(Elmore James photo by George Adins, courtesy Robert Sacré)
Revered singer/guitarist, ELMORE JAMES (1918-1963), was a key figure of the Chicago blues scene in the 1950s and his unique style – combining loud, amplified slide guitar licks with declamatory vocals – was hugely influential, especially regarding the sound of the British beat groups of the 1960s (including the Rolling Stones and Fleetwood Mac).
The iconic blues maven’s life is the subject of a fascinating biography, ‘The Amazing Secret History of Elmore James,’ by American author, Steve Franz, who also hosts a Stateside radio show, ‘Blues Unlimited’ (to find out more go to http://bluesunlimited.podomatic.com).
SJF’s US correspondent John Wisniewski recently caught up with Steve to find about more about the background to his book and the enduring influence of Elmore James…
Why did you choose Elmore James to write about? What interested you about his life?
Well, that’s a good question. Like a lot of people, I imagine, I sort of “fell” into it more than anything. The book opens with a true story of an experience I had one day in 1987 regarding Elmore James, and I can honestly say it was one of those experiences that changes your life. The interesting thing about Elmore is – over the years – I’ve heard a lot of people say something exactly along those same lines: that hearing the music of Elmore James for the first time was a life-altering experience. How was it that Brian Jones (of the Rolling Stones) put it? Something like “the Earth shifted on its axis” when he first heard Elmore (loud laugh). I also remember talking with Mike Rowe (who grew up in London, and is the author of the critically acclaimed book “Chicago Breakdown”), and he mentioned his experience with the first Elmore record he ever heard, ‘Coming Home.’ It’s a fierce, bluesy rocker that Elmore cut in 1957. And Mike’s comment about it was something along the lines of “Well, then. Nothing will ever quite be the same again, will it?” To hear words like that come from a rather reserved, and quietly staid English gentlemen just made the observation, to my thinking anyway, all the more poignant.
I think the thing that really “hooked” me about Elmore, though, is that – sure – there are great blues musicians. Many in fact. But there is something kind of special and a little different about Elmore. People still talk about his music with a reverence that you don’t often find with other blues artists. It’s really undeniable. I don’t know if I really adequately addressed that in the book, but I did put a lot of quotes in from other people that I think sort of addressed that issue. Another way of saying it might be this way — that Elmore James was what people refer to as a “musician’s musician.” It’s also interesting to me that when I had a chance to talk to Cosimo Matassa (after the book came out, and someone who had recorded him twice, down in New Orleans), that he pretty much told me, without any real prompting, that Elmore was one of the more memorable musicians that came through his door. That there was something about him that stood out from the regular crowd. And this coming from a guy who held hundreds and hundreds of sessions over the years!
So, going back to that day in 1987…. I guess you could say I became hooked. I was commuting to grad school at the time, and I listened to Elmore every day, on the one hour commute coming and going, I think for something like 7 months straight. After a while, I think I began to realize that the course of my life was inevitably going to change, somehow. And it did. And I changed schools, went to Memphis State University, enrolled in their Ethnomusicology program, and wrote my master’s thesis on Elmore. Which later became the book.
Which artists influenced Elmore James?
Well, of course, the obvious one is Robert Johnson. That’s a relative given. And while I don’t want to take anything away from Johnson either, there’s still a very thin possibility that they might’ve influenced each other. Someone down in the Mississippi Delta claimed that they spoke to someone who remembers Elmore singing “Dust My Broom” (his signature piece) around the time of the 1927 flood. So…… who knows…. you know? He would’ve been just a little kid at the time. So I’m somewhat skeptical about that, but the idea does raise some interesting questions.
Other influences that I think have been overlooked were from Tampa Red and also Robert Nighthawk. Tampa Red’s slide guitar playing was smooth and advanced, and likewise, so was Robert Nighthawk’s (who fell under Tampa Red’s spell, basically). Nighthawk often performed numbers from the Tampa Red catalog, and then, so did Elmore. It’s safe to say that while Tampa was a hugely important figure in the blues, in terms of his body of work and slide guitar playing, I think you could also say that Robert Nighthawk influenced virtually every person in Chicago who played slide guitar in the post-war years, including such key figures as Muddy Waters, Elmore James, and Earl Hooker. So, I don’t think you can trace Elmore’s roots *just* back to the Delta. You have to look at what Tampa Red and Nighthawk were doing, and what they were doing was technically advanced slide guitar solos that were different from what a typical Delta Blues guitarist with a slide would do.
But, obviously, there’s more than that, too. If you go back and look at the songs Elmore covered over the years — and he was a really great interpreter of traditional material — there’s songs that go back to John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson (the first one) and Leroy Carr…. and Memphis Minnie and Jazz Gillum…. and others. So while Robert Johnson, Tampa Red, and Robert Nighthawk would be the “big three” I guess, there’s others too, that Elmore obviously heard and listened to — either on the radio, or he had their records and listened to them at home.
How far reaching has Elmore James’ music been on rock music?
Well, that’s a very good question, and I think the answer isn’t really a very obvious one, when you start to really look at it. Throughout the course of my research, I’d always heard people ‘talking’ about what an influence Elmore was on rock music, but I always found it hard to pinpoint exactly. But it is there, if you know where to look, and when you do, it starts to come out in bits and pieces. Such as Canned Heat playing Elmore James styled numbers from time to time (I think they did one at Woodstock, if I remember correctly); the Beatles very coyly dropping his name during one of John Lennon’s guitar solos (‘For You Blue’ – ‘Elmore James got nothin’ on this cat!’ – or words to that effect); and of course, well, a lot of folks have made mention of the fact that Jimi Hendrix was once spotted in a snapshot with a couple of LPs under his arm – one of them, an Elmore James, album, of course. And truth be told, the British Invaders dearly LOVED Elmore. And not just folks like Brian Jones of the Stones, or John Mayall and Eric Clapton (Mayall recorded a tribute song; Clapton did a credible nod with his ‘Tribute to Elmore’), but also, of course, bands like Fleetwood Mac, who got their start playing the blues – thanks, of course, to early group member Jeremy Spencer, who took “Elmore fanaticism” to a whole new level, I think (loud laugh).
