Personalities | Elmore James | The Bottleneck Electrified | Guitar Heroes

The swooping, full-octave slide-guitar riff that opened Elmore James’s (1918–63) first record, ‘Dust My Broom’, in 1951 not only electrified the legacy of Robert Johnson, it also established one of the basic riffs of post-war blues.

Bottleneck guitar had always been part of the blues, but James was the first to use it in a hard rocking electric-blues context. The fat, distorted sound he got for his primal riff was no accident either; in his day-job, James repaired radios, and he customized the components and configurations of his amplifier to get a dirty, sustained tone. These modifications are now a standard option on any modern amplifier.

James cut several versions of ‘Dust My Broom’, recording a new one every time he switched record labels, which was often. And many of his other songs were close copies, such as ‘Dust My Blues’, ‘I Believe’ and ‘Wild About You Baby’. But James was no one-trick pony. His version of Tampa Red’s ‘It Hurts Me Too’ and his own interchangeable ‘The Sun Is Shining’ and ‘The Sky Is Crying’ each have a slow-burning intensity and desperation that threaten to implode before the song ends.

Born Elmore Brooks in Richland, Mississippi, James started learning guitar in his teens and hung out with Sonny Boy Williamson II and Robert Johnson, from whom he learned ‘I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom’. He played regularly with Williamson and began playing electric guitar when he formed a band in the early 1940s. His first version of ‘Dust My Broom’ featured Williamson on harmonica. In 1952, he moved to Chicago, where his primal riffs were an instant success. He formed The Broomdusters and soon became one of the most popular attractions on the live scene.

James had always suffered from heart problems that were not helped by his excessive drinking and asthma. There is no evidence of any frailties on his final recordings made in New Orleans in 1961, featuring the frisky ‘Look On Yonder Wall’ and ‘Shake Your Moneymaker’, but in 1963, he died from a heart attack in Chicago. His legacy lived on among British blues bands like John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and Fleetwood Mac, and American bands like The Paul Butterfield Blues Band and The Allman Brothers Band.

Essential Recordings

Solo: ‘Dust My Broom’

Solo: ‘It Hurts Me Too’

Solo: ‘The Sky Is Crying’

Solo: ‘Shake Your Moneymaker’

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