Elmore James

Dust My BroomTrumpet 146
I Held My Baby Last NightMeteor 5000
Can't Stop Lovin'Flair 1014
The Sky Is CryingFire 1016
Rollin' And Tumblin'Fire 1024
Done Somebody WrongFire 1031
Look On Yonder WallFire 504
Shake Your MoneymakerFire 504
Anna LeeFire 1503
It Hurts Me TooEnjoy 2015
Bonus Track
Everyday I Have The BluesEnjoy 2027


Elmore James playlist



Contributors: Dave Stephens … with assistance from Cal Taylor

There’s a select group of artists who, in the eyes of the world, are defined by their debut disc. Some of those artists faded afterwards and are today seen as one-hit-wonders, that’s if they’re recalled at all. Others, like Procol Harum and Booker T. & the M.G.’s, went on to have successful careers but never quite severed that unbreakable cord which tied them to their first releases.

Elmore James has that relationship to Dust My Broom, often called by the name it was given on the release of another version, Dust My Blues four years later (which record eventually saw release nine years after that in the UK, his first single release here in 1964). I didn’t know any of that when I bought the LP, The Best Of Elmore James shortly after its release here in ‘65 (on Sue UK), although Dust My Blues occupied pole position, track one on side one. But I recall being more impressed by the agony-drenched The Sky Is Crying and the contrasting upbeat Shake Your Moneymaker.

At that time Elmore James was far from the best-known name in our, admittedly limited knowledge of American blues music. In his Notes to that LP, Guy Stevens, manager of Sue UK, opened by talking about the “tremendous upsurge of interest in blues music in this country” and went on to say in his second paragraph:

“However, one or two superb blues singers have been sadly and irrevocably overlooked in the current boom. One of these is undoubtedly Elmore James, one of the most stunningly individual and powerful artists in the history of American blues.”

He identified the reasons for our ignorance of the man, viz. the total lack of interest by UK record companies (other than Sue which wasn’t set up till 1964), and the fact that he (Elmore) was no longer with us having died in May 1963.

There were probably several reasons for that ignorance shrivelling to dust by the turn of the decade at the very latest, which would have included our growing appreciation of that particular track plus the one-man-mission that my near namesake had embarked upon to get Elmo better known, but top of the lot was probably the presence of slide guitarist and Elmore James fanatic, Jeremy Spencer in the first iteration of Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac (and for anyone out there relatively ignorant of the early days of the Mac – are there any? – I’d refer them to the excellent multi-authored Toppermost on the band). Spencer’s contributions played a large part in the first two LPs from the band – some might say dominated – and the Mac version of Dust My Broom appeared on the second, Mr. Wonderful. (And I wouldn’t ignore that the fact that the number had already had an outing on the second John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers LP, A Hard Road which saw release in 1967 and was the only Bluesbreakers’ album to star Peter Green on lead guitar ignoring bonus tracks and compilations).

Elmore himself was so fascinated by his own record that he reused its slide guitar riff or variants of it on numerous later occasions but I have to add that its delights are such that the listener is rarely tempted to move on. I’d also put forward the case for his defence: the variety of arrangements found on his records and his ability to use those arrangements to create expressive (and impressive) records compares very favourably to other blues greats without him ever losing the highly distinctive Elmore James guitar & vocal flavour, and, that he was far from alone in the blues world in terms of reuse of musical tropes, Jimmy Reed is one example, and the lesser-known Lightnin’ Slim another – for him the term slow blues, and he wrote and recorded a lot of them, meant one arrangement only.

So far I’ve talked around the subject of Dust My Broom but not about the record itself. How it came to be recorded is documented in Footnote #1 which provides biographic information on the man. There were already two records with minor variants on that title in existence when Elmore’s record was cut, one called, I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom from Robert Johnson released in April 1937 and one from Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup in 1949. At the same time as Elmore’s debut, at the end of 1951, there was another version by Robert Lockwood Jr.; Lockwood had actually cut a version of the number in March 1951 which wasn’t released, however it did eventually appear on Flyright 563, an LP entitled Dust My Broom (surprise!), in 1980. Steve Franz, author of an acclaimed biography on Elmore, “The Amazing Secret History Of Elmore James” tells us that if Lillian McMurry, owner of the label on which Elmo’s record was released, had been aware of previous versions of the song she wouldn’t have gone ahead with the recording. The vast majority of sources state that Johnson was the song’s author, however, as with many blues songs the reality is more complex; we delve into that murky area in Footnote #2. In terms of reading matter, this would be a good time to let you know that there’s a very fine Toppermost available from my colleague Cal on Robert Johnson. It comes from that time when Toppers tended towards brevity but I can assure you that the loss in quantity is amply compensated for in terms of quality. He opens his narrative with the line: “I cannot think of a bigger ‘stepping stone’ in the history of rock and pop music than Robert Johnson – his importance cannot be overstated”.

Back to Elmo and Dust My Broom. Three things are particularly striking about the James record: the title, the slide guitar riff and the forceful approach. Taking them in order, what does (I believe I’ll) Dust My Broom mean?

Virtually every source you read states that it means “to leave in a hurry and not come back” or “leaving for good” in short. Hardly any though, attempt to correlate that meaning with the actual words. The one below – from WordReference.com does do just that:

“I vote for clean break. Imagine yourself in the South, early 1900’s. No vacuum cleaner, lots of wood floors. All you have for cleaning is your trusty broom. But before you can sweep, you gotta remove all the old dirt and hairs from the broom’s bristles. In other words, you can’t sweep away the dust in your life, unless you’ve got a clean broom (and extendedly, clean soul and lifestyle, women you can trust, etc.)”

I should add that, since writing those words, Cal has sent me an image of an entry in the book “Barrelhouse Words” by Stephen Calt, on the phrase “dust one’s broom”. Below are the most pertinent words:

“The expression is a semantic blending of two conventional slang idioms. To Broom meant to run away in 19th century slang: to get up and dust meant to depart hastily of the same vintage (F&H 1891). Previously, in the 17th and 18th centuries, dust was standard English for depart (Partridge) …”

In relation to the lyrics and their meaning, Elmore adds an extra verse to those in the Johnson song which introduces an even more sombre message:

I believe, I believe my time ain’t long
I believe, I believe my time ain’t long
I’ve got to leave my baby, and break up my happy home

Next, the riff:

It appears on the Robert Johnson record and is unusual in that it consists of a guitarist “tripletting”. Normally that term applies to a piano where a triplet is defined as a three-note pattern that fills the duration of a typical two-note pattern. Johnson’s fingerpicked and fretted playing contrasts a bass shuffle figure against high pitch triplets which gives the impression of a kind of double time rhythm. The Elmore version has his slide swooping upwards to the 12th fret but retains the three-note repeating pattern.

