Elmore James: The Sky Is Crying

Elmore James
The Sky Is Crying
Music Club

Sometime in 1928 in Canton, Mississippi, ten-year-old Elmore James began playing his first instrument, a homemade guitar called a “diddly-bow” that he had made himself from an old broom handle and lard can. By the time he was a teenager, he was playing in local juke joints with his distant cousin Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller) and the man who would become his major influence, Robert Johnson. These facts alone are enough to make any sane person want to invent a time-travel machine.

The next best thing to hearing such music live is revisiting James’s historic blues recordings. This retrospective offers the music James set down between 1959 and 1963, among the very last recordings he made shortly before his death. Because Elmore James was recognized as a musician of immense stature in the blues world while he breathed, over 400 blues lions crowded into his wake. Elmore James’s fierce, passionate guitar work and his strong, distressed singing were what he had. Put them together and this was his two-fisted approach to a personal, highly emotional expression. In his art, he never held back and gave every song his all.

Elmore James was really pushed around by large forces, and as a result his life and music career sometimes changed direction as a reflection of his circumstances. World War II erupted and James postponed his career to enter service as did other bluesmen. While Howling Wolf served in Washington state with the Army Signal Corps, Elmore James spent three years stationed in Guam with the Navy.

Upon discharge, James picked up where he had left off. He reformed his band, played as a guest on radio shows, and soon found his way into the post-World War II migration up to Chicago. In 1951, he recorded “Dust My Broom” which became a major R&B hit for him. A lot has been written about James’s signature guitar work in this piece, because this one song made an indelible mark on electric urban blues. When James took Robert Johnson’s “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom” and revised it to “Dust My Broom”, James played large with his own signature. The chops he came up with for this song, a way of sliding that also hammers out a stomping rhythm, were amplified and have made their way into nearly every rock and blues guitarist’s bag of tricks. This one song by Elmore James has had an enduring influence on electric guitarists; it became even more popular because not only, after hearing James, did guitarists want to play the song but, because of the structure, they could. If his music was the magnet, then this song was like his lucky lodestone, and James went on to record slightly different versions of it for a few labels. Throughout his career, James recorded it about 100 times. Some companies couldn’t be bothered to get his name straight. A few times he was credited as either “Elmer” or “Elmo”.

This CD should be in every blues collection as essential Elmore James. In particular, the release collects the incendiary sessions that James released on Fire, one of the labels owned by N.Y. entrepreneur Bobby Robinson. Robinson also sold records out of his Happy House record store (with attached shoe-shine parlor), located just one block from the Apollo Theater. Even though this is not the original 1951 recording, it’s fitting that “Dust My Broom” is placed first on this disc. In 1959, Robinson was searching up talent in Chicago for his record company when he saw a cardboard sign on a club announcing “Elmore James Here Tonight”. Robinson went in to ask if this were the Elmore James and even asked James to play “Dust My Broom” to prove his identity.

The song was a good luck charm again for James, because Robinson wanted to record him. The following day, James and his band met to rehearse in a band member’s apartment. Robinson remembered that the landlady was cooking in the back while outside the rain was pouring down in buckets. Robinson was there when James spontaneously wrote “The Sky Is Crying”. Robinson was so impressed that he called around for a studio and the song was recorded that very night. Placed as the second song here, “The Sky Is Crying” climbed the R&B charts and James was back in the running.

James was onstage again with his group “The Broomdusters” and holding his own in the clubs on the circuit. This disc captures some of the material that must have electrified the audiences back then: Elmore James accompanied by Johnnie Jones on piano, the sound enhanced even more by the bleating tenor saxophone of J.T. Brown and occasionally expanded by a second low-down sax on a spine-chilling cover of “Anna Lee”. The great Sammy Myers on harmonica adds a lift to “Look On Yonder Wall”, the original inspiration for the later crossover version by the Butterfield Band. Yet, it’s his slow blues masterpieces “Bleeding Heart” and “It Hurts Me Too” that best illustrate Elmore James. Easy to imagine people becoming overwhelmed by this music, if not shouting, then banging their heads on the table tops, or stunned into momentary immobility before being shot into the stratosphere.

What is ultimately so great about Elmore James is that there really is no defining his greatness, and thousands have tried. What might help is settling down for a good long listen to this CD. Taken with Whose Muddy Shoes, this is an Elmore James must-have.