How Elmore James Invented Metal

John Morthland

By John Morthland

on 01.25.13 in Spotlights

Let's Cut It: The Very Best of Elmore James

Elmore James

Elmore James is often demeaned as a one-trick pony — or, in his case, a one lick pony. That would be the swooping, stinging slide guitar figure he played on “Dust My Broom,” his first record, in 1951. He got it from Robert Johnson’s 1936 “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom,” and Johnson himself had adapted it from Kokomo Arnold’s “Sagefield Woman Blues.” But the lick is still known universally as “the Elmore James riff,” and you’ll recognize it as soon as you hear it; it’s that distinct, and that powerful. It so defined postwar slide that labels pretty much made him repeat it over and over. He used it on “Dust My Blues,” “Wild About You Baby,” “Please Find My Baby,” “I Believe, “I’m Worried,” “Fine Little Mama,” “My Kinda Woman,” “Blues Before Sunrise” and three subsequent versions of “Dust My Broom” that he cut — and those are just the songs that come immediately to mind. Yet I’m still exhilarated, recharged, by that sound every time I hear it. If you’re not, I understand. But there are a few more things about Elmore James you should know.

Like: He’s an electric guitar pioneer, and had one of the first electric blues bands in the Mississippi Delta and in Chicago. Many said the Broomdusters rocked harder than Muddy’s or Wolf’s bands. A radio repairman by trade, James tinkered with his pickups, wiring and amps to become the first set-’em-on-11 electric guitarist; his explosive sound, screaming with sustained tones, was feral, distorted and densely textured. Near the end, he’d slam his fretboard with his hand, and wrestle what came to be called power chords, out of his instrument. Whether they knew it or not, “heavy” guitarists right up to contemporaries like Dimebag Darrell are as indebted to James as are Hound Dog Taylor, Homesick James, J.B. Hutto and other Chicago slide guitarists who rode the wave he created, as well as non-Chicago bluesmen like B.B. King. A parade of blues-rockers including Eric Clapton, Peter Green and Jeremy Spencer of early Fleetwood Mac, Brian Jones of the Stones, Duane Allman, Canned Heat, Johnny Winter, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Mike Bloomfield with Paul Butterfield, George Thorogood, Jimi Hendrix and others revived James’s songs and did their best to emulate his lick. His voice was nearly as earth-shaking as his guitar, loud and anguished and pushing at the edges of his upper range until it threatened to break up like a radio signal lost in the ether; the original, old-school dictionary definition of “funk” was the noun “panic,” and that’s what Elmore’s voice sounded like. And James was also no slouch as a songwriter, from the simple eloquence of his overhaul of Tampa Red’s “It Hurts Me Too” to the raw imagery of “Bleeding Heart” to the carnal knowledge of “Shake Your Moneymaker.”

Born near Richland, Mississippi, in 1918, Elmore was a youthful running buddy of both Robert Johnson and Sonny Boy Williamson II. By the late ’30s, he already had a band, including drummer, working Delta jook joints; only Robert Lockwood Jr. could make the same claim. Around 1940, Elmore took up electric guitar, and by the time he began recording — with Williamson II, in 1952 — his version of “Dust My Broom” was notorious across the Delta. When James finally cut it with Sonny Boy II blowing harp, the electrified slide created a sensation. Elmore quickly signed with the Bihari Brothers’ family of L.A. labels — most releases were on Flair, though they’re known today as his Modern sides, after the parent company — and moved to Chicago to form the Broomdusters. The band featured piano pounder Johnny Jones and the braying tones of tenor sax man J.T. Brown (the chief soloist besides James), as well as bassist Homesick James (who sometimes added a second guitar) and drummer Odie Payne. The Biharis milked the “Dust My Broom” lick for all it was worth, but all through the ’50s there was apparently a huge gap between the Broomdusters live — reckless but tight, verging on rock — and the singles James cut. Still, it’s hard to argue with diverse and devastating fare like the breakneck “Hawaiian Boogie,” the swamp-tinged “Sho ‘Nuff I Do,” the scorching “Please Find My Baby,” the bopping “Strange Kinda Feeling,” or the slow blues “Sunny Land,” among the most memorable Modern tracks gathered on albums like Let’s Cut It: The Very Best of Elmore James, Best of the Modern Years and Blues Kingpins.

James recorded irregularly during most of the ’50s, largely because his heart condition led him to periodically flee Chicago and the music business for the more restful life back in Mississippi. The seven sides he cut for Chief and the nine for Chess don’t all appear on eMusic, though highlights are scattered across various compilations. These include the mellow, Dixielandish “Madison Blues” on Up Jumped Elmore, the jumping “Cry for Me Baby” on The Blues of Elmore James and “Country Boogie (Tool Bag Boogie)” and “Whose Muddy Shoes” on Elmore James Sings the Blues. But Elmore’s finest body of work is the 50 sides cut over five sessions between 1959-63 for New York entrepreneur Bobby Robinson’s Fire/Fury/Enjoy, which are scattered across Shake Your Moneymaker, The Sky Is Crying, Standing at the Crossroads and others.

Robinson was the only real producer James ever had, and together they reached back for new versions of old favorites — both their muscular versions of “Dust My Broom” make the original sound positively quaint — while also fashioning some of the most hellacious postwar blues ever. Robinson cut James with the Broomdusters, in quartets, and with studio bands containing full horn sections; Elmore played slide on some and ultra-modern lead on others. The very first session yielded “The Sky is Crying,” which quickly joined “Dust My Broom” and “It Hurts Me Too” as EJ calling cards. If “Something Inside Me” isn’t his most gut-wrenching slow blues ever, then “I Need You” is. “Done Somebody Wrong” rides jackhammer riffing, while the off-kilter “Bobby’s Rock” floats on Duane Eddyish guitar. “One Way Out” is frantic. The remake of Robert Johnson’s “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” manages to sound simultaneously archaic and right up to date. But at his best, Elmore James, whose heart ailments killed him three months after his final Robinson sessions, always sounded both archaic and right up to date. He wore his Delta roots on his sleeve, and he was forever trying to wrench new sounds out of his guitar.