Elmore James – Opher’s World pays tribute to a genius.

Elmore James – opher’s World pays tribute to a genius.

Posted on  by Opher

elmore james

After my friend Dick Brunning had introduced me to the Blues through the wonders of Lightnin’ Hopkins. John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf I made my own discovery. Back then Blues records were like gold-dust. You had to hunt for them in the right places. You stumbled across one and played it to death. It was so special. Thus it was with Elmore James. I miraculously found his album sixteen greatest hits. From the moment I put in on my old Dansette and the first glorious notes of Dust My Broom seared out through those tinny speakers I was hooked. He was mine. I had discovered him and not only that, he was the best.

Nobody before or since has made a guitar sound quite like that. I later discovered that he used to work in an electrical shop and created his own original amps and guitar pick-ups. He designed that unique earthy sound and it’s probably died with him. I went to see where that shop had been on Hickory Street in Canton. It was just a derelict street now with empty plots. There was no sign that one of the greatest Blues singers of all time had ever worked there.

Elmore played electric slide-guitar. He took the old slide style from Robert Johnson and Kokomo Arnold and electrified it to suit the noisy Chicago Blues clubs of the 1950s. He turned the amp up and that hollow bodied guitar seared with raw energy. His band – The Broomdusters’ – laid down a solid heavy beat that was a driving platform for Elmore to lay his red hot notes on. The band chugged along and the harp wailed but it was Elmore’s guitar was seared into your ears and set you on your feet. Then, incredibly, that voice came into play, so anguished, colourful and mournful. I thought that Dust My Broom was the best thing I’d ever heard but then Shake your Money Maker was even better and revelation after revelation emerged as each new track came up. It never left my turntable.

Somehow a Blackman from the depths of Mississippi had produced songs to suit black audiences in Chicago clubs had come up with a sound that connected with a young fourteen year old kid from the deep South of the Thames Delta in England. There was something so real and powerful about his music. It was a million miles from Herman’s Hermits who was gracing the charts at that time. There was nothing sanitised or ‘produced’ about it. It was real. The lyrics were also stark and more poetic and inspired than anything the Pop charts could offer. When Elmore sang about not wanting any woman who wanted every downtown man she meet, she’s a no good doney, they shouldn’t allowed her on the street, he was singing about a real world of grown up black America not some teenage love fantasy. I didn’t know what a doney was but I could pick up on the sex and depth of emotion. I could imagine what that woman might be shaking when she was shaking her moneymaker. I could picture those hot clubs with everyone up on their feet shaking and grinding to Elmore’s raw power. I could see those dusty Mississippi towns with all those strange alien names when he sang about the sky is crying look at the tears run down the street. There was a rich mysteriousness to it that you did not get in Beat music. This was straight out of the hot sweaty cotton fields of Mississippi via the hotter, sweatier clubs of Chicago and I was turned on to it. Yeah – ‘I believe my time ain’t long’ as well. You have to wring all your fun and pleasure out of what you had. There was intensity to the Blues of Elmore’s that spoke of some more primordial urges. Life was short and brutal. You took your pleasures and lived it to the full. This wasn’t Walton on Thames high street. This was the whiskey slugging black underworld of Chicago with its gangsters, guns and knives. It was more vivid.

A few years later I was passing Dobell’s Record shop on Charing Cross Road on my motorbike and spied two Elmore James albums in the window. It was the middle of the night and the shop was shut. I had to make a special trip all the way back to London to get those albums. They were so special.

Every one of Elmore’s albums resonates with me. I would have travelled the planet to see him play. Unfortunately at about the same time I was busy discovering him he was busy dying. He died of a heart attack. The mythology was that it was in the middle of a recording session. I don’t know about that but I do know that it was just prior to him coming over to England. He had been booked on one of the Blues Festivals that had been finding ecstatic audiences in Britain. He never made it. I would probably not have made it to see him anyway. I was only fourteen and not up for trips to London. That might have been even more tantalising. But there would have been some recorded evidence and perhaps even some film. He never played in front of a white audience.

Elmore James was not only the King of the Slide Guitar; he was the outstanding Blues Singer of all time.

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