Finally the Elmo delivery. There are aspects of rawness about both the voice and the guitar – he’d worked in a radio service shop and had personally positioned the pickups on his acoustic guitar to produce sounds which were indicative of the agony and in this instance, finality of the message. As early as the second verse the urgency quotient is upped even more by the way he extends the guitar fill backwards so it competes with his singing. And then there’s harmonica man Sonny Boy Williamson who’s with him every step of the way as if they’d played the song for years, which, of course, they had.

The 1955 version which was cut for Flair Records, a subsidiary of Modern, set up and owned by the Bihari Brothers, was even more raw. This in part would have been due to differing studio sounds but production also came into play with Elmore’s guitar pushed strongly to the front so that it dominates proceedings much more than in the first record. A couple of other differences are worthy of note: The stretch of the guitar fill such that it competes with his singing as if to emphasise the words doesn’t take place until the “I believe, I believe my time ain’t long” verse, and, the number is taken at a slightly faster pace but in a lower key. The key difference would (according to Steve Franz) have been due to a technique used by Lillian McMurry, that of slightly speeding up the release version of a track which would have the side effect of upping the key.

That’s the sober stuff. The slightly less sober words would include defiance and yes, joy. I can even visualise Elmo who treated his body badly, going to his grave grabbing his guitar bellowing “Ah’m gonna sing mah song one more time”. Frivolous yes, but Elmore fans will know what I mean.

I talked earlier about Elmore’s range. Three records illustrate that well: The Sky Is Crying, Shake Your Moneymaker and It Hurts Me Too.

The Sky Is Crying was cut in Chicago in a session dated to (possibly) 3 to 4 November 1959 for Fire Records of New York with label owner, Bobby Robinson producing and with support from Elmore’s band, the Broomdusters comprising Johnny Jones (piano), J.T. Brown (tenor sax), Homesick James (bass) and Odie Payne (drums). It’s a quite magnificent very slow blues written by Elmore during the session and believed to have been inspired by a downpour that was taking place at the time. The opening lines are among the most vivid in blues history: “The sky is crying / Look at the tears roll down the street”. Although Elmore’s guitar reaches for the metaphorical sky in typical slide fashion, the playing differs considerably from his approach on Dust My Broom. The reader will have noted too, the presence of that sax in the accompaniment which was relatively unusual for electrified delta blues.

Shake Your Moneymaker, another Fire Records production but cut in New Orleans (Cosimo Matassa’s J&M Studio) probably in summer 1961 and released in December the same year. A guitar riff driven jumper with less pyrotechnics than usual, seemingly little more than a hymn to hedonism with good old double entendre rearing its head. However, the narrative takes a darker turn after the break with a verse that starts “I got a gal and she just won’t be true” and we finally learn that said lady won’t shake her moneymaker. He still doesn’t sound that unhappy about it. This isn’t the first time that Elmore has inverted the expectations of the listener based on the title. Rock My Baby Right, a Flair track dating back to 1952 (but released in ’54) with Ike Turner whooping it up on boogie piano and Elmo sticking to conventional single note fretted guitar (very nicely), sounds like a dancer, but our man is bemoaning the fact that his baby has left but he still wants to rock that baby right.

Fleetwood Mac included Shake Your Moneymaker on their first (eponymous) LP which was released in 1968.

It Hurts Me Too, one of the relatively rare blues which has genuine melody and a killer punch line, just like the best country numbers. The previous two tracks were both James songs, albeit with Bobby Robinson named as co-writer which might or might not have meant anything. This one, however, definitely came from another source. That source was Tampa Red (who was a recognised influence and whose band Elmore largely picked up when he moved to Chicago in 1952). Red cut his It Hurts Me Too in 1940 and then revisited it under the title of When Things Go Wrong With You in 1949. That’s not all. There was an earlier usage of the melody line and the chord structure in Things ‘Bout Comin’ My Way back in 1931 where Red’s own usage of his slide was clearly influential on Elmore’s arrangement. The melody line actually came from an earlier Tampa Red instrumental, made in 1929, You Got To Reap What You Sow.

Elmore altered the lyrics and he cut the song twice, the first time for Chief in 1957. This is the Chief version with J.T. Brown’s sax appearing part way through the opening section and some splendid tripletting piano work. (The clip also has the rather strangely titled flip, Elmore’s Contribution To Jazz). I’ve gone instead for the version from his final session which, according to Steve Franz, was held on 21st February 1963 in New York for Bobby Robinson. The track was released posthumously by Robinson on one of his other labels, Enjoy Records. Why have I gone for that one? Both are majestic but for me, Elmore’s own guitar work is more impressive on this disc, and, it’s the one I bought (since Sue UK took the Enjoy release as their source). I would add that since this take was available much earlier here in the UK, it’s far better known than the Chief original. However, and with no disrespect to Tampa Red in either incarnation, the Elmore James It Hurts Me Too is up there with the all-time blues classics.

A version of the song from an abridged version of the Stones – Mick, Bill and Charlie – aided by Ry Cooder and Nicky Hopkins can be found on the album, Jamming With Edward, released in 1972.

Elmore’s output measured in terms of records, wasn’t massive, Steve Franz summarises it in the following manner:

“When Elmore James died in 1963, only half of what he had recorded had been released. At that time his body of work was primarily obtainable only via 78 and 45 rpm singles. From his death until this year (his book was published in 2003, DS), three dozen 45s and over one hundred LPs and Compact Discs (CDs) have been issued.”

In terms of chart success, only four of his singles registered and those were all in the R&B Chart: Dust My Broom got to #9, I Believe (the follow-up), #9, The Sky Is Crying, #15 and It Hurts Me Too, #25 (ref MusicVF.com).

The short list above includes a number which hasn’t had a mention yet, I Believe which was his follow-up to Dust My Broom on Meteor Records out of Memphis, Tennessee. This might give the impression that our man had been getting around but that impression was false – see Footnotes. The record followed the time-honoured fashion of being not being at all dissimilar to its predecessor, but minus Sonny Boy’s harmonica which is replaced by J.T. Brown’s tenor sax. Lyrically though it was a sequel rather than a straight reuse of the Dust My Broom lyrics. Snide remarks on follow-ups aside, it was a fine track and first of a number of revamps of Elmore’s calling card. The flip though, was for me, more interesting. I Held My Baby Last Night, a slower blues, contained an introduction and broad format that also saw reuse on a number of occasions, with the most notable being on The Sky Is Crying. However, I wouldn’t in any way denigrate this particular record. Its lyrics – “I held my baby last night / Until everything was all right” –showed a talent capable of crafting a narrative and coming up with arrestive imagery while the performance, featuring J.T. weaving patterns around the James guitar and Johnny Jones’ piano, was a delight in itself.

I Held My Baby Last Night was a number that would be revisited later on in the Fire/Enjoy era. The later interpretation turned up the drama level but I’ve stuck with the earlier more country sounding original.

