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Sun, 01.27.1918

Elmore James, Electric Guitarist born

Elmore James

*Elmore James was born on this date in 1918. He was a Black blues guitarist and singer.

He was born in Canton, MS., and was the son of Leola Brooks, later given the surname of his stepfather, Joe Willie James. He got into music early, learning to play bottleneck on a homemade instrument made out of a broom handle and lard can.

By the age of 14, he was already a weekend musician, working the various country suppers and juke joints in the area under the names "Cleanhead" or Joe Willie James.  Although he stuck to a home base area around Belzoni, MS., he would work with traveling players like Robert Johnson, Howlin' Wolf, and Sonny Boy Williamson. By the late '30s, he had formed his first band, playing until the Second World War broke out, then spending three years stationed with the Navy in Guam.

After discharge, he picked up where he left off, moving for a while to Memphis, working in clubs with Eddie Taylor and his cousin Homesick James.  Elmore James was also one of the first "guest stars" on the popular King Biscuit Time radio show on KFFA in Helena, AR, the Talaho Syrup show on Yazoo City's WAZF, and the Hadacol show on KWEM in West Memphis. As a guitarist, he (pretty much) wrote the book. His slide style influenced the likes of Hound Dog Taylor, Joe Carter, and J.B. Hutto, while his seldom-heard single-string work affected B.B. King and Chuck Berry. Edgy and unsure of his abilities as a recording artist, James was secretly recorded by Trumpet Records at the tail end of a Sonny Boy session doing his now signature tune, Dust My Broom.

The legend is that James didn't even stay around long enough to hear the playback, much less record a second side. Bo Bo Thomas was put on the flip side, and the record became the surprise R&B hit of 1951. In the meantime, he had moved to Chicago and assembled the nucleus of his great band, the Broorndusters, and recorded several certified blues classics. By this time, James had established a reputation in the clubs of Chicago as one of the most popular live acts and regularly broadcasting over WPOA. In 1957, he recorded several successful sides for the “Chief” label, all later being issued on the larger Vee-Jay records.

A radio repairman by trade, James reworked his guitar amplifiers in his spare time, getting them to produce raw, distorted sounds that wouldn't resurface until the advent of heavy rock amplification in the late '60s. This amp style was connected to one of the strongest emotional approaches to the blues.  His health, always in a fragile state due to a recurring heart condition, sent him back to Jackson, Mississippi, where he temporarily set aside his playing for work as a disc jockey and radio repairman. He came back to Chicago to record for Chess, producing the classic The Sky Is Crying and numerous others.  Running afoul with the Chicago musician's union, he returned to Mississippi.

James returned to Chicago, ready to resume his on-again-off-again playing career, when he suffered his final heart attack on May 24, 1963.  Over 400 blues luminaries attended his wake before his body was shipped back to Mississippi.  Without question, James was the most influential slide guitarist of the postwar period.

He was elected to the Blues Foundation's Hall of Fame in 1980 and later to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.  Elmore James may not have lived to reap the rewards of the blues revival, but his music and influence continue to resonate.

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