James was born Elmore Brooks
in the old Richland community in Holmes County, Mississippi (not to be confused with two other locations of the same name in Mississippi). He was the illegitimate son of 15-year-old Leola Brooks, a field hand. His father was probably Joe Willie "Frost" James, who moved in with Leola, and so Elmore took this as his name. His parents adopted an orphaned boy at some point named Robert Holston.Elmore began making music at the age of 12 using a simple one-string instrument ("diddley bow" or "jitterbug") strung up on a shack wall. As a teen he was playing at local dances under the names Cleanhead
and Joe Willie James
. His first marriage, circa 1942, was to Minnie Mae (maiden name unknown? and whom he apparently never divorced). He subsequently married twice more, to Georgianna Crump in 1947 and to a woman called Janice circa 1954. (Another reported marriage of Elmore to a Josephine Harris has been found to be a mistaken record of a different Elmore James.)James (like many other musicians) was strongly influenced by Robert Johnson, as well as by Kokomo Arnold and Tampa Red. James recorded several of Tampa's songs, and even inherited from his band two of his famous "Broomdusters", "Little" Johnny Jones (piano) and Odie Payne (drums). There is a dispute as to whether Robert Johnson or Elmore wrote James' trademark song, "Dust My Broom".During World War II James joined the United States Navy, was promoted to coxswain and took part in the invasion of Guam against the Japanese. Upon his discharge, James returned to central Mississippi and eventually settled in Canton with his adopted brother Robert Holston; it was at this time he learned that he had a serious heart condition. Working in Robert's electrical shop, he devised his unique electric sound, using parts from the shop and an unusual placement of two D'Armond pickups. He began recording with Trumpet Records in nearby Jackson in January 1951, first as sideman to the second Sonny Boy Williamson and also to their mutual friend Wille Love and possibly others, then debuting as a session leader in August with "Dust My Broom". It was a surprise R&B hit in 1952 and turned James into a star. He then broke his recording contract with Trumpet Records to sign up with the Bihari Brothers through their "scout" Ike Turner (who played guitar and piano on a couple of his early Bihari recordings). His "I Believe" was another hit a year later. During the 1950s he recorded for the Bihari brothers' Flair Records, Meteor Records and Modern Records labels, as well as for Chess Records and Mel London's Chief Records (his "It Hurts Me Too" was later a hit when he re-recorded it for Enjoy Records). He also played lead guitar on Joe Turner's 1954 top 10 R&B hit "TV Mama." His backing musicians were known as the Broomdusters. In 1959 he began recording for Bobby Robinson's Fire Records label. These include "The Sky Is Crying" (credited to Elmo James and His Broomdusters), "My Bleeding Heart", "Stranger Blues", "Look on Yonder Wall", "Done Somebody Wrong", and "Shake Your Moneymaker", all of which are among the most famous of blues recordings.Elmore James enjoyed drinking whiskey, particularly Moonshine whiskey, which he began drinking at an early age and also distilled himself, despite alcohol contributing to the premature deaths of bandmates and friends Willie Love and Johnny Jones. James' regular rhythm guitarist claimed that he preserved his health by not drinking as heavily during and after gigs, a refusal that made him unpopular with the rest of the band.James died of his third heart attack in Chicago in 1963, just prior to a tour of Europe with that year's American Folk Blues Festival. He was buried in the Newport Baptist Church Cemetery in Ebenezer, Mississippi.
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 traditional acoustic guitar, which sounded like an amped up version of the "more modern" solid body guitars. He most often played using a slide, but on several recordings he plays without. His voice and style were as instantly recognisable as King's, Muddy's and Wolf's and until he fell afoul of the Chicago union, he and his 'Broomdusters' were as popular in the Chicago clubs as any of these musicians' bands. James could be reportedly 'difficult' (drinking on the job, not paying out cash, abandoning musicians, double booking etc.) There are few photos of James performing, those taken (some at the following occasion, and some at a packed club with stylishly dressed couples dancing closely) by George Adins, and no other detailed descriptions or any live recordings.Muddy Waters took the Belgian blues fan George Adins to see James play in Chicago in 1959, Adins recalled,
Elmore will always remain the most exciting, dramatic blues singer and guitarist that I've ever had a chance to see perform in the flesh. On our way we listened to him on the radio as Big Bill Hill ... was broadcasting direct from that place. I was burning to see Elmore James and before we even pushed open the door of the club, we could hear Elmore's violent guitar sound. Although the place was overcrowded, we managed to find a seat close to the bandstand and the blues came falling down on me as it had never done before. Watching Elmore sing and play, backed by a solid blues band (Homesick James, J.T. Brown, Boyd Atkins and Sam Cassell) made me feel real fine. Wearing thick glasses, Elmore's face always had an expressive and dramatic look, especially when he was real gone on the slow blues. Singing with a strong and rough voice, he really didn't need a mike. On such slow blues as "I'm Worried - "Make My Dreams Come True" - "It Hurts Me", his voice reached a climax and created a tension that was unmistakably the down and out blues. Notwithstanding that raw voice, Elmore sang his blues with a particular feeling, an emotion and depth that showed his country background. His singing was... fed, reinforced by his own guitar accompaniment which was as rough, violent and expressive as was his voice. Using the bottleneck technique most of the time, Elmore really let his guitar sound as I had never heard a guitar sound before. You just couldn't sit still! You had to move...
