, and Jimi Hendrix.

Elmore Brooks was born January 27, 1918, in Richland, Mississippi, to fifteen-year-old Leola Brooks, a field hand. His father, Joe Willie “Frost” James, moved in with his mother, and Elmore took his surname. James was raised on several farms in Durant, Mississippi, by his sharecropping parents. At 12 years old, inspired by Blues musicians Kokomo Arnold, Robert Johnson, and Tampa Red, he began playing the diddley bow (a simple one-string instrument strung on a shack wall). In 1932, he began playing guitar for parties and dances in the Durant area under the name Joe Willie James.

When James started his music career, he played throughout the Delta, eventually staying with another blues musician, his cousin Boyd Gilmore, in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. He even played with Bobby Rush’s band at various juke joints around Pine Bluff, including Jitterbugs, Jungle Club, and the Black Cat Club. 

By 1937, James moved to plantations near the Delta town of Belzoni, Mississippi. There, he began playing with Robert Johnson. Johnson showed him how to play the guitar using a metal finger sleeve that soon became the slide. After Johnson's death, James toured the South, performing in juke joints and theaters with Sonny Boy Williamson II. 

During this time, James began covering Tampa Red’s songs. The influence of these two musicians helped him develop his unique slide guitar sound. In 1939, he assembled his band, featuring two musicians from Tampa Red’s backing band, “Little” Johnny Jones on the piano and Odie Payne on the drums.

In 1943, he was drafted into the United States Navy during WWII. He was promoted to coxswain (the person in charge of navigating and steering the boat) and participated in the invasion of Guam. 

In 1945, he returned to Mississippi after being discharged from the Navy. He settled in Canton, Mississippi, with his adopted brother Robert Holston, who owned an electric shop. During his time at the electric shop, James learned to play the electric guitar and developed his signature sound, using parts from the shop. He later hotwired his amplifier to give more power and distortion, giving his slide guitar a unique edge. Paired with his melodramatic, frantic voice, James began to stand out as a rare talent.

Soon after his return, James began collaborating with Williamson again as they played at gigs all across Memphis and the Delta. He even made broadcasts on The King Biscuit Radio Show out of Helena, Arkansas, where Williamson was a disk jockey. 

In January 1951, James began recording with Trumpet Records, backing Williamson and artists like Willie Love. On August 5, 1951, James recorded Robert Johnson’s song Dust My Broom, which reached number nine on the national R&B charts within several months of its release. T​​rumpet Record owner Lillian McMurry released Dust My Broom by “Elmo James”, with a flip side performed by Bobo Thomas and Sonny Boy. In 1952, the record surprised everyone, becoming a R&B Top Ten hit. After the song’s success, his backing musicians included Jones, Payne, and tenor saxophonist J.T. Brown became known as the Broom Dusters.

He eventually broke his contract with Trumpet Records to sign with the Bihari brothers through their scout, Ike Turner. Turner played piano and guitar on a couple of James’ early recordings for the label. James toured Chicago with the Broom Dusters, becoming a popular live act. He also played lead guitar on Big Joe Turner’s 1954 top 10 R&B hit TV Mama.

Over the next decade, James recorded for numerous record labels including Meteor, Modern, Chess, Fire, and Flair Records. His hit songs include I Believe, Look On Yonder Wall, Shake Your Money Maker, Talk To Me Baby (I Can’tHold On), It Hurts Me, and The Sky Is Crying.

On May 24, 1963, James died of a heart attack in Chicago, Illinois, at the age of forty-five. Following a wake in Chicago, his body was sent home and buried in Durant, Mississippi.

His signature slide electric guitar opening laid the foundation for his eleven-year recording career, with nearly 80 titles released on seven record labels. James’ musical legacy lasted far beyond his time. His influence can still be seen in Chicago slide players J.B. Hutto, Homesick James (James’ cousin), and Hound Dog Taylor, who all recorded at least one version of James’ songs. Rolling Stone Brian Jones billed himself as “Elmo James” on some of his earliest public performances. Fleetwood Mac’s early albums featured note-for-note guitar riffs from James’ songs courtesy of Jeremy Spencer. Canned Heat and the Butterfield Blues Band featured James’ songs on their respective debut albums. Slide guitarist Duane Allman drew inspiration from James when he made his song Done Somebody Wrong a fixture of the Allman Brothers Band’s repertoire. His signature riffs are also heard regularly as they are practiced by most slide guitarists.  

His single-string playing also influenced B.B. King and Chuck Berry. Rock guitarists Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones, Jeremy Spencer, and Frank Zappa have also acknowledged his influence on their music. 

In 1980, James was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame with its initial list of inductees. In 1992,  he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an Early Influence. In 2012, he was honored with a marker on the Mississippi Blues Trail in Ebenezer.


Written by: Ninfa O. Barnard

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