Friday, May 24, 2013

Elmore James Remembered


Today marks the 50th anniversary of the death, by heart attack at the age of only 45, of one of the true, under-recognized greats of post-War Chicago Blues, Elmore James. Indeed, I would venture to guess that many of those who have even heard of James know of him only via an off-hand remark by blues scholar Dan Aykroyd's Elwood J. Blues in the 1980 film The Blues Brothers. But if one has ever listened to the early, Brian Jones-led Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, The Allman Brothers, Johnny Winter, ZZ Top, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimmie Vaughan's Fabulous Thunderbirds, or even the Beatles (on their late song "For You Blue" from Let It Be), one has heard the indelible lick for which James is most famous. This, of course, is the bottleneck slide electric guitar-propelled shuffle which he learned from fellow Mississippian Robert Johnson, which was destined to become one of the most recognizable sounds of the blues and its popularized offspring, rock 'n roll.

James's signature song, which gave his backing band their name ("The Broomdusters"), was an electrified version of Johnson's 1936 classic, "(I Believe I'll) Dust My Broom." James, who recorded for multiple labels in the 1950s, recorded the song for each of them, including Flair in 1955, on which, for copyright reasons, he had to rename the song "Dust My Blues." The riff is so perfect, and James's vocals so impassioned, that this is a tune of which I never get tired. I leave you with a number of versions of the song for your listening pleasure.

1. James's original recording for Trumpet Records, Jackson, Mississippi, 1951, with Sonny Boy Williamson II (Rice Miller) on harp:

2. James's searing early-1960s recording on Fire, with saxophones replacing Williamson's harp:

3. Robert Johnson's original 1936 acoustic version:

4. Howlin' Wolf (with a youthful Hubert Sumlin on guitar and an aged Son House snapping his fingers), from 1966:

5. Johnny Winter and The Allman Brothers Band, 1972 (Johnny and the late Duane Allman: history's two greatest slide players):

6. Johnny Winter with Derek Trucks, 2012:

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