Elmore James

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Elmore James
Elmore James.gif
Background information
Birth nameElmore Brooks
Born(1918-01-27)January 27, 1918
Richland, Holmes County, Mississippi, U.S.
DiedMay 24, 1963(1963-05-24) (aged 45)
Chicago, Illinois
Occupation(s)Musician, singer-songwriter
InstrumentsGuitar, vocals
Years active1940s–1963

Elmore James (January 27, 1918[1] – May 24, 1963[2]) was an American blues guitarist, singer, songwriter and bandleader.[3] He was known as "King of the Slide Guitar" and was noted for his use of loud amplification and his stirring voice. For his contributions to music, James was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992.[4]


James was born Elmore Brooks in Richland, Holmes County, Mississippi, the illegitimate son of 15-year-old Leola Brooks, a field hand.[5] His father was probably Joe Willie "Frost" James,[1] who moved in with Leola, and Elmore took his surname. He began making music at the age of 12, using a simple one-string instrument (diddley bow, or jitterbug) strung on a shack wall.[1] As a teen he performed at dances under the names Cleanhead and Joe Willie James.[5] He married Minnie Mae about 1942.[6]

James was influenced by Robert Johnson,[1] Kokomo Arnold and Tampa Red. He recorded several of Tampa Red's songs. He also inherited from Tampa Red's band two musicians who joined his own backing band, the Broomdusters, "Little" Johnny Jones (piano) and Odie Payne (drums).[5] There is a dispute about whether Johnson or James wrote James's signature song, "Dust My Broom".[6] In the late 1930s, James worked alongside Sonny Boy Williamson II.[5]

During World War II, James joined the United States Navy, was promoted to coxswain and took part in the invasion of Guam.[7] Upon his discharge, he returned to central Mississippi and settled in the town of Canton with his adopted brother Robert Holston. Working in Holston's electrical shop, he devised his unique electric sound, using parts from the shop and an unusual placement of two DeArmond pickups.[6] Around this time James learned that he had a serious heart condition.

He began recording with Trumpet Records in nearby Jackson in January 1951, first as a sideman again for Sonny Boy Williamson II and for their mutual friend Willie Love and possibly others.[8] He made his debut as a session leader in August with "Dust My Broom", which was a surprise R&B hit in 1952.[3] His backing musicians became known as the Broomdusters.[3]

James broke his contract with Trumpet Records to sign with the Bihari brothers[9] through their scout Ike Turner, who played guitar and piano on a couple of his early Bihari recordings. His "I Believe" was a hit a year later.[3] During the 1950s he recorded for the Bihari brothers' Flair Records, Meteor Records[10] and Modern Records; he also recorded for Chess Records and Mel London's Chief Records.[11] He played lead guitar on Big Joe Turner's 1954 top 10 R&B hit "TV Mama".[12]

In 1959, he began recording for Bobby Robinson's Fire Records, which released "The Sky Is Crying", "My Bleeding Heart", "Stranger Blues", "Look on Yonder Wall", "Done Somebody Wrong", and "Shake Your Moneymaker", among others.[3]

James died of a heart attack in Chicago in 1963,[3] as he was about to tour Europe with that year's American Folk Blues Festival. He was buried in the Newport Baptist Church Cemetery, in Ebenezer, Mississippi.[13] Phil Walden of Capricorn Records raised funds for a granite headstone for James' grave. The headstone which reads "King of the Slide Guitar", features a bronze relief of James playing guitar. It was revealed at a dedication ceremony sponsored by the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund in 1992.[14]

James was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992 as an "Early Influence" inductee.[4] In 2012, he was honored with a marker on the Mississippi Blues Trail in Ebenezer.[13][14]

On June 25, 2019, The New York Times Magazine listed Elmore James among hundreds of artists whose material was reportedly destroyed in the 2008 Universal fire.[15]


James played a wide variety of "blues" (which often crossed over into other styles of music) similar to that of Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and some of B. B. King's work, but distinguished by his guitar's unique tone, coming from a modified hollow-body acoustic guitar that sounded like an amped-up version of the more "modern" solid-body guitars.

Muddy Waters took Belgian blues fan George Adins to see James play in Chicago in 1959; Adins described James' vocals as "strong and rough", and his guitar accompaniment as similarly "rough, violent and expressive." Adins also praised a later performance for its "hysteric" sound.[16]


Many electric slide guitar players will acknowledge the influence of James's style. He was a major influence on such notable blues guitarists as Homesick James, John Littlejohn, Hound Dog Taylor, J. B. Hutto and many others.[5] He also influenced many rock guitarists, such as Brian Jones, of the Rolling Stones (Keith Richards wrote[citation needed] that when they first met, Jones was calling himself Elmo Lewis and wanted to be Elmore James); Alan Wilson, of Canned Heat; and Jeremy Spencer, of Fleetwood Mac. John Mayall recorded "Mr. James" for his 1969 album Looking Back as an homage to James. James's songs "Done Somebody Wrong" and "One Way Out" were covered by the Allman Brothers Band, which was influenced by James.[17]

