Now Spinning: The Resurrection of Elmore James

‘Elmore James’ got nothin’ on this baby’
-George Harrison

By the time George Harrison shouted out Elmore James on ‘For You Blue’, James had been dead for seven years and missed the opportunity for the middle-aged breakthrough that Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and others experienced during the 1960’s blues revival. Of course, Elmore James is a household name in his own right, contributing ‘Dust My Broom’, ‘Done Somebody Wrong’, ‘The Sky is Crying’ and ‘Shake Your Moneymaker’ to the blues canon. Obviously, all spectacular and mightily influential tracks – covered by many classic rock blues revivalists including The Allman Brothers Band, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix and The Black Crowes. None of the above are included on this brilliant compilation, that we’ll use to take a deeper look into Elmore James and his influence beyond that classic slide lick that opens ‘Dust My Broom.’

Perhaps because the intro to ‘Dust My Broom’ is in fact so memorable and influential, James, like Chuck Berry and Johnny B. Goode, is too often considered to be a bit of a one-trick pony who recycled the same quick flurry of slide notes over and over again. As Frank Zappa once said, ” Elmore kept playing the same lick over and over, but I get the feeling he meant it.” Who knows whether Zappa was serious, but if he was, he was dead wrong. While that classic riff does appear in a handful of James compositions this Resurrection of Elmore James compilation shows how versatile and creative artist he was, completely ahead of his time, and then some.

The album opens with ‘Hawaiian Boogie’ a slide guitar, piano and saxophone instrumental workout where James’ tropical-tinged slide guitar can only be compared to Derek Trucks’ modern-day work with visceral playing and a truly otherworldly tone exploding from the speakers. Prior to recording music, Elmore James worked in a radio repair shop where he learned soldering and repair skills that allowed him to customize his guitars and coax sounds out of them that still sound revolutionary sixty years later. Funnily enough, John Lennon’s lap steel guitar solo that inspired George’s Elmore James shoutout resembles James’ ambitious playing on ‘Hawaiian Boogie’ more than his familiar blues riffs, indicating that The Beatles were well aware of the extent and diversity of James’ talents. Perhaps in order to emphasize his versatility, the album is bookended with these unique jams, wrapping up with ‘Hawaiian Boogie (No. 2)’. Both showcase some of the most creative slide playing ever cut to record.

Elsewhere, a couple of retreads of the classic ‘Dust My Broom’ riff are mixed with far more unique takes, such as ‘Sho ‘Nuff I Do’ and ‘One More Drink’ that show off his powerful, soulful vocals and find him delivering more straightforward stellar guitar solos without using his trademark slide. The instrumental ‘Elmo’s Shuffle’ is the closest he ever came to rock and roll, and serves a glimpse of where his sound may have headed had he not died at the young age of 45, while traces of James’ playing in ‘Can’t Stop Lovin’ would show up all over The Allman Brothers Band early work with Duane. Several of these songs, including ‘Late Hours at Midnight’ which features perhaps his finest moaning and howling vocals, are not available on Spotify and largely forgotten by today’s digital generation.

Sadly, Elmore James died of a heart attack on the eve of the 1963 American Folk Blues Festival tour of Europe, which would have allowed him to tremendously expand his audience and influence. Not to mention, he died without the opportunity to even include a full LP, recording nothing but singles in his all too short career. With masters of his material reportedly destroyed in the tragic Universal fire, it’s extremely unlikely that there’s any unreleased material still lying around in the vaults or that we’ll ever receive an album that displays his diversity as well as this one. The hits are mandatory of course, and extremely available on any format. This material… not so much, and with the masters likely destroyed, won’t be getting any easier to find. Pick it up at your local record store or on Discogs for a reasonable price while you still can, crank it loud enough to rattle the windows and enjoy the one and only king of the slide guitar.

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