The tightness of the Broomdusters – they wouldn’t actually get called that until a couple more records had seen release – is well worth stressing. It’s shown off well in what I suspect was little more than an unrehearsed studio jam, Hawaiian Boogie, a flipside from a little further down the line. It was his first release on Flair Records, a subsidiary of Modern.

The lighter touch shown in Hawaiian Boogie is again in evidence on Can’t Stop Lovin’ (also on Flair) from 1953. The latin rhythm and sugary approach in general are a million miles from I Held My Baby Last Night but they’re deceptive. As early as the first verse you’re told that things are far from right in Elmo-land:

I can’t stop lovin’ my baby tonight
I can’t stop lovin’ my baby tonight
No matter what I do, she won’t treat me right

For another Flair track, Standing At The Crossroads in 1954, Elmore has a bank of horns from the Maxwell Davis Band echoing his Dust My Broom riff in the intro. Given the title, one wonders whether there’s a whiff of Robert Johnson about the record. Lyrically it doesn’t have any clear similarity to Robert’s Crossroad Blues nor does it attempt to retell or merely evoke the famous “selling his soul to the devil at the crossroads” legend about the man. Possibly Elmo just liked the visual metaphor; while little is spelt out there’s some darkness in the song, witness the couplet “Well she must be tired of livin’ / I’ll put her six feet in the grave”. The song was yet another to be revisited in the Fire days where it’s slowed down and the introduction is given a distinctly different arrangement although the accompaniment again features a full complement of horns.

Skipping past further recordings in Chicago, albeit with some reluctance since they included such downright weird (but wonderful) items like The 12 Year Old Boy wherein his lady gets stolen by just such a stripling, Goodbye Baby with its near doo wop group backing and the pairing of Cry For Me Baby c/w Take Me Where You Go on both of which the Elmo guitar doesn’t seem to appear at all – he’s certainly not on lead, a gent called Syl Johnson does the honours instead (and does very nicely indeed particularly on the jazzy flavoured flip) all spread across multiple labels (Chess, Checker, Chief and Vee-Jay), we come to the Bobby Robinson era during which his recordings appeared on the Fire and Enjoy labels (both owned by Robinson) to which I’ve already made several allusions.

His third A-side for Fire was Rollin’ And Tumblin’ – the second was The Sky Is Crying – and his love of latin of which we’ve already had evidence on Can’t Stop Lovin’ and a little beaut we haven’t yet heard entitled No Love In My Heart, was rekindled with a vengeance. The song might well be familiar to the reader via its Muddy Waters’ 1950 incarnation and, although it dates back (probably) to a gentleman with the fabulous name of Hambone Willie Newbern who cut what might be the earliest known version in 1929 (see Cal’s Robert Johnson Toppermost for more), it’s likely to have been that Muddy record which triggered this cut. According to Steve Franz, Elmore would often relax by listening to records and those would have inevitably included some from his peers. What one has to give Elmore and possibly Bobby Robinson, credit for is what sounds like a single chord backing utilising a latin rhythm (although an implied 12 bar structure is still present) which offers an aural simulation of the title and makes his record stand out from the scores of other versions of the number. Listened to today it seems far removed from the date on which it was recorded.

Two releases down the line and the attention is caught by a punchy original, Done Somebody Wrong. Blocky single chords with the Elmo slide floating above and, as he’d done on several other originals – think The Sky Is Crying – he grabs us with an opening line: “The bell has tolled / My baby caught that train and gone”. As he passes us walking at speed away from the station, the sound fades and we’re left with the impression of a man possessed and talking to himself – “It’s all my fault, I must-a did somebody wrong”.

We’re now in the countdown to the final release during Elmore’s lifetime. The next record, Look On Yonder Wall (which was coupled with Shake Your Moneymaker) was another oldie, believed to have been first cut by James “Beale Street” Clark (as Get Ready To Meet Your Man) in 1945 (Wiki). There was also one from Jazz Gillum a year later. The song has a rather delightful story attached to it. This is the way Wiki narrates that story:

“It tells of a man who is somewhat disabled and has not been drafted and takes advantage of that to entertain lonely married women. When the husband is discharged, the narrator ponders his fate.”

Now baby I’ve been worried, ever since victory day
Every time I pick up the paper, your man is comin’ this a way
Look on yonder wall, hand me down my walkin’ cane

What Wiki doesn’t tell us is why in his version, Jazz Gillum switches from “yonder” to “yonders” or could it be “Yonder’s” part way through. Has “yonder” become a person?

In his version, Elmore does the same. What else does he do? He tones back the electricity for a start; there’s none of the near or beyond distortion found on some of his records. He puts his slide down too and sticks to single note fretted picking. As usual he has a pianist present and this time the man behind the keys is Johnny “Big Moose” Walker, a late period Broomduster. And, wonder of wonders, there’s someone on harmonica with that someone being Sam Myers (who does a superb job and we’ll already have heard him on other Elmore James records but as a drummer). Oh, and he cuts some of the verbiage from earlier versions. All of which almost inevitably takes the listener back to Dust My Broom. Built on a riff too, just not the same one. And, yes it’s that good.

To the final record, Stranger Blues c/w Anna Lee, a new composition and an oldie. Stranger Blues is the polar opposite of Look On Yonder Wall. The distortion has spread to the voice, and the backing on which multiple brass instruments are deployed and possibly another guitar conjuring up thoughts of Phil Spector though he hadn’t got going yet, and grunge which was umpteen decades away. All this to express the alien feeling of being in a new place – “I’m a stranger here, just blowed in your town”- possibly New York or was it a look backwards to Chicago?

On Anna Lee there’s clear evidence of Elmo having reached back to some of his favourites from those record playing sessions I mentioned earlier. Tampa Red’s Anna Lou Blues from 1941 would have been the original source of this number but it’s possible that he took more from the Nighthawks’ slight variant with the changed title Annie Lee Blues which saw release in 1949. The key line “You’re gonna be mine, just wait and see” or minor variations on it appear in all three versions. Unusually the song in Elmo’s hands is one of straightforward yearning rather than blues – there’s no suggestion that her attention is elsewhere – but the dramatic delivery suggests otherwise. Structurally it follows the slow blues format that we’ve already come across in I Held My Baby Last Night and The Sky Is Crying but the brass section from the A-side is still around and is given more license to roam in this performance.

