Elmore James: The King of Slide Guitar

What do you get when you take a broom handle and pair it with an empty lard can and and string some wire across it? The beginnings of a musical career that would influence slide guitarists for decades.

Elmore James, born in Richland, MS, on January 27, 1918 taught himself to play bottle neck guitar on a homemade instrument. By fourteen, he was playing country suppers and juke joints around the Delta. Though he liked to stay close to home, he did travel with Robert Johnson, Howlin Wolf, and Sonny Boy Williams around the southern states until he was drafted in World War II and stationed in Guam for three years. After he was discharged from the Navy, he resumed his career, moving to Memphis before finally settling in Chicago and assembling The Broomdusters. Read more about his music career and the Broomdusters here.

James created his signature sound by using a radio tube cover as a slide and amplifiers that he reworked to get a distorted sound. He was known for playing and singing with feeling and always giving 100% in every performance.

James was shy and uncertain about his voice, so his first hit, Dust My Broom, was recorded without his knowing. James thought it was just a jam session and left without listening to it. The producer recorded BoBo Thomas, a local singer, on the flip side, and the Elmore James song became a top ten R and B hit. Listen to the signature slide and you can easily hear how he influenced guitarists like Stevie Ray Vaughan, Duane Allman, and Eric Clapton.

After Dust My Broom’s success, James had no choice but accept the inevitable, he was a star.

For the next seven years, James lived in both Chicago and Mississippi . He recorded under several labels, most notably, Chess Records.

In 1957 he was diagnosed with heart disease and when he couldn’t perform, he worked as a DJ in Mississippi. In 1959 he began recording his most famous songs. The songs that would be the foundation of rock and roll and the blues revival of the 1960s.

Standing at the Crossroads made famous by Eric Clapton is James’ interpretation of Robert Johnson’s blues standard.

It seems like nearly everyone did a cover of Shake Your Money Maker but it is probably best known by The Black Crowes. One of my favorite covers is by The Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Both of these you can find on the Tea Cakes and Whiskey You Tube Channel.

 

Elmore James didn’t live to see the renewed interest in blues and the great influence he had on young rock and roll guitarists. His love of hard living and moonshine did not bode well with his diagnosed heart disease. He died of a heart attack in 1963 at the age of 45, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a blues or rock guitarist who doesn’t name him as a major influence. The king of slide guitar lives on in his own body of work, as well as the classic rock and blues standards we all grew up listening to.

The Sky is Crying is one of those impromptu moments in recording history. James was recording in Chicago with The Broomdusters not long before his death and it was storming so hard they were picking up the sound of the storm on the recording. He was inspired. He said, “The sky is crying.” The rest is history. One of the most interpreted blues songs, it is the standard slow blues go to. The song itself was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1991 in the Classics of Blues Recordings category. Recorded by Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jeff Beck, The Yardbirds, Little Walter, Albert King, Etta James, Eric Clapton (after the Yardbirds), George Thorogood, Johnny Winter, and played by The Allman Brothers Band at Duane Allman’s funeral the song is a blues legend in its own right.

 

Elmore James was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in 1980, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992. He is number 30 on Rolling Stone’s Greatest Guitarists List. Perhaps his greatest legacy is the influence he still exerts over young, talented, slide guitar players. Listen to Dereck Trucks, Kenny Wayne Shepard, Gary Clark Jr., and Jack White and you’ll hear a little Elmore James sliding on through.

A pretty good legacy for the son of sharecroppers who started with a broomstick, a piece of wire and a lard can in the Mississippi Delta.

 

 

 

 

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