Adins also witnessed James at 'Alex Club' in West Side Chicago where...
...he always played for a dance audience and he made the people jump. "Bobby's Rock" was at that time one of the favourite numbers with the crowd and Elmore used to play [it\] for fifteen minutes and more. You just couldn't stand that hysteric sound coming down on you. The place was rocking, swinging!
The nearest we have to a recording of a 'live' set by James is his last recorded session by Bobby Robinson, in New York City in 1963 shortly before James' death. This session features several takes of "Hand In Hand" which was abandoned and James then played a 'live' set.His best known song is the blues standard "Dust My Broom" (also known as "Dust My Blues"). The song gave its name to James' band, The Broomdusters
. The song's opening slide guitar riff is one of the best-known sounds in all of blues. It is essentially the same riff that appeared in the recording of the same song by Robert Johnson, but James played the riff with electric slide guitar. B. B. King used this riff to open his 1953 #1 R&B hit "Please Love Me." It was even transformed into a doo-wop chorus on Jesse Stone's "Down in the Alley", recorded by The Clovers and Elvis Presley. Stone transcribed the riff as: "Changety changety changety changety chang chang!"
Many electric slide guitar players will admit to the influence of James' style. He was also a major influence on such successful blues guitarists as Homesick James, John Littlejohn, Hound Dog Taylor, J. B. Hutto and many others. He also influenced many rock guitarists such as The Rolling Stones' Brian Jones (Keith Richards wrote in his book that at the time he met Brian Jones, Brian called himself Elmo Lewis, and that he wanted to be Elmore James), Canned Heat's Alan Wilson and in particular Fleetwood Mac's Jeremy Spencer. John Mayall included "Mr. James" on his 1969 "Looking Back" album as a dedication to James. James' songs "Done Somebody Wrong" and "One Way Out" were often covered by The Allman Brothers Band, who were influenced by James. James was also covered by 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 - James' fellow bluesman Albert King recorded a cover of "The Sky Is Crying", and Stevie Ray Vaughan copied King's version of the song. 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
.The most famous guitarist who admired James was Jimi Hendrix. Early in his career Hendrix styled himself variously as 'Maurice James' and subsequently as 'Jimmy James.' This, according to former bandmate and recording partner Lonnie Youngblood, was a tribute to Elmore James. There is a photo of Hendrix (that can be seen in the sleeve of his Blues
album) in London wearing his iconic military jacket and holding Elmore James's UK LP The Best Of Elmore James.
(Hendrix was frequently photographed throughout his performing career holding LP covers of musicians that influenced him.) He performed James' "Bleeding Heart" during 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 as well as recording two different versions of it in the studio.James is mentioned in The Beatles' song "For You Blue": while John Lennon plays the slide guitar (James' trademark), George Harrison says, "Elmore James got nothin' on this, baby." Other artists influenced by Elmore James include Frank ZappaThe Grateful Dead, John Primer (Blue Steel
CD), Billy Gibbons and Eric Clapton are other notable artists to have recorded Elmore James covers. Clapton also recorded a song with Jimmy Page called "Tribute to Elmore" that first appeared on the 1968 compilation album Blues Anytime Vol. 1
. On the 1974 record Second Album
, Roy Buchanan included an instrumental song he wrote titled "Tribute to Elmore James," which begins with James' classic slide guitar riff, and uses his soloing style throughout.James's older cousin "Homesick" James Williamson, a regular companion from an early age, played with James in the Broomdusters from 1957 on.