The above represents a canter through Elmo’s released singles during his lifetime but of course, there were more to come later. Some of them recycled the same material but others dug deeper into the previously unreleased tracks. There was but one LP released prior to his death, Blues After Hours, but it was merely a compilation of already released Modern/Flair singles (an expanded version was released later). After his death, a trickle of albums started appearing which had expanded to a flood by the turn of the century (and doesn’t show any sign of stopping). Inevitably they were all effectively compilations but several focussed on particular phases of his recording career. I’ve sampled a moderate amount of the previously unreleased material (particularly that from the Fire/Enjoy phase) but possibly haven’t given it quite the same attention as the released singles. Below are some tracks that I feel are of interest:

My Baby’s Gone (1952 and from the Modern/Flair period but with a later version cut at Fire/Enjoy) – A Dust My Broom variant but with an excellent descending guitar intro which could be a development from the one that Johnson used – there was also a later version which I discarded mainly because one of his strings was out of tune – intriguingly this early record contains the line “I’m gonna call up China / See if my good girl’s over there” which is in the Kokomo Arnold record, Sissy Man Blues, one of the records seen as a precursor to Dust My Broom – see Footnote #2.

Strange Angels (1960, Fire/Enjoy with the then Broomdusters plus Jimmy Spruill on second guitar) – Medium tempo blues with fascinating lyrics: “Strange Angels, why do you treat me so mean” and with his slide put down for a change.

Something Inside Of Me (1960, from same session as the last) – the relevant Franz quote on this one is:

“is considered by many fans to be the consummate recorded example of Elmore’s slide guitar talent combined with the existential introverted lyrics he seemed to be focussing on now more than at any other stage in his career.”

One Way Out (1961, Fire/Enjoy and from the same session as Anna Lee and Stranger Blues) – Jumper with great lyrics – “Raise your window baby, I ain’t going out that door” – the lady’s husband may be at the front door so Elmore urgently needs an alternative way out.

There’s one I’m singling out:

Many of us will be aware of the song Everyday I Have The Blues from the superb version cut by B.B. King in 1955. It has one of the most splendiferous arrangements ever given to a blues (courtesy of Maxwell Davis). The Blues Boy himself is quoted by Wiki as saying: “He [Davis] wrote a chart of Every Day I Have the Blues with a crisp and relaxed sound I’d never heard before. I liked it so well, I made it my theme … Maxwell Davis didn’t write majestically he wrote naturally, which was my bag. He created an atmosphere that let me relax.”

Elmore’s version was cut during his final session (in New York) held on 21st February 1963. The only session players Steve Franz manages to identify – and even then he gives them a “prob” – are Johnny “Big Moose” Walker on piano and Marshall Jones on bass. No attempt is made to copy that Maxwell Davis arrangement. Instead, Elmore starts the song in full Dust My Broom mode but he’s already started introducing variations on that slide riff before the first verse is over.

What can one say? There’s no way that Elmore was going to compete with B.B’s masterpiece but, and it’s a big but, that song fits him so well that it just couldn’t be ignored which is why I’m making it my bonus selection.

One feels at times, reading the Steve Franz biography, that Elmore literally did have the blues every single day. He was often perceived to be taciturn on stage and, although he had a liking for getting an audience moving with a boisterous shuffle, the lyrics that were part of such output were frequently of a downer nature (but expressed with such vitality of which it seemed only he was capable).

In the evening of 24th May 1963, in the home of Homesick James in Chicago, Elmore died of yet another heart attack (he’d already had several). He and Homesick had been aiming at playing that night at Big Bill Hill’s Copa Cabana club.


“Elmore James was no imitator … rather he adapted the style to electric guitar and ensemble demands of post war blues … he was a powerful deeply emotional singer … this allied with his rough, propulsive and vigorous playing made him very successful in his lifetime” (from Pete Welding’s Notes to the Elmore James / John Brim LP, ‘Whose Muddy Shoes’, Chess 1969)

“A final accolade comes from Paul Jones, himself a great exponent of R&B and an even greater fan of Elmore James – ‘I suppose Elmore James is to slide guitar what Little Walter is to the harmonica: quite simply the inventor of the modern R&B style.’” (from Adrian Owlett’s Notes to the LP, ‘Red Hot Blues’, 1983)

“Now I wish I could sit down and play a guitar like Elmore. To tell you the truth, I met a whole lot of peoples playin’ guitar and could really play ‘most anythin’ you wanted, but I have never run into another man could play a bottleneck like Elmore plays it. That’s the truth!” (from an interview with Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup conducted by Mike Leadbitter in 1970 and published in Blues Unlimited #75-#77)

“Howlin’ Wolf, here in 1964, sang Dust My Broom at every concert he gave ‘ˈcause that was Elmore’s song; he sure was great’.” (from Simon Napier’s Notes to the LP, ‘Memorial Album’, Sue UK, 1965)

(Quotations courtesy of Cal, and it looks as if he bought the other Elmore LP that Sue UK released in 1965)

In May 1964, Decca released the debut single from John Mayall and The Bluesbreakers. The flipside held a Mayall penned song, to the tune of It Hurts Me Too. It started like this:

Way out in Chicago
There lived a guy
Named Elmore James
Why did you die?
Oh please Mr. James
Oh tell me why
Did you have to go?







Elmore James photo 4




1. As the reader will by now have deduced, I read the book, “The Amazing Secret History Of Elmore James” written by Steve Franz before (and in parallel with) producing this post. Steve Franz, who is no longer with us, was, and most likely still is, regarded as the Elmore James expert. He is at pains to emphasise in his introduction that all his information came from sources other than James himself. Due to his early death plus the fact that all the early historic blues research by the likes of Alan Lomax and Samuel Charters was conducted with non-electric, and often non-accompanied performers, there were no interviews held with Elmore himself that have survived in documented form. There’s a comment by Simon Napier on the 1965 Sue LP to similar effect: “American musicologists showed very little interest in popular blues until recently and the revivication of interest in Elmore James is due mainly to Sue Records”. Towards the end of the main biographic section of the Franz book, he records some very rare visits by Europeans to see Elmore live circa 1961/62, but I would again note these were very much exceptions; very few Europeans – and bear in mind that it was from Britain and mainland Europe that the big surge in interest in blues came in the early sixties -ever saw Elmore perform. Steve also notes – there’s a very comprehensive bibliographic section in the book – that much of the early historic work was performed by Brits and Europeans – names like Mike Leadbitter, John Broven and Simon Napier (of the magazine Blues Unlimited) plus Jacques Demetre & Marcel Chauvard (who did get to see, hear and speak to Elmore) crop up early on.

He was born Elmore Brooks on 27th January 1918 in Richland, Mississippi. He was the illegitimate son of Leola Brooks, a fifteen-year-old farm hand. It’s probable that he was the son of Joe Willie “Frost” James who moved in with Leola after the birth, with Elmore taking his surname. Cousin (well supposed cousin, because this hasn’t been confirmed) and future band member Homesick James remembers Elmore at the age of twelve, attempting to play music on a home-made single stringed instrument, known as a Diddley Bow. He quickly graduated to a real guitar. He would seem to have been self-taught. Homesick, who started on slide guitar before Elmore, doesn’t lay claim to having taught him.

