Friday Night with Guitar George: Elmore James Edition


A three-inch section of hollow glass is the humble object that represents a balm to the soul, a salve to weary bones and a troubled mind. This singular item represents the difference between guitar and slide guitar, which is not unlike the difference between standard Woodford Reserve and Woodford Double Oaked.

The undisputed master of slide guitar is Holmes County Mississippi’s Elmore James. So solid is his reputation, even his Ebenezer Mississippi tombstone proclaims “King of the Slide Guitar.” If you love Duane Allman or Eric Clapton, by extension you love Elmore James, but Eric and Duane are merely the two most notable on a very long list of James devotees.

Garnering his stellar reputation during the glory days of the Delta bluesmen, James occupied a pivotal period in music history when the lives and music of Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, Son House, Willie Brown, Elmore James and Muddy Waters all overlapped each other, with various combinations of these six men performing together and sometimes recording together, and all of them borrowing each other’s licks. It is a pointless exercise to debate which of these men was the best of the group, but there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that James was the best with the slide. However, had James not been so widely recognized as a great guitarist, it is likely that he still would have been successful on the strength of his voice alone. Blessed with a broad vocal range, not only in pitch but in style and intonation as well, James sang every song with palpable conviction regardless of the tempo or subject matter.

Due to the aforementioned “overlapping” of the Delta bluesmen, songwriting credits are often problematic: several artists would sing variations of the same song (sometimes under different titles), but only one could be credited as the “songwriter”. “Dust My Broom”, one of James’ signature songs, is a prime example. His was a cover of Robert Johnson’s “I Believe I Will Dust My Broom”, which in turn was most likely an adaptation of a song called “I Believe I’ll Make a Change” that was recorded in 1932 by the Sparks Brothers. Regardless of the song’s true origin, it is James’ killer electric riff with which he opens the song that makes his version the best and is the reason the song became such a popular standard for bluesmen and rockers alike. The list of artists who have covered “Dust My Broom” reads like a Who’s Who and includes men and women, blacks and whites, Americans and Englishmen.

Here is a small but representative sampling of Elmore James covers:

The Sky is Crying Stevie Ray Vaughan. I would imagine that even Elmore James himself would be impressed by this typically passionate performance by SRV.

One Way Out” Allman Brothers Band. This song is so strongly identified with ABB, one assumes they wrote it. Here is Elmore’s original.

Dust My Broom ZZ Top. Recorded on the German TV show Rockpalast, this 1980 performance shows the boys from Texas back when they still played like hungry young men trying to make names for themselves.

My Baby’s Gone Fleetwood Mac. This is the original Big Mac lineup that includes co-guitarists Peter Green and Jeremy Spencer, both of whom were big Elmore James fans.

Talk To Me Baby Kenny Wayne Shepherd. This song and “I Can’t Hold Out” are sometimes listed as separate compositions by James, but they are nearly identical versions of each other.

It Hurts Me Too The Grateful Dead with Duane Allman. This one is audio only, but you don’t need a video—just lean back, close your eyes, and listen to Duane doing Duane things.

This week’s featured performance is Eric Clapton performing “Everyday I Have the Blues” in a film by Martin Scorcese that never got released. What I love about this performance is how passionate Eric is on both the guitar and the vocals. He looks to be channeling the very essence of Elmore in his prime, torching up a smoky Mississippi juke joint on a muggy Saturday night.

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