Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Amazing Secret History of Elmore James

Among the greatest of all Blues artists, Elmore James’ influence is heard in the music of countless musicians today, whether his cousin Homesick James Williamson, Chicago slide guitar boogie master, Lil Ed Williams, New Orleans slide master Deacon John, Fleetwood Mac founder Peter Green or George Thorogood’s blues-rock. James’ recording of Dust My Broom is among the seminal blues recordings and covered or adapted by countless artists. Even forty years after his death, the passion and urgency in his music is evident to anyone who spends anytime listening to his recordings. Elmore’s music was so powerful that Steve Franz did his Masters research on Elmore. Several years ago, Franz published a discography of Elmore’s music.Adding additional research, he has completed the first full-length biography of James, The Amazing Secret History of Elmore James (BlueSource Publishing).

James died of a heart attack in 1963 right around the time interest in Chicago blues was growing outside the African-American community. He was only subject to cursory interviews by several Europeans, such as photographer George Adins who saw him performing in various Chicago night clubs. As a result, much of what we know about his life derives from interviews from those who played with him or knew him including his cousin, “Homesick” James Williamson, harmonica player and vocalist Sam Myers, the late drummer Odie Payne, James’ Atlanta manager Otis Ealey, and record producer Bobby Robinson.

There is also an account of Elmore in performance in a southern juke joint excerpted from civil rights pioneer James Meredith’s autobiography. Other information is gathered from various public and quasi-public records including those of the Chicago Musicians Union local. Included also are brief discussions of some of the myths about Elmore, his influence and biographies of the musicians who played with Elmore and some of the artists who were directly affected by Elmore including Homesick James, J.B. Hutto, Joe Carter and Hound Dog Taylor.

There is also an extensive discography of Elmore’s recordings including listings of various album reissues. This is copiously illustrated with pictures of Elmore and his musical associates. There are a few minor typos but this is an impressive contribution to the literature on the blues. This can be obtained from amazon or

This review was written after I purchased this book. The review originally appeared in the April 2003 DC Blues Calendar, then the newsletter of the DC Blues Society. I have made minor stylistic revisions and updated the purchase information from the original review.

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