Born: January 27, 1918 | Died: May, 1963 Primary Instrument: Guitar, slide
Guitarist Elmore James established himself in Chicago in 1952, forming his legendary band the Broomdusters. While never attaining the fame of fellow Mississippi expatriates Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, James became one of the city's most influential guitarists. He recorded for a variety of labels throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, leaving a legacy of slow blues, boogies, and full-fledged rave ups that dominate the musical vocabulary of Chicago blues. His slide guitar technique and signature riffs have become mainstays and are fundamental studies for any guitarist attempting this style.
Elmore James was born on January 27, 1918 in Richland, Mississippi, to Leola Brooks. (His true father is not known). He was given the surname of his stepfather, Joe Willie James, at birth. He moved around often as a child around the Delta, and regularly took time off from cotton picking to pick his Diddley bow, a primitive instrument involving one string nailed to the side of a barn. He purchased a real guitar, a $20 National, as an early teenager, and was hired playing house parties, jukes, etc. After a brief period of teaming up with his cousin, Homesick James Williamson, young Elmore struck out on his own for a while, playing gigs all over the Delta area, and making acquaintances with musicians such as Arthur Big Boy Crudup, Johnny Temple, and Luther Huff.
By 1937, Elmore had relocated to Greenville, Mississippi, and had met and played with Sonny Boy Williamson (II) and Robert Junior Lockwood, Robert Johnson's unofficial stepson. Soon later, Elmore met Johnson himself, and interperated a tune that Robert had wrote called I Believe I'll Dust My Broom. A year later, however, Johnson was murdered, and Elmore moved out of the area, fearing the same fate. James took up a job in his stepbrother's radio shop, playing in frequent gigs with Sonny Boy, and even joining the Army between 1943 and 1945. After his service, he reunited with both Sonny Boy and Homesick James, who both had radio shows on KFFA in Helena, MI. Elmore was given some time on the shows, performing Dust My Broom, but caused little stir.
In 1951, Lillian McMurry, an independent record producer, heard Elmore and was motivated to commit him to vinyl. His first recording was, of course, Dust My Broom.
Elmore was incredibly shy, and when he recorded the classic, he didn't even know he was recording; producers had tricked him into thinking he was rehearsing! After he was betrayed in this manner, he refused to record a B-Side, so another artist was used. The single was put out without his approval and shot straight to #9 on the R&B charts in 1952. Later that year, he signed with the Bihari Brothers, and settled down in Chicago with his backing band, The Broomdusters. He even recorded a few singles for Chess Records, but they didn't do well. Elmore spent the rest of the 50's moving back and forth between Chicago and Mississippi, depending on who wanted to hear his music more. In 1957, he was discovered to have an ailing heart condition, but this didn't keep him from the road. Lack of steady success drove him to a job as a DJ in Mississippi, though he still regularly recorded.
Elmore was once again reborn, so to speak, when he signed with Fire Records in 1959. He recorded for this label until 1962, when problems with the musicians union forced him to stop working union jobs. By 1963, his problems with the union were all but over, and a recording date was set for May 24, 1963. Just as he was preparing to go to the studio for that session, Elmore James succumbed to his heart condition. He was 45 years old.