Elmore James had three heart attacks. Either he ate a-lot of cheeseburgers or the guitar riff he laid down on “Dust My Broom” took his ass out. But let’s “Begin the Beguine”. Elmore first hit the bottle in Richland, Mississippi though he probably just sucked on a rag being born into the dirt floor of dirt poor. As a young man Elmore played the juke joints hanging around none other than Robert Johnson, the King of Delta Blues.
Before WWII was over he took a trip with the U.S. Navy to Guam but since he’s not know as General Elmore James I’ll have to assume it didn’t work out. A-fore long Elmore was back in Mississippi and eventually Chicago playing side course to main dishes like Howlin’ Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson. Elmore cut his teeth, honed his chops, he marinated. Elmore had the day job blues too, he worked as a radio repairman. In his spare time he hotwired and pimped his amps to fuel them with the white hot heat of distortion. Not heavy metal distortion but the paid price distortion, the holes in the cones distortion, the handful of BBQ sauce distortion that makes the pulse in your wrist beat. It was with “Dust My Broom” that he took the raw materials Robert Johnson left, pulled them through his amp and welded them to the atomic age with a full throttle throw down of fury that made Elmore th’ man. Elmore’s slide playing is like a hand going up a skirt. The bottleneck shaking up along the strings toward the lipstick tube, pulling spark and flame out of the guitar, is like opening the oven door. Even on my little boom box. That’s just how the man played. Elmore sings like the cops are at the door. Elmore sings like he’s going down. Elmore sings like he needs therapy, like he needs relaxers. Lucky for the man spinning wax he got neither. From “Look on Yonder Wall” to “12 Year Old Boy” the urgency he lays down is enough to make you book a transatlantic flight just to kiss someone goodbye. For all this cold hard blues Elmore was backed by The Broomdusters, a band that could deliver on piano, bass and drums with maximum volume. They had volume knobs for rings. They were volume dealers! Somebody stop me.
Enough about the passion let’s talk fatalism and paranoia, let’s talk unrequited love. In “Done Somebody Wrong” Elmore’s band pounds out the beat and then Elmore cuts in like a saw made of lightning. The sense of terror and paranoia in his voice is heart attack serious, the breaks on the slide guitar are a blood transfusion. “My momma told me the end would come, but I wanted to have some fun.” He doesn’t extol, he pleads. In “The Twelve Year Old Boy” He starts it off ”I feel bad I feel terrible.” Why say more? By the time the guitar solo beats the door down it’s so full of chaotic energy it’s like a barn full of hornets. They say Dante wrote his romantic works based on seeing Beatrice on the street once. Elmore knows of what Dante speaks. Maybe they were kin over the swath of centuries. Elmore’s woman shakes hands with every man she meets, when he sees her out walking in the street. He saw her out late last Saturday night, he told his baby everything was alright. His baby ain’t buying it. Elmore and Dante sit watching the girl go by. Not watching “the girls go by” like Dino but “the girl” go by. The one. The heartbreaker, the one that stirred up his heart to three heart attacks. It’s that and life and Elmore died in 1963.
Blues Masters: The Very Best Of Elmore James
is a fine place to learn all this and more.