James's compositions were also covered by the blues-rock band Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble many times in concert. The most famous of these covers is one that came by an indirect route: the bluesman Albert King recorded a cover of "The Sky Is Crying", and Vaughan copied King's version. That song was also covered by George Thorogood on his second album, Move It on Over, and by Eric Clapton on his album There's One in Every Crowd. Another admirer of James was Jimi Hendrix. Early in his career Hendrix styled himself as Maurice James and subsequently as Jimmy James, in tribute to Elmore James, according to his former bandmate and recording partner Lonnie Youngblood.[18] A photo on the sleeve of his album Blues shows Hendrix in London, holding James's UK LP The Best of Elmore James. (Hendrix was frequently photographed holding LP covers of musicians that influenced him.) He performed James's "Bleeding Heart" at the Experience's Royal Albert Hall concert in 1969 and also with the Band of Gypsys at their New Year's concerts at the Fillmore East in 1969–70, and he recorded two versions of it in the studio.[citation needed]

James is mentioned in the Beatles' song "For You Blue": while John Lennon evokes James's signature sound with a Höfner 5140 Hawaiian Standard lap steel guitar,[19] George Harrison says, "Elmore James got nothin' on this, baby."

Frank Zappa acknowledged James as an influence.[20]

Eric Burdon performed the song "No More Elmore" on the album Crawling King Snake (1982).

Roy Buchanan, for his Second Album (1974), recorded "Tribute to Elmore James", an instrumental piece Buchanan wrote, which begins with James's classic slide guitar riff and uses his soloing style throughout.


Selected singles[edit]

Selected compilation albums[edit]

  • Blues After Hours (1960)
  • Whose Muddy Shoes (1969)
  • Street Talkin' (1975)
  • King of the Slide Guitar (1992)
  • The Classic Early Recordings: 1951–1956 (1993)
  • The Sky Is Crying: The History of Elmore James (1993)
  • Golden Hits (1996)


  1. ^ a b c d Robert Palmer (1981). Deep Blues. Penguin Books. p. 205. ISBN 978-0-14-006223-6.
  2. ^ Robert Palmer (1981). Deep Blues. Penguin Books. p. 215. ISBN 978-0-14-006223-6.
  3. ^ a b c d e f Strong, Martin C. (2000). The Great Rock Discography (5th ed.). Edinburgh: Mojo Books. pp. 493–494. ISBN 978-1-84195-017-4.
  4. ^ a b "Elmore James". Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
  5. ^ a b c d e Cub Koda. "Elmore James - Biography & History". AllMusic. Retrieved February 1, 2019.
  6. ^ a b c Franz, Steve (2003). The Amazing Secret History of Elmore James. BlueSource Publications. ISBN 978-097180-381-7
  7. ^ Robert Palmer (1981). Deep Blues. Penguin Books. p. 206. ISBN 978-0-14-006223-6.
  8. ^ Robert Palmer (1981). Deep Blues. Penguin Books. pp. 212-213. ISBN 978-0-14-006223-6.
  9. ^ Robert Palmer (1981). Deep Blues. Penguin Books. p. 214. ISBN 978-0-14-006223-6.
  10. ^ "Meteor Records". Archived from the original on March 30, 2012. Retrieved November 6, 2006.
  11. ^ Whitburn, Joel (1988). Top R&B Singles 1942–1988. Record Research. p. 216. ISBN 978-0-89820-068-3.
  12. ^ Swyner, Alan (1998). Liner notes to The Very Best of Big Joe Turner. Rhino CD 72968.
  13. ^ a b "Elmore James". Mississippi Blues Trail.
  14. ^ a b "Featured Marker - Elmore James". Mississippi Blues Trail.
  15. ^ Rosen, Jody (June 25, 2019). "Here Are Hundreds More Artists Whose Tapes Were Destroyed in the UMG Fire". The New York Times. Retrieved June 28, 2019.
  16. ^ Bromberg liner notes to the compilation The Legend of Elmore James (Kent Records 9001).
  17. ^ Dicaire, David (1999). Blues Singers. McFarland. p. 102. Retrieved June 2, 2013. allman brothers influence elmore james.
  18. ^ Egan, Sean (2002). The Making of "Are You Experienced". A Capella Books. p. 14. ISBN 978-155652-471-4
  19. ^ Babiuk, A, (2002). Beatles Gear. Hal Leonard. p. 241. ISBN 978-087930-662-5
  20. ^ "Guitar Player Magazine, 1983". Home.online.no. January 9, 1984. Archived from the original on February 23, 2012. Retrieved 2011-12-30.

External links[edit]