Elmore James: The Sky is Crying: The History of Elmore James

Elmore James
The Sky is Crying: the History of Elmore James

It’s difficult for me to be objective about this album. Asked to describe it, I easily fall into generic superlatives like “amazing” or “masterpiece.” All true, but they don’t indicate what kind of amazing masterpiece this is.

The simple answer would be that this is the sort of amazing masterpiece that helped bridge blues and rock ‘n’ roll. No less a personage than Little Richard, the self-proclaimed inventor of rock ‘n’ roll, admitted that, when he was starting out, there were only two musicians he knew of doing real rock: himself and Elmore James. Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones recounted how, when he first heard Elmore James, “it was like the earth shuddered and stopped on its axis”. No wonder, then, that Stones bassist Bill Wyman has said that James was likely the single most important reason for the formation of the Rolling Stones. And no less than Rod Stewart, he of the Great American Songbook, has said that Elmore James was a major influence on his singing style. Given those testimonials and the fact that Elmore James learned his “Dust My Broom” lick from Robert Johnson himself, James has a pedigree uniquely poised between blues and rock.

But even that description would still be incomplete as far as it makes Elmore James out to be a mere transition between two goals. His work stands too well on its own merits to need validation from the rock world as a historical influence. The compliments are justified, but, especially for the new listener, it seems to imply that blues was a mere bridge between the “final” form of rock.

Also, though James took his trademark “Dust My Broom” from Robert Johnson, he did more than play it on electric guitar. He electrified it and pumped it full of big band muscle, converting Johnson’s solo acoustic slide into the backbone of a sound he played with full backing bands cranked up to maximum volume. Listening to even Muddy Waters’s early electric recordings, there isn’t such a discrepancy between the sound of those and his early Delta recordings. Waters, at least in his first few years, used his electric guitar for sharp, sustained notes at key moments, but the songs, often with only one or two backing musicians, still have the feel of traditional Delta blues.

James, who started his recording career as an electric musician fronting a full band, opted for a loud, full sound seemingly before his peers. Though B. B. King integrated horns into his band, King was influenced by the uptown swing, even jazz, of musicians like Louis Jordan. For King, a full band lent polish to his sound, smoothing out the rough edges and filling out the gaps between just guitar and bassist and drummer.

With James, it’s hard not to believe sometimes that he wanted to front a band simply because a band with horns and piano could — in his case, would — be louder than a band without. As with the amps he customized so that he could wring more distortion and feedback from them (decades ahead of Spinal Tap), James’s band actually intensified the rough edges of its leader’s own cacophonous slide and sandpaper-on-gravel voice. Before Willie Dixon’s poppy neoprimitivism shaped the Chess sound and while B. B. King used a band to echo jump and swing and jazz, James made the virtually unprecedented move of expanding to increase the hard force of his music.

While folkies valued rough edges (at least in the abstract; Lead Belly still had to tone down his sound for his audiences of white New York intellectuals), they were also notoriously protective of the traditional, acoustic “integrity” of their music. James, however, combined genuine love for a savage sonic attack (as opposed to a folkie valuing primitivism as a supposed hallmark of genuine roots music) with a practicality that would embrace any technology or instrument that would bring him closer to the sound he loved best, a sound that, in his words, was “louder than God”. As much as his actual sound has been influential, the idea of using any means available to achieve a harsher sound as an end in itself has become a rock standard.

At the end, though, it still comes down to how much I love each one of these 21 songs. At various times, literally each of the songs here has been the personal “hit” single, the one I’d put on the CD just to hear. As far as it can be transcendent to hear any emotion, from love to lust to heartbreak to poignant, introspective regret (check out “Done Somebody Wrong”), bludgeoned into shape to perfectly fit the most savage, primal sound imaginable, this album is.

Why did white boys like Iggy Pop even try?