Monday, August 04, 2014

Elmore James

When I started fooling around on the guitar I had a really cheap, fucked up instrument with a plywood body and a neck that was loose and skew so that the strings were really high off the frets, making it difficult and painful to attempt to play chords. Because I was heavily into blues the solution was to play slide guitar, or at least my untutored take on it, using a piece of metal tubing I found in our garage.

At that point I had read about slide guitar but had no clue of the technique required or the chord structure or progressions of any music, much less the blues. I was just making a noise in my room, approximating what I heard on record without knowing what I was doing or was supposed to be doing.

My main influence, or source, was the Elmore James style slide tunes played by the early Fleetwood Mac, who played "Shake Your Moneymaker" and "Dr Brown" and the like, which were either James tunes or slide blues in the style of James. The basic Elmore James slide riff, as epitomised by "Dust My Broom", is a powerful, almost primitive thing, completely unlike the much more subtle work of, say, Ry Cooder or Duane Allman, and could be unbelievably exciting backed by a stomping shuffle, with our without horn riffs. My version of it was simplistic and obviously way off the mark. I just had no idea of how to imitate that signature slide lick.

The closest I got to it was when I recorded some of my attempts on a very cheap cassette recorder with low battery strength. The result was a distorted, over amped sound that made my cheap acoustic sound electric and vibrant. It was the best thing I ever recorded back then. Much later I read how the Rolling Stones employed much the same technique in recording songs like "Jumping Jack Flash" and "Street Fighting Man" where the guitars are acoustic and it is the method of recording through a small tape recorder that gives the music the big sound. Apparently, in the case of Elmore James, his signature sound was at least partly due to the fat that he was playing an amplified hollow body guitar and not a straightforward electric guitar.

A couple of years into my record collection I took stock and realised that I could probably fill both sides of a C90 cassette tape with various versions of "Dust My Broom" taken from a number of records in that collection. It was perhaps a project I should have attempted but somehow never did. This song did seem to be ubiquitous in blues recordings. I could have started with the Robert Johnson version from King of the Delta Blues Singers and ended, at that time, with the ZZ Top take on the venerable classic on Deguello. It's a pity that Elmore, who claimed to have written the song, did not live long enough to be able to live off the royalties.

Jeremy Spencer of the blues version of Fleetwood Mac made an entire career out of imitation the slide and vocal styles of Elmore James and I must confess that these rambunctious slide workouts, particularly on the Blue Horizon double album Fleetwood Mac: The Vintage Years, were the tasty little numbers, more than the introspective Peter Green compositions, that made Fleetwood Mac my top favourite White blues band. The signature raucous Elmore James style reminded me of what someone said about Albert King: the riffs are basic and limited and basically you know from tune to tune exactly what you're going to get but, damn, each time the ferocity of the attack is just stunning and awesome. George Thorogood is another example of a young White blues musician who was obviously in thrall to the Elmore James style (although not exclusively) when he started out.

Nor everything that James recorded was an imitation of "Dust My Broom" although there plenty variations on this theme, and if one listens to a collection of tracks from James one is pleasantly surprised by the variety in rhythm and texture.

One of the reasons why Elmore James ranks amongst the all-time top ten, if not top five, of bluesmen is that so many of his compositions are standards recorded by so many other bluesmen and women down the years. "Dust My Broom" is only one of many. Just off the top of my head there are also "It Hurts Me Too," "The Sky Is Crying," "Stranger Blues," "Got To Move," "Bleeding Heart" and "Shake Your Moneymaker." Elmore's big, tough, raw voice was one of the most impassioned in blues. It was nothing like the watchful, deceptive calm of the Muddy Waters approach and in its very tortured extreme Elmore made Howlin Wolf sound like a lounge singer. Perhaps not really, but Elmore's passion seemed born of deep hurt whereas Wolf's passion seemed born of tough defiance.

It would be odious to rank blues people into a top ten or into a hierarchy but if one were to do that Elmore would comfortably fit into that top ten, perhaps even the top five. He was that good and that important. No blues collection of any worth could fail to have at least one good, broad ranging compilation of Elmore James tunes.


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