But if you take a step back and look at Elmore more in terms of his influence on blues and rhythm and blues at the time he was first hitting it really big — 1952, and 1953 — first of all, you’ve got all sorts of folks doing songs that sound like they’re incorporating his trademark riff into them. B.B. King was one of the ones that did, with a tune called ‘Please Love Me’ (1953). He doesn’t play Elmore’s signature riff with a bottleneck, as Elmore does, but with has “bare fingers.” And truth be told, B.B. King had a BIGGER hit doing the Elmore James guitar riff in a song than Elmore ever did! I always thought that was interesting point. Plus, well, need I say that Chuck Berry has long professed to be an Elmore James fan. And that driving rhythm that he made so popular. Not unlike the driving rhythm one finds on some of Elmore’s greatest rockers. So, if I had to draw a lineage, I’d say….. there you go…… Elmore James….. Chuck Berry….. Rock and Roll. In other words, maybe not so complicated after all. Interestingly, both Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley — two bluesy R&B performers who can also rightly be called Rock ‘n’ Rolllers — did numbers that give a direct or indirect nod to Elmore.
And, finally, let’s not forget the Allman Brothers. One of the first albums I ever owned, ironically, had covers of ‘One Way Out’ and ‘Done Somebody Wrong’ on them. Of course, I was just a little kid at the time. No idea who Elmore James was, then. In retrospect, I’ve always found that kind of an interesting bit of serendipity, though!
Are you a record collector? Do you have many of Elmore’s 78s and 45s?
Yes, I am, and as a matter of fact, I do. The Elmore James book is heavily illustrated with “label shots” (images of the original 45 and 78rpm records), which many people have commented on over the years.
The impetus for that really came about as a result of some work I did with Rhino, on a reissue of Elmore James stuff. Their philosophy about reissues was this: get the information off of the original issue — whatever that might be — and use that. So, in terms of the song titles, the authorship and publishing credits, etc. — that’s what they did. And I really liked that historical approach, to see what the historical record indicated from the very first known source of issue for a particular song. In Elmore’s case, since he was active as a recording artist in the 1950s and early 1960s, that meant that the bulk of his recorded work originally appeared on 78s and/or 45s. Later on, in the 1960s, some “alternate takes” and “LP only” cuts (i.e., stuff that was never issued on 45 or 78) started to come out as well.
But, I like the historical approach of finding the original source – the first known source of publication or issue of a particular song. In a way, it’s the “real thing” — and then when you realize that in some cases (but certainly not all), the master tapes were later lost — in that case, a good clean 78 becomes a rather valuable historical document because then you might have a better sounding version than what is generally available now. Like I said — it doesn’t always happen, but has happened with Elmore several times.
Another reason for wanting to (somewhat fanatically) collect anything remotely related to Elmore was so that I could properly nail down the discographical details of his recorded legacy. In many cases, after I listened to a particular LP or CD, I would find that subtle mistakes had been made in previous discographies. There’s nothing like getting your hands on the original source material….. I found it absolutely invaluable.
Of course, I started collecting LPs when I was a kid. I don’t have as many LPs as maybe I should have….. but at least I can say that I spent a lot of my youth in used record stores. It kept me off the streets anyway (loud laugh).
Any future plans to write another biography?
Well, yes…. I think anyone who writes a book naturally thinks about the next one. And, well, time just has a way of slipping by, doesn’t it?
Yes, many people I’d like write a book on, or at least topics that I think would be fascinating…. or would have been. Some of them might be too late. I always thought that a Studs Terkel-style book about Elvis Presley – an oral history, so to speak – would be fascinating. But, hard to say anymore. Malvina Reynolds is another person I think definitely deserves one. Crying shame that no one’s attempted one, really. Same thing with John Prine and also Roger McGuinn. And while it might surprise some people to hear me toss these ideas out, the thing to me that they all have in common — even, to a certain degree, I also put Elmore James in this category — is that they’re all what I would call “American Originals” — in other words, musicians who contributed something unique and enduring; something that constitutes a lasting legacy that sets them apart from other musicians and performers. The latter two – Prine and McGuinn, I imagine will be taken care of in time. But, speaking from a professional standpoint, I’d love to do one on Malvina Reynolds. That would be cool.
As far as the blues are concerned, my next book will probably not be a biography, but I definitely do have a topic in mind that interests me, and I think it would make for some good and fascinating reading. The problem is getting started, of course! Once I get to that stage — well, there’s usually no stopping me. But, yes, getting started is the hard part, for sure.
As things sit right now, most of the major players of Chicago Blues have had bio’s written about them. Muddy Waters has two, Howlin’ Wolf and Little Walter each have one. Someone has been working on one of Sonny Boy Williamson #2 for many years, but I’m starting to lose hope on that. The problem with Sonny Boy is that his childhood is just largely a complete blank. And he was well known for, well…… shall we say….. “exaggerating” from time to time (loud laugh). In any event, if the Sonny Boy one never comes out, and if nobody else ever gets around to it, I’ll try to make sure it gets done eventually. I’ll have to get back to you on that, though…..
Thanks again for the opportunity to do this. It’s been fun to go back and think about some of these comments and questions all over again. Elmore James is still one of my favorites. Nothing like him….. but then again, I’m kind of opinionated when it comes to Elmore…..
‘The Amazing Secret Life Of Elmore James’ is published by BlueSource publications and is priced at $34.95