The family tended to move from one plantation to another and by 1937 were in Belzoni, Mississippi working on the Turner Brothers plantation, adopting an orphan Robert Earl Holston as a brother for Elmore. He too played guitar with Elmore who by now had gained such proficiency that he would sometimes pick up cash for his playing. While he sang songs he’d heard on the radio – Tampa Red and Kokomo Arnold were favourites –there were also some he’d written himself. During this timeframe he met and befriended the harmonica (or harp) playing Alex “Rice” Miller who later took as his name, “Sonny Boy Williamson” but was known as Sonny Boy Williamson II to differentiate him from the earlier harp playing blues artist Sonny Boy Williamson who died in 1948.

During World War 2, Elmore was drafted into the US Navy and saw service in South East Asia. On his return he settled in Canton, Mississippi with his adopted brother Robert. He worked in Robert’s electrical shop and it was there he picked up the skills to make his own placement of DeArmond pickups onto an otherwise acoustic guitar; Harold DeArmond “is credited with developing the first commercially available detachable guitar pickup” (Wiki).

In December 1950, Lillian McMurry, founder of small indie Trumpet Records in Jackson, Mississippi, after hearing about the ability of Sonny Boy Williamson, managed to locate him and signed him up to a contract with the label. His first session was booked for 4th January 1951 and he turned up at Scott Radio Service in Jackson, Mississippi – the studio normally used by McMurry – with his backing team including Elmore. Eight tracks were cut of which Eyesight To The Blind and Crazy About You Baby were selected for single release.

Initial pressings of the first record were in very small numbers. It was when the master was sent away to the pressing plant to get more made that a fire destroyed the master. Maybe the masters of the other recordings were also sent, as it ended up that all eight tracks had to be re-recorded. Eyesight To The Blind / Crazy About You Baby were re-recorded on 12th March 1951 with a question mark on whether Elmore was present – Franz states that he wasn’t. However, there’s agreement that he was definitely present when all the other Sonny Boy tracks were re-recorded on 5th August 1951.

In early August, Elmore plus Sonny Boy auditioned to McMurry a song that he’d been playing regularly for years, Dust My Broom, and she was so impressed that it was agreed that Elmore would record it following the next Sonny Boy session which was booked for 5th August. Which duly happened with some of Sonny Boy’s support team including the man himself switching to back Elmore for Dust My Broom. (There’s disagreement between the varying bodies that purport to tell us about such things but Steve Franz has the backing team as Leonard Ware bass and possibly “Frock” O’Dell on drums plus Sonny Boy himself.) Unusually, no other track was cut and history doesn’t tell us why this happened. According to Steve Franz, Lillian McMurry stated years later: “Elmore was supposed to have been getting another side to record but he just couldn’t come up with it. He couldn’t even come up with another song for the back of his record.” She solved the problem eventually by putting a track called Catfish Blues from an otherwise unrecorded man called Bobo Thomas on the flip and labelling both sides as by “Elmo James” since that was often how Elmore was known. As a postscript I’d add that Thomas disappeared after the session. Various stories have emerged about this session stating that Elmore was tricked into doing it e.g. by being told it was only a rehearsal, but we’ll probably never know the real truth.

I should explain here that I’ve based the bulk of my biographic information on that contained in the Steve Franz book and have also used his discography primarily (as my comments often testify).

2. Given that the bulk of blues historians name Robert Johnson as the writer of Dust My Broom (albeit drawing from earlier songs), and given too that Cal’s knowledge of Johnson exceeds mine very considerably, we felt that it would make sense if he took control of the virtual pen for this Footnote. His introductory words are:

This is a history of Dust My Broom, not the history.

As already mentioned in this Toppermost, before Elmore’s there were two records with minor variants of that title in existence. By far the most important of those was Robert Johnson’s I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom, which was recorded on 23rd November 1936. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that Robert’s and Elmore’s versions are inextricably linked.

That begs the question, where did Robert’s version come from? He was renowned for taking parts of existing songs improving and adding to them, to the extent that they sounded like brand new songs, excellently executed. So what came before?

I started by researching songs with a recognisably similar tune and title and then songs which used the unusual following lines; “dust my broom” and “I’m gonna call up China, see if my good gal’s over there”. There were several songs with a similar tune and title, mainly “I Believe I’ll Go Back Home” (a line in the Johnson song) and I Believe I’ll Make a Change.

The earliest recording of I Believe I’ll Make A Change was by Aaron and Milton Sparks as “Pinetop and Lindberg” who later recorded as the Sparks Brothers. Their 1932 cut was with piano accompaniment. Versions followed by Jack Kelly (1933) plus Josh White (as “Pinewood Tom”) and Leroy Carr, both in 1934.

The earliest use of the expression “dust my broom” can be traced back to Carl Rafferty’s Mr. Carl’s Blues, recorded in December 1933. In the same song he also uses “I’m gonna call up China”. Carl Rafferty, of whom nothing is known, was accompanied by Roosevelt Sykes on piano and it was his only record. It sounds nothing like Robert Johnson or Elmore James or Dust My Broom but it is too much of a coincidence to be the first on record to use those lines and that they then turn up together on Robert’s 1936 recording.

In 1934 Kokomo Arnold in his Sagefield Woman Blues used the line “I believe I’ll dust my broom”. Then in 1935, in Sissy Man Blues, he starts that song with “I believe I’ll go back home” followed in the second verse by saying that he was going to ring up China to see if his girl was over there.

Trying to research pre-war country blues songs is not a perfect science. There are too many gaps and one can only go back with recorded music to 1924 when the first such record by Ed Andrews was released. Before that without such recordings to research there is next to no written documentation on the subject. The history of country blues goes back at least half a century before 1924 and a good many songs had their roots before that genre was recorded.

All languages evolve, as does music. Words and phrases cross-pollinate and change meaning over time, as can their context (think ‘cool’ and ‘wicked’). This, too, makes research harder and sometimes, when looked at decades later, seems to make little or no sense as they have become redundant.

Pre-war blues singers learning and adaptation of songs came from hearing or playing with other artists or by listening to records. It is known that Robert Johnson was aware of Kokomo Arnold and Leroy Carr records. He adapted Arnold’s 1934 Old Original Kokomo Blues into Sweet Home Chicago and Milk Cow Blues into his Milkcow Calf’s Blues. He also adapted Carr’s 1935 When The Sun Goes Down into Love In Vain.

It would not surprise me if Robert Johnson’s I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom evolved from hearing Kokomo Arnold’s recordings of Sagefield Woman Blues and Sissy Man Blues plus Leroy Carr’s recording of I Believe I’ll Make A Change although, as explained, the roots of those songs went further back.

Of course Elmore’s Dust My Broom followed fifteen years later and he went on to pay his own tribute to Leroy Carr by recording Blues Before Sunrise.

