Elmore James: Blues Kingpins

Chip O'Brien

Elmore James

Blues Kingpins

Label: EMI
US Release Date: 2003-08-05
UK Release Date: Available as import

Elmore James, one of the greatest, most passionate and emotive blues singers and slide guitar players of all time, straddled the fence between rock 'n' roll and blues, influencing everyone from Chuck Berry to the Beatles and Eric Clapton to a much younger generation of players such as Eric Johnson and Eric Sardinas. However, if you're looking for a place to begin getting acquainted with the songs that made James famous, tunes such as "The Sky Is Crying", "It Hurts Me Too", or "Shake Your Money Maker", you'd be better off starting with one of James's other greatest hits CDs, because none of these songs are present. Nevertheless, the tracks gathered here are well worth a listen, especially for the collector or aficionado already familiar with James's more popular recordings.

The album begins with "Lost Woman Blues", a driving shuffle and fine example of James's dominating slide sound and passion-drenched vocal. The track was recorded by Joe Bihari for his label in a juke joint in Canton, Mississippi in 1952 during a marathon recording session which also produced the second track, "Rock My Baby Right", a more playful tune which displays James's T-Bone Walkeresque single-note soloing. The recording is raw but totally listenable, the guitar and vocal way up front in the mix, and foreshadows the musical revolution the R&B of this era would soon invoke. Another track that shows James could play single-note solos with the best of them is "Dark and Dreary", a more laid back and slick recording, bringing to mind the smoother sounds of Hank Ballard and artists of that ilk. "The Way You Treat Me" also finds James exhibiting his formidable single-note chops.

The influence James has had on bottleneck slide players since the beginning of his recording career cannot be overstated. His mastery of this blues guitar style is evident throughout this collection as it is on most of the recordings James made. Yet there are a few standouts on this album. "Hawaiian Boogie", an instrumental track, could be used as a primer for any fledgling slide player, as could one of the later tracks on the album, "Dust My Blues", a near copy of James's biggest hit, the Robert Johnson classic, "Dust My Broom".

The freshest tracks found in this collection, where James's many talents seem to coalesce most naturally, are "No Love in My Heart for You", with its Latin tinged groove on the verse and swing feel on the chorus, and "Sunny Land", which possesses a more traditional blues feel and simply blows the listener over with its sparse arrangement and primal vocal.

The album concludes with "Blues before Sunrise", a pretty standard shuffle, and, appropriately, a song titled "Good Bye". "Good Bye" opens with '50s style piano, chunking out chords in 12/8, the meter so commonly utilized in '50s pop rock songs, and doo-wop background vocals, placing James in a setting to which he was unaccustomed. Surprisingly, it works incredibly well. One wonders why James didn't do more of this. Had he had success in this arena, he certainly could have made a lot more money.

The Blues Kingpins series contains six "best of" volumes. Artists included in the series are Fats Domino, Ike Turner, John Lee Hooker, Lightnin' Hopkins, B.B. King, and Elmore James. A portion of the proceeds is to be donated to the Blues Foundation. This alone is a good enough reason to run out and purchase all six CDs.

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