One of the founders of the Chicago style of blues, Elmore James was born on 27 January 1918 on a farm near Richland, Mississippi. His mother was Leora Brooks, and his father has been assumed to be Joe Willie James, who took on that role to the child. James and his family were sharecroppers, and they traveled widely throughout the Delta region of Mississippi, looking for better working conditions. By 1937 they had moved to the town of Belzoni, where Elmore James met legendary Mississippi bluesman Robert Johnson. The still-unknown James was trying to create his own style of playing. He had long exhibited a passion for making music, first with a diddley bow and later with a guitar, but he had not distinguished himself from other itinerant bluesmen performing in the Delta’s juke joints. Johnson heavily influenced James’s playing, and James went on to record Johnson’s “Dust My Broom” in 1951 for the Trumpet label. It became James’s biggest hit.
James’s musical development was sidetracked when he was drafted into the US Navy during World War II, serving in the Pacific and participating in the invasion of Guam. After his discharge, James returned to Mississippi and formed occasional partnerships with his friends Aleck Miller (Sonny Boy Williamson II) and Homesick James Williamson. In the late 1940s James toured the South, playing in small clubs and beginning to establish a reputation as a frenetic electric guitar player and soulful singer. By 1951 he came to the attention of Lillian McMurry, who recorded his first sessions for her fledgling Trumpet label. The exceptional sales of these early recordings prompted James to move to Chicago, where he played for large urban audiences hungry for aggressive electric blues.
With his band, the Broomdusters, James excited Chicago audiences with a snarling, fiery electric guitar sound that foreshadowed the work of Jimi Hendrix, who later acknowledged this debt when he recorded James’s “Bleeding Heart.” Never quite comfortable in Chicago or any other big city, James repeatedly returned to Canton, Mississippi, home of his half-brother, Robert Holsten. Various labels enticed James to travel to such diverse locations as Los Angeles, Chicago, New Orleans, and New York City to record. Although better known for covering the work of others, such as Tampa Red’s “It Hurts Me Too,” James wrote songs, including “The Sky Is Crying” and “Hand in Hand.”
Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, James split his time between Chicago and Mississippi. On 24 May 1963 he died of a heart attack in Chicago, never realizing much fame in his lifetime but becoming an important stylistic influence on a later generation of bluesmen, both black and white, including Hound Dog Taylor, B. B. King, George Thorogood, and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
- Alan Balfour, Soul Bag (May 1983)
- Mike Leadbitter, Nothing but the Blues (1971)
- Robert Palmer, Deep Blues: A Musical and Cultural History of the Mississippi Delta (1981)