Rollin’ and Tumblin’ with the King of The Slide Guitar, Elmore James
by Robert Dean
In the annals of the blues, there are a few guys who get the nod for all time: Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Skip James, Leadbelly, Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, etc. But, then there are the deeper cuts, the artists people talk about, but it’s unsure if they really know them. The thing about the blues is that, despite being one of the cultural backbones of American identity, much of its lore is shrouded in darkness. Which, for its context works for the music and gives a thumbprint like no other.
One artist who continually reaches up out of the murk and grabs you straight like a zombie from the grave is the slide guitar mad man, Elmore James. While his name might feel familiar, or you’ve heard him mentioned on a rock and roll documentary – you have.
His legend isn’t that of those mentioned before him. There aren’t movies in the works, books about him are hard to come by (at last count there’s a whopping one), and his records aren’t collector’s items. James is an underground, under-appreciated legend of the blues. He may not be a household name, but if you ask anyone who knows the blues, and they’ll all agree he’s paramount to all comers.
Ranked #30 of Rolling Stone’s greatest guitar players of all time, James was a guitar player who defied what the blues could sound like. While Muddy’s playing is concise, tight, Elmore James riffs are nasty as a dead possum lying in a gutter. He played an acoustic with a pickup drilled in, which gave his sound a ghastly, ghoulish quality unlike anyone else in that late 50’s classic blues era. Coming up from Mississippi, James’ music wasn’t quite the Chicago sound, but something that met at the crossroads of the new school brewing in the north, but firmly rooted in the traditions of the Deep South.
Dust My Broom is quintessential James filth, The Sky is Crying was a roof burner long before Stevie Ray Vaughn ever covered it. Go through the Elmore James catalog and you’ll see all of the greatest tipped their caps to the man known as “The King of The Slide Guitar.”
Other bluesmen feared James with his raucous performances and envied how good he was with a guitar in his hands. No one knew how to play a slide guitar like Elmore James. His ferocious playing, coupled with his raspy, growling voice, he was a unique talent, in the vein of Howlin’ Wolf. When Elmore made his way up to Chicago, he was ready. Packing the clubs, and cutting records, James was poised to be a force to be reckoned with in the world of popular music.
But, life eluded James early. At just 45, Elmore James died of a heart attack. He was on the heels of establishing himself as one of the premier bluesmen. He was booked for his first European trip with the world looking bright as the sun. Today, we’re left with a treasure trove of records that swings, that growls and moans. Elmore James isn’t a household name, not for lack of trying but because death came too early for such an enigmatic soul. Get right with the universe and get Elmore James into your life. If you have the slightest interest in the blues, there’s none finer than The King who was gone too soon.