Despite his brief career – spanning little more than a decade before his early death in 1963 – bluesman Elmore James affected rock and roll in a way that few of his contemporaries could claim.
Profoundly influenced by blues guitarists such as Kokomo Arnold and the legendary Robert Johnson, who taught him to play bottleneck, Elmore James began playing on an instrument he made from a lard can.
He spent his apprenticeship in the company of the harmonica player Sonny Boy Williamson II who had changed his name from Rice Miller to capitalise on the success of a namesake bluesman. Together, the pair did the rounds of the Mississippi juke joints in time-honoured blues fashion, working at sawmills by day and playing by night.
After a spell in the US Navy between 1943 and 1945, James’s break came in 1947 when he played the prestigious King Biscuit Time radio show.
With the help of Williamson, he secured his first recording contract and relocated to Chicago.
Fixing his steel guitar with an electronic pickup, James and his backing group The Broomdusters stormed the R&B charts throughout the 1950s.
His remake of Robert Johnson’s Dust My Broom (1952) set the style for which he is most remembered – passionate, amplified bottleneck guitar and intense, powerful vocals.
Initially, James was reluctant to grab the limelight, preferring instead the quieter life of a session musician, but his attitude soon changed when the royalties started flowing.
Tasting success, James exploited his Dust My Broom formula to songs such as Dust My Blues and I Believe (basically Dust My Broom with the first verse removed), but he was also responsible for more original gems which were to have a strong effect on the next generation of blues musicians.
Songs such as Shake Your Moneymaker and Bleeding Heart were later to be adopted by Jeremy Spencer from Fleetwood Mac and Jimi Hendrix respectively, while Done Somebody Wrong proved to be a natural vehicle for the slide guitar of Duane Allman in The Allman Brothers Band.
The Rolling Stones‘ Brian Jones was so taken with James’ guitar style that for a while he adopted the pseudonym of Elmo Lewis in tribute to his hero. But perhaps the greatest acknowledgement came from blues giant BB King who readily admitted to adopting elements of James’s style in his own playing.
James’s dominance of the Chicago blues scene was, unfortunately, to be short-lived. Dropped by his record company when his popularity began to wane and blacklisted by the American Federation of Musicians for using non-union players, James became ill and turned to the bottle for solace.
In May 1963, on the verge of a comeback, he died of a heart attack at the home of his cousin, Homesick James. He was just 45.