No one played the slide guitar like Elmore James. Well, they did – but he did it first. This was his first recording, and became his signature song.
His voice matched the emotion in his playing and so did the ensemble work of his band, The Broomdusters – Little Johnny Jones on piano, J.T. Brown on tenor sax, drummer Odie Payne and his cousin Homesick James on rhythm guitar.
His career lasted barely ten years between his debut recording in 1951 and his death in 1963, though his legacy has lasted far longer.
A radio repairman by trade, he spent his spare time fiddling with his guitar amps in order to make his modified hollow-body acoustic guitar produce raw, distorted sounds that sounded more like a solid-body electric guitar when it was “turned up to 11.”
Born in Mississippi in 1918, the illegitimate son of a 15-year-old cotton picker, he taught himself bottleneck guitar on a one-string ‘jitterbug’ strung on the wall of his momma’s shack when he was only 12, graduating to a home-made instrument fashioned from a broom handle and a lard can.
By the age of 14 he was performing in juke joints all over the area under the names Cleanhead and Joe Willie James, and played with visiting musicians including the great Robert Johnson himself, Howlin’ Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson.
After three years stationed in Guam with the US Navy during WW2, he moved to Memphis to resume playing and made his debut with what would become his signature song, Dust My Broom.
Because Elmore was too shy and nervous to play if he knew he was being recorded, the tapes rolled secretly at the end of a Sonny Boy session in January 1951 and he left the studio before the playback.
The song became a surprise top ten R&B hit, turning him into a star overnight, and he moved to the blues capital of Chicago, where he earned a reputation as one of the city’s best live acts.
Battling a recurring heart condition that was diagnosed soon after his rise to fame, he alternated between Chicago and the his roots in the Delta, recording in New York and New Orleans, before his heart problems caught up with him.
He died in 1963 in Chicago and was buried back in Mississippi.