3. However, there is a school of thought that credits James with actually writing the song (and this is Dave taking that virtual pen back). He is certainly remembered as having been regularly playing it well before that recording session in 1951. Bearing in mind my comment at the start of Footnote #1, that there is no record of interview(s) with Elmore, the same comment applies to Robert Johnson and, like Elmore, the story of his life had to be reconstructed after his death by researchers. Given the overlap in lifespans – Johnson died in 1938 – and the fact that Elmore got into music at an early age the possibility exists, albeit a very faint one, that Elmore wrote the song which Robert heard and then produced his version. Several of his songs are known not to be originals though they are often thought to be such due to the spectacular musicianship (and the occasional extra wordsmithing) he brought to them. Steve Franz gives the ‘Elmore James authoring Dust My Broom theory’ some airtime in his book, basing the claim mainly on memories of friends and colleagues of Elmore but I’m sticking with the ‘official version’. In an appendix, Franz also digs out a number of often relatively obscure recordings with some similarities which were around during the timeframe when Elmore cut his version suggesting the song was very much in the black popular domain.

4. There was something of a coda to the success of Elmore’s Dust My Broom plus the fact that he didn’t seem overly enthusiastic on continuing to work with Lillian McMurry – see also below on his move to Modern/Meteor/Flair. Mrs McMurry got Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup into a studio and cut two sides, Gonna Find My Baby and Make A Little Love With Me, with Sonny Boy in support and released the single as from “Elmer James” in December 1952. This clip contains Make A Little Love With Me. History doesn’t record any success for the record. Curiously though Elmore cut a track with a near identical title line, Make A Little Love, at a session held probably in April 1953 and it was released that August (on the flip of Can’t Stop Lovin’). Even more curiously, apart from the title line, Elmore’s verses differed from Arthur’s: perhaps he’d never heard Arthur’s record but had been told of the release and the title.

5. Not long after the release of Dust My Broom, the talent of Elmore was brought to the attention of the Bihari Brothers (owners of the L.A. based Modern label) by Ike Turner who was at that time employed as Talent Scout for the Biharis. With total disregard for the fact that Elmore was contracted to Lillian McMurry and Trumpet, Joe Bihari held a session (or possibly sessions) with Elmore with Turner on piano but the other musicians not identified. News of this got to McMurry and litigation was threatened. None of those tracks were released at the time but a few emerged in 1953/54 and more have since turned up on LPs and CDs. Joe Bihari then bided his time knowing (or believing) that Elmore was on a year contract but in addition he set up Meteor Records in Memphis with brother Lester in charge (with the intended appearance of having no relationship to Modern Records). Joe ran another session (in Chicago) which produced the tracks which amongst others, included the pair that made up Elmore’s second single, I Believe / I Held My Baby Last Night. That record, numbered Meteor 5000, was the first release on Meteor Records in December 1952. Meteor continued to release blues but subsequently switched their attention to rockabilly – Charlie Feathers was their most notable artist in this vein.

There was to be one more Elmore James record on Meteor before Joe dropped the subterfuge and continued with Elmore on Flair Records, another subsidiary of Modern. With a couple of single release interjections (from Chess/Checker and Ace, with the latter being a Trumpet rehash) Elmore continued on Modern/Flair/Meteor until 1956 when they dropped him due to falling chart action. He was picked up by Mel London and his Chief label – the last named was a tiny outfit hence the involvement of Vee-Jay for distribution.

Releases on Fire (and later, Enjoy) started in 1960 with the instrumental, Bobby’s Rock after label founder Bobby Robinson had made a trip to Chicago to see Elmore in the flesh. Even while he was contracted to Robinson, records from him continued to appear on Kent (another Modern subsidiary and the disc had already seen release) and Chess.

That’s a very simplified summary of the Elmore James recording career by label. As if it wasn’t confusing enough already, his career spanned the 78 to 45 RPM move and, over the relevant period, his discographies across the two formats weren’t identical.

6. The Bihari brothers, Lester, Jules, Saul and Joe, were second generation Hungarian Jewish immigrants whose parents had emigrated to the US in the very early years of the 20th Century. There were also four daughters in the family, three of whom worked in their brothers’ business. The family moved to Los Angeles (from Oklahoma) in 1941.

Jules was the first in the family (according to Wiki) to get into the music business; he got a job servicing and operating jukeboxes in the Watts district. His perception of often getting problems in sourcing blues records for his predominantly black customer base, led to the set-up by the brothers of Modern Records in 1945. The tasks to run the business were split between the brothers with Joe operating as talent spotter – with assistance later from Ike Turner – and main record producer. The label’s first success was Swingin’ The Boogie from “Queen Of The Boogie” Hadda Brooks which achieved good regional sales in 1945.

In 1950, they set-up RPM Records as a Modern subsidiary which was followed by Flair, Meteor (in Memphis), Blues & Rhythm and Crown (a budget label launched in 1957). Artists on the Modern grouping of labels included B.B. King, Elmore James, Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Etta James, Lightnin’ Hopkins, John Lee Hooker, Lowell Fulson and Rufus Thomas in the blues vein, and outside blues, Charlie Feathers, Vic Damone, Trini Lopez and the Dave Clark Five (which clearly brings us up to the mid-sixties).

With the acclaim that has been showered on other independent labels such as Sun and Atlantic, it’s all too easy to forget the pioneering role played by the Bihari brothers, particularly in the field of blues. A goodly number of the records they produced are now regarded, and quite rightly, as classics. While the brothers were guilty of several of the sins that pervaded record labels at the time – an entry of “Josea” in the writer’s credit line on a record meant “Joe Bihari” and was rarely anything to do with the actual composer – they were usually seen by the artists as treating them well.

7. The track, The Sun Is Shining which might be seen as a kind of ‘sequel’ to The Sky Is Crying, was cut at the same Chess session which produced Stormy Monday Blues – see below.

8. Bobby Robinson was that rare thing, a black record label owner and record producer. Born in South Carolina but moved to New York after his stint in the US Army in World War 2. He opened a record shop in Harlem and quickly found himself being seen as the fount of all knowledge re black records. After spending time assisting the Atlantic label as a novice producer, for artists including Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee and various early doo woppers, he founded his first record label, Red Robin Records, in 1952. This was to be but the first of a bewildering onslaught of labels he created, sometimes in association with brother Danny in the years that followed: Whirlin’ Disc (1956), Fury (1957), Everlast (1957), Sue (with Juggy Murray, also in ’57), Fire (1959) and Enjoy (1962). I’ll give the floor to the Wiki writer for the next bit:

“Robinson produced top-selling records by Wilbert Harrison, The Shirelles. Lee Dorsey and Dave “Baby” Cortez many of whom were signed to the label by A&R man Marshall Sehorn. One of his earliest hits was Harrison’s “Kansas City”, over which he faced legal action brought by Herman Lubinsky of Savoy Records, who claimed he had Harrison under contract. Robinson produced Gladys Knight & the Pips’ first hit, “Every Beat of My Heart” (after he signed them to Fury; the original version was recorded in Atlanta, issued locally on Huntom and leased to Vee Jay, who had the bigger hit). Robinson produced several Elmore James records as well as recordings by Lightnin’ Hopkins, Arthur Crudup and Buster Brown. King Curtis’s “Soul Twist” was the first release on his Enjoy label in 1962.”


