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The life and times of Elmore James: ‘The King of Slide Guitar

Commonly regarded as The Beatles’ weakest effort, Let It Be nonetheless offers a number of Easter Eggs that its fans can still enjoy some 50 years later. Between the sniggering and the gibberish arrives an interesting throwaway comment from George Harrison, who interjects to say: “Elmore James got nothing on this, baby”. 

It is, of course, a comment made in jest, responding to John Lennon’s slide work on ‘For You Blue’, yet there’s a great reverence to the comment. It says something that Lennon can be compared to a man who lived under the moniker of ‘The King of Slide Guitar’. 

Elmore James was a formidable talent and one who has been credited with forming the modern-day template for slide-guitar. His approach was simple and direct, but performed with great power, his fingers pressed on the fret-board. And he certainly proved influential, as is apparent in Keith Richards’ 2010 memoir, Life. When Richards met Brian Jones, they agreed that James’ guitar playing was one of the more impressive in blues, a genre they set out to pay tribute to as The Rolling Stones. 

James’ voice was powerful and certainly sincere, but it’s his skills as a guitarist that has stood the test of time. Indeed, he was one of the masters of the blues genre, curating a new language that could be understood by people in Ireland, Britain, and other parts of the non-English speaking world. “I know I’m not Elmore James or Muddy Waters,” Rory Gallagher is quoted as saying. “But I certainly have the power to enlighten people to their music, and on top of that, hopefully end up with something that stands up as my own document. At some point, when I’m 40 or 50 I hope I’ll have a very distinct sound, as Elmore or Muddy did, so that when you turn on the radio–that’s Rory Gallagher”.

Born in Mississippi, James was an illegitimate child who took the surname of Joe Willie ‘Frost’ James, who lived with his mother. Performing as Cleanhead and Joe Willie James, James was something of a teenage prodigy and played at concert halls. 

Discharged from services during World War II, James returned to his hometown, where he refined his guitar sound, before working as a session player for Trumpet Records in the early 1950s. 

Promoted to session leader, James recorded ‘Dust My Broom’ in 1952, a rollicking makeover of a blues standard that may have influenced Jimi Hendrix’s work as a guitarist. Commencing with a sharp riff, the song blisters along, before his shimmering voice comes along, pushing the song along to more frenzied heights. Polished by a wailing harmonica line, the recording is given new life through a blinding succession of fiery licks and tremelos. 

It remains James’ most beloved number, although he is also popular for his rousing rendition of ‘Shake Your Money Maker’, an infectious blues-rock number later covered by Jimmy Page and The Black Crowes. Page recalled the nights he spent learning the riffs to James’ work as a burgeoning guitar player, and when Page finally felt confident enough to perform slide on a Led Zeppelin track, it was on the storming ‘In My Time of Dying’, one of the more inventive numbers in their canon. 

‘Shake Your Money Maker’ made an impact not only in the world of blues, but it transitioned into the realm of rock as well. Again, it was a hybrid number that highlighted James’ voice and guitar, although the instrumental segment is the most noteworthy part of the song, not least because it punches along at break-neck speed. 

James was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992 as an “Early Influence” inductee, which was flattering, albeit a bit back-handed. There’s nothing “early” about ‘Shake Your Money Maker’, and it still forms the basis of modern-day indie rock. Indeed, he should have been inducted as a solo artist, which Keith Richards would almost certainly be in favour of. He wasn’t alone, as Bill Wyman recalled his amazement at hearing the guitarist for the first time. “I discovered Elmore James,” the bassist recalled, “And the earth seemed to shudder on its axis”. 

James died of a heart attack in 1963, so he never got to witness the influence he had on The Beatles, The Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin. Engraved on his headstone are the words ‘The King of Slide Guitar’. For more modern context, simply listen to Jack White’s work with The Raconteurs: primal, piercing, yet loaded with personality and style. James may be dead, but his influence lives on, and more importantly, his work still holds up. 

Other highlights amongst James work includes his blazing version of ‘The Sky Is Crying’, or the yearning of ‘Look On Yonder Wall’. What he brings to these performances isn’t professional decorum, but raw, animal-like ability. In short, it was the beginning of a genre that was popular in the 1970s: punk. 

Bolstered by a trail-blazing slide, James proved himself one of the more exciting performers of his generation. Had he lived long enough to see The Rolling Stones, he would have no doubt been invited onstage. It’s doubtful if he would have been incorporated into The Beatles sphere, but he was certainly an influence on George Harrison, who fashioned his very own sound on slide guitar as a solo artist. The slide guitar appeared on The Beatles track ‘Free As A Bird’, offering a newer, rougher texture to the band’s more polished work. A tribute to James? To the king of the slide guitar!

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