Elmore James (January 27, 1918 – May 24, 1963) was an American blues guitarist, singer, song writer and band leader. He was known as "The King of the Slide Guitar" and had a unique guitar style, noted for his use of loud amplification and his stirring voice.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, one in Humphreys County and the other in Rankin County). 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 surname. His parents adopted an orphaned boy, Robert Holston, at some point.
Elmore began making music at age 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."
Other well-known musicians of that time with whom he played included the "second"' Sonny Boy Williamson and the legendary Robert Johnson. (There is a dispute as to whether Robert Johnson or Elmore wrote James's trademark song, "Dust My Broom".. Elmore was still under 20 when Johnson had recorded his version of the song.) Although Johnson died in 1938, James (like many other musicians) was strongly influenced by him, and also by Kokomo Arnold and Tampa Red. Elmore recorded several of Tampa Red's songs, and even inherited from his band two of his famous "Broomdusters", 'Little' Johnny Jones (piano) and Odie Payne (drums).
An important side to Elmore's character which may have hastened his demise was his lifelong taste for, and manufacture of, moonshine whiskey, to which he was introduced at an early age. Alcohol killed his bandmates and friends Willie Love and Johnny Jones at an early age, and probably others too. His regular rhythm guitarist Homesick James maintained his longevity was due to his not partaking of the heavy drinking sessions after — and often during — gigs, a refusal that was unpopular with the rest of the band. Elmore was also reportedly an extremely fast driver who also loved hunting with guns and dogs down in Mississippi, whence he would head off for protracted periods.
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, Elmore 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 pick ups. 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 contract with Trumpet Records to sign up with the Bihari Brothers through Ike Turner (who played guitar and piano on a couple of his early Bihari recordings). James' "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 for whom "It Hurts Me Too" was a hit. His backing musicians were known as the Broomdusters. In 1959 he began recording what are perhaps his best sides 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.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 the powerful sound coming from a modified hollow-bodied traditional acoustic guitar. He most often played using a slide, but on several recordings he plays without. His voice and style was as instantly recognizable as B. B.'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. Muddy Waters took the Belgian blues fan (Georges Adins) to see Elmore 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..."
Most electric slide guitar players will admit to the massive influence of James' style. He was also a major influence on successful blues guitarists as Homesick James (Elmore's older cousin who was a member of Elmore's band The Broomdusters since 1957 and featured on many of his recordings), John Littlejohn, Hound Dog Taylor, J.B. Hutto and many others. He also influenced many rock guitarists such as The Rolling Stones' Brian Jones and Fleetwood Mac's Jeremy Spencer.Elmore James' songs "Done Somebody Wrong" and "One Way Out" were covered by The Allman Brothers Band, who cited him as a major influence. 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 .Perhaps the most famous guitarist who admired Elmore James was Jimi Hendrix. Early in Hendrix's career, he styled himself variously as 'Maurice James' and subsequently as 'Jimmy James'. This, according to former band mate and recording partner Lonnie Youngblood, was a tribute to Elmore James.
Elmore James died of his third heart attack in Chicago, Illinois in 1963, just prior to a tour of Europe with that year's American Folk Blues Festival. He is buried in the Newport Baptist Church Cemetery, Ebenezer, Holmes County, Mississippi.