“In the 1970s, Robinson produced some of the first hip-hop music records for his “Enjoy” label.”

9. Something I hadn’t noticed until Cal pointed it out to me is that there’s a resemblance between Elmore’s (1953) Can’t Stop Lovin’ and Chuck Berry’s (1958) Around And Around. It’s the melodic and rhythmic backing. Berry is less obviously latin than James and I’m inclined to think that, with the years in between, the relationship is indirect. However, Steve Franz does point to a 1960 track, Run Around from Chuck which certainly sounds as if he might have heard Elmore.

10. On page 92 of John Broven’s book, “Rhythm And Blues In New Orleans”, he characterises Elmore’s Sho Nuff I Do which was released on Flair in 1954, as being within “a succession of records with similar melodies and lyrics” to the Guitar Slim hit, The Things I Used To Do. It’s a reasonable statement but I see less of a copycat approach on the James record compared with others.

11. The tracks Cry For Me Baby and Take Me Where You Go which didn’t feature Elmore on lead guitar are believed to have been cut not all that long after he suffered his second heart attack according to Steve Franz.

12. There was a Robert Johnson version of Rollin’ And Tumblin’ although he subjected the lyrics to a major rewrite from which it emerged as If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day. The track didn’t appear on record until 1961 (on the Columbia LP, King Of The Delta Blues Singers) so unless Elmo heard Robert singing it live he would have been unaware of this version. This is borne out by the fact that none of the ‘new’ Johnson lyrics appear on the James version.

13. The singer of Look On Yonder Wall would have been referred to in black slang as a Jody. Below is what the Urban Dictionary says about the term ‘Jody’:

“In the Marines, a ‘Jody’ is a generalized term meaning: any man who stays home while everyone else goes to war. He gets to enjoy all the things the Marines are missing, more specifically the Marine’s girlfriend back at home while the Marine is away on active duty. The reason that they’re called Jody specifically dates back to black soldiers in WWII. They took a character from old blues songs named Joe the Grinder (or Joe D. Grinder) who would steal the ladies of inmates and soldiers, and clipped his name to Jody.”

Several records are in existence about the Jody character. They include Slim Harpo’s Jody Man, Johnnie Taylor’s Jody Got Your Girl And Gone and the Hawks’ Joe The Grinder. The cuckolding gent is often a military man himself but maimed in some way so that he couldn’t go to war.

14. Sam Myers, who was a regular drummer (and occasional harp player) for Elmo, went on to be the featured vocalist for Anson Funderburgh & the Rockets, which role he occupied for nearly two decades.

15. Two records were issued under the name of The Nighthawks, a name used by Robert Nighthawk (Robert Lee McCollum) for his band for a period on the Aristocrat label. One of those records was Annie Lee Blues. It got to #13 in the R&B Chart in December 1949. Accompanying Nighthawk on the record were pianist Ernest Lane, and bassist Willie Dixon. Robert was a significant influence on Elmore. He recorded from 1937 to 1952 with some unreleased stuff during 1964 to 1967, the year he died. In the pre-war period Robert was known as Robert Lee McCoy.

16. I should mention the fact that Elmore made a version of another blues standard, Stormy Monday Blues aka Call It Stormy Monday. It was cut for Chess in 1960 (when he was signed to Fire) with Johnny Jones, J.T. Brown, Homesick James in the backing team plus Fred Below on drums and another unidentified tenor sax. And this is what it sounded like. Now I love the T-Bone original (and he revisited it on numerous occasions just like Elmo did with some songs) and I love the Bobby Bland cover but I think I can find a little in my heart for this version too. (Even though I know there’s at least one person out there who can’t stand the song due to it being trotted out by every band of callow youths that think they can play the blues.)

17. Elmore occasionally appeared on other people’s records in addition to those early Trumpet discs for Sonny Boy. One of them certainly deserves attention since the artist was Big Joe Turner. The Atlantic label management team would seem to have got wind of things happening in Chicago so booked a session for Joe there in late ’53. Elmore was in the backing team and the result was TV Mama which deservedly brought Joe a #6 R&B Chart hit, the following year. See also the Toppermost that Cal and I put together on Big Joe.

I was in my bed a’sleepin’, oh-boy, what a dream (twice)
I was dreamin’ ’bout my TV Mama, the one with the big, wide screen

18. If the reader feels that the Elmo story is anything but straightforward with differing accounts of events vying for attention, then he had nothing on Homesick James even though the man lived long enough (and far longer than Elmo) for the truth to come out from the man himself. He even used to trot out versions of his birth date from 1905 to 1914 (and his union file has it as 1924). The one that seems most believable is 1910. He used the stage name Homesick James but called himself Homesick James Williamson though that surname is in doubt. He used to claim that he played with people like Memphis Minnie and Sleepy John Estes though these accounts aren’t confirmed.

He was born in Somerville, Tennessee, about 25 miles east of Memphis where he both listened to and gained his early experience playing blues. Sometime in the 30s or early 40s he joined the migration to Chicago and got a day job in a steel mill. His first known record came out in 1952 and was credited to “James Williamson and his Trio” appearing on Chance Records, which operated from 1950 to 1954 and in later days focussed more on doo wop. The sides were Farmers Blues and Lonesome Ole Train. That’s James on the relatively primitive slide. The follow-up record, Homesick, supplied his stage name and contained more proficient guitar work with a possible debt to Robert Johnson.

Much of the information for this mini biography comes from the Tony Russell written obituary on Homesick in The Guardian on 27th January 2007. Russell writes: “During the late 1950s and early 60s he played bass guitar in Elmore’s band”. But we can pin that down. According to the Steve Franz Elmore James discography, Homesick James started appearing on bass guitar on his records from 1957 onwards and was present on major records including The Sky Is Crying and It Hurts Me Too.

After Elmore’s death, Homesick recorded a couple of songs associated with Elmore, Crossroads and Set A Date (both released by Sue in the UK) which, in the words of Tony Russell, helped him “to be seen more as an inheritor of Elmore’s style than as an exponent of his own”. However, he did go on to widen his style and had an extended career incorporating album releases running through to the noughties plus multiple trips to Europe. He died in December 2006 at the ripe old age of 96.

