NPR for Northern Colorado
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Elmore James Was The Prototype Electric Slide Guitarist

Tomato Records

Once you’ve heard Elmore James sing and play you’ll know that sound every time you hear it. His voice and guitar style are as instantly recognizable as B. B. King, Muddy Waters or Howlin’ Wolf.

Known as “The King of the Slide Guitar," Elmore James started life as Elmore Brooks in 1918, the illegitimate son of 15-year-old field hand Leola Brooks of Holmes County, Mississippi.

Taking his last name from his probable father, Elmore started playing music on a one stringed instrument that was common among folk musicians of the region, the diddley bow. That’s the instrument that gave Rock and Roll legend Ellas Otha Bates his far better known stage name. In his mid-teens he started playing guitar at local dances and fish fries.

Like so many in the South of the 1930s, he was heavily influenced by Robert Johnson, Kokomo Arnold, and Tampa Red. And it was from Tampa Red that Elmore acquired the piano player and drummer for his band The Broomdusters.


Elmore was probably a bigamist as he may not have divorced his first wife of 1942 before marrying again in 1947 and once more about 1954. Serving in the United States Navy during World War Two, Elmore James participated in the invasion of the island of Guam.

Returning to Mississippi after the war, Elmore went to work as a radio repair man. With those skills he developed an electric guitar sound using a loud distorted amplifier and a converted acoustic guitar with an odd positioning of two pickups.

He first recorded in early 1951 as a sideman for Sonny Boy Williamson II, working with others before his own first session recording “Dust My Broom” which became his signature piece. That song became a major R&B hit in 1952 and made him a star. Some claim it was written by Elmore, but it was the Robert Johnson recording of 1936, “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom” turned electric.


Flair Records scout Ike Turner, of Ike and Tina fame, signed Elmore for the label soon after “Dust My Broom” was released and it was with Flair and later Chess and Fire Records that he recorded several of his most iconic songs like "It Hurts Me Too," "The Sky Is Crying," "Look on Yonder Wall," "Done Somebody Wrong," and "Shake Your Moneymaker."

Like too many Blues and other musicians, Elmore James had a real problem with hard liquor and it took the lives of several of his sidemen before hes himself died of drink related heart problems in 1963. Elmore James was age 45 at the time.

Elmore James’ legacy includes his influence on a legion of slide guitarists, among them Homesick James, John Littlejohn, Hound Dog Taylor, and J. B. Hutto. The Rolling Stones' Brian Jones, Canned Heat's Alan Wilson and Fleetwood Mac's Jeremy Spencer all credit Elmore with helping create their guitar sounds and his songs were covered by many including Albert King, Stevie Ray Vaughan, George Thorogood and Eric Clapton.

You can check out some Elmore James this week on The Nine O’clock Blues.


Related Content