Elmore James
By: Brian Berger | Categories: HiLo Heroes

How can something so goddamn loud be so mysterious? That’s only the most obvious question listeners to the explosive music of ELMORE JAMES (1918-63) will confront. His biography until age 33 tantalizes: raised in the Mississippi Delta and likely contact with many pre-war blues giants; a few years’ Navy stint, including the invasion of Guam; returned home, worked in his stepbrother’s radio shop. Not until January 1951 would James record, with Sonny Boy Williamson and His House Rockers. Later that year, he cut “Dust My Broom” with such force it seems to emerge from nowhere: James’ fiery slide guitar, searing vocals, and his unstoppable small band stomp make it one of the defining, galvanic monuments in all electric blues. (James + electricity — he played a highly amplified acoustic guitar — was like alchemy or something.) He could lay down grooves as relentless as a proto-James Brown (“Rollin’ and Tumblin’”), sing a devastating deadpan plaint about “The Twelve Year Old Boy” (who took his baby away), and push so hard into the future that avant-garde rockers of the Sixties (Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, Jimi Hendrix, others) would count him a great influence. There exists no film of James, no live recordings — he was never even interviewed; his death on the cusp of a popular blues revival which would revere him compounds the loss. There’s just that sound.

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Historian, journalist, and poet Brian Berger is coeditor of New York Calling. He has written for many publications, a few of which even still exist.