19. Prior to forming the Rolling Stones, Brian Jones, whose full name was Lewis Brian Hopkin Jones, called himself Elmo Lewis. He also played bottleneck guitar emulating his hero.

20. I’m aware that I’ve probably given the reader the impression that Elmore’s first release in the UK was via Sue UK. That wasn’t actually the case. The two Sue singles, Dust My Blues (1964) and It Hurts Me Too (1965) were preceded by a track on a compilation LP in 1961. The track was Coming Home (Chief 7001 and originally flipside to The 12 Year Old Boy), one that could be readily characterised as a Dust My Broom soundalike (but still a record that would sound mighty good to anyone who’d never heard Elmo at all before).

The LP contained tracks from Vee-Jay and related labels like Chief. After US release it appeared over here in 1961 with the title The Blues on E.M.I. Columbia (see the Stefan Wirz Elmore discography) and some absolutely mouth-watering content, particularly for the year.

This footnote deliberately follows the one on Brian Jones since it’s this Elmore James track that had such a strong effect on him.

I should also add that I’m absolutely gutted that I didn’t know of the existence of this LP until Cal told me about it during our joint activity on Elmo – he also bought a copy for himself back in ’63. And when I say mouth-watering content, I mean Jimmy Reed’s You Don’t Have To Go and Ain’t That Lovin’ You Baby, Hooker’s Dimples (two years before single release here), Rosco Gordon’s Just A Little Bit, Gene Allison’s You Can Make It If You Try (which was covered by the Stones on their debut LP) and Billy Boy Arnold’s I Wish You Would, and more. Many of which numbers would appear in the stage repertoire of British blues bands from ’63 onwards.

21. Jimi Hendrix did, on several occasions, play Elmore’s song My Bleeding Heart on stage. He also recorded the number in the studio more than once. This is the original and this is one of the concert versions – he drops the “My” from the title.

22. “I had been driving for some time and it must have been two or three a.m. as I started through the richly forested area of East Texas known as the Piney Woods. There was little traffic on the roads and, as the road rose and fell through the trees and past tiny towns that were often barely more than a handful of bedraggled shacks, the moon, which shone brilliantly directly in front of me, turned the concrete to silver. I was listening, I imagine, to Wolfman Jack from XERB, over the border in Mexico, and as I came over the top of the hill to see another tiny town below me, he played Elmore James’ Stranger Blues. “I’m a stranger here, just drove in your town,” Elmore sang, and I knew that I would never forget the perfect conjunction of place, mood and music. Nor have I.” (John Peel describing one of the great musical moments of his life, in Texas c.1960, from “Margrave Of The Marshes”, Corgi edition, p192)

Those words can be found on the John Peel Wiki site on Elmore. Peel was a big fan. The same site lists the Elmo tracks he played, listed per year and you can see them increasing as time rolled on.

23. Our final footnote is present for two reasons. Firstly, to allow me (Dave) to publicly thank Cal for all the effort he’s put into this Toppermost. Much of the information contained herein particularly in the Footnotes has come from him. And secondly to give him the opportunity to air some of his thoughts on Mr. James:

I have wondered for a long time why, in the US, Elmore did not have more chart success in his lifetime and, also, why he is not more widely known, both of which his talent undoubtedly deserved. Regarding chart success – in the eleven years he recorded it was largely with smaller labels, none of which he stayed with for too long. This, unfortunately, resulted in very little promotional support.

Elmore, possibly, did not put as much emphasis on his recording career as he could have – that was not so much lack of ambition, more that he was happier just performing. I’m sure that he would have loved more chart success but, somehow, he seemed to treat his recording sessions as just other gigs. I think he was mainly a performer who recorded occasionally as opposed to a recording artist who also performed.

He overused Dust My Broom both with its various recordings as well as the highly noticeable aspects of that song in other different recordings. This was to the detriment of the listeners’ awareness of really good non-Dust My Broom recordings. To the casual listener he was guilty of sounding ‘samey’, which was not the truth but was an obstacle to gaining a wider following. It must also be remembered that throughout his life he was subject to engaging with only a small proportion of the population, a black audience.

However, the main reason for not being more widely known was beyond anybody’s control – his untimely death. Elmore did not enjoy the best of health and died young at 45 in 1963, just at the time the music scene was changing beyond all recognition. Had he lived past 1963, without doubt, he would have reaped the benefits and become more recognised.

As has been stated earlier in this Toppermost, the growth of the blues boom in Europe, especially Britain, culminated around 1963. British blues and rock bands began to perform Elmore’s songs. Many American black blues artists began touring regularly over here and were achieving recognition and ever-growing success. Obviously, Elmore was not one of them. He remained revered by the few and overlooked by the many – he had died at the wrong time!

It was remiss of him but “The King Of The Slide Guitar” Elmore James should be forgiven and, if there is any justice, deserves to be as well known as other post-war blues artists like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker and B. B. King.




Elmore James grave


Illustrated Elmore James discography

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame: Elmore James

Elmore James Discogs

Elmore James 45cat

Elmore James biography (AllMusic)

Dave Stephens is the author of two books on popular music. His first, “RocknRoll”, is described by one reviewer as “probably the most useful single source of information on 50s & 60s music I’ve come across”. Dave followed this up with “London Rocks” in 2016, an analysis of the early years of the London (American) record label in the UK. You can follow him on Twitter @DangerousDaveXX

Cal Taylor has avidly collected records since the early 1960s, gravitating to deep soul and blues. As time went on he got more and more into studying pre-war blues and accumulated a vast record collection. Cal saw many such artists live in the sixties. He has written several posts for this site including Charley Patton, Blind Willie Johnson, Robert Johnson and Otis Redding.

The Stephens/Taylor toppermosts include Johnny Ace, Arthur Alexander, Ray Charles, Cyril Davies, The Falcons, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Alexis Korner, Little Walter, Johnny Otis, Junior Parker.

TopperPost #1,049


  1. Andrew Shields
    Dec 1, 2022

    Dave (and Cal) – thanks for this superb Toppermost on a brilliant musician. Elmore’s “Dust My Broom’ is one of the rare instances where a ‘cover’ of a song that is already a classic comes close to equalling the original and also developed a life – and influence – all of its own. And, of course, as you show here, he was far more than a one trick pony. Thanks again.

  2. Alex Lifson
    Dec 18, 2022

    What an essay! What a history lesson. Thank you very much for posting this. Andrew Shields nails it with his analysis of “Dust My Broom”, a favourite song that is still heard with regularity on my Ipod.

  3. Dave Stephens
    Dec 19, 2022

    Thanks guys. History but most enjoyable history in my view (and I’m sure I speak for Cal too). Though there were times when an amount of head scratching was involved making absolutely sure I had the right version of a song. But I think we did successfully show that Elmore James and the phrase “one trick pony” don’t belong in the same sentence.

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