The slack-stringed, wailing, electric guitar riff that opens “Dust My Broom” is a sound that will forever immortalize Elmore James. Although this tune was first recorded by the legendary Robert Johnson, it was the version by James that became an R&B hit in 1952. Guitar players have spent hours and hours copying that sound, but it is Elmore James who owned it. Everyone else is simultaneously a tribute to James, and a pale imitation.
The phrase “dust my broom” means “it’s over, I’m done and leaving” . I imagine back in the day, when the cleaning was done, the last step was to shake the dust off the broom used to sweep up. It was understood to express, “I’m gonna quit you and not come back”. In the first verse of the song, Elmore sings he is going to quit the best girl he’s lovin’, and his friends can have his room. He is gone and won’t need either any more.
Elmore James was born in Mississippi, the birthplace of the blues. His first guitar was undoubtedly acoustic, but soon he helped electrify the blues. Initially an electric pickup was added to the sound hole of an acoustic guitar, and eventually he moved to a fully electric guitar. He moved up to Chicago, and became a fundamental figure in the electric blues sound of Chicago. His sound was studied and copied by scores of blues and rock and roll musicians.
In addition to his guitar work, Elmore James is famous for his vocals. There is a strained, desperate, wailing sound to the way he sings. It is a perfect match for the subject matters of his songs. Many of his tunes have that famous “Jimmy Reed” shuffle figure, with James’ plaintive vocal pleading out the lyrics, and his slide guitar sound getting all the miles he can out of that octave wide “Dust My Broom” riff. When you hear it, it is simply perfection. I can’t imagine it any other way. The main part of his recording career is right in the middle of the time of early Rock & Roll, Rhythm and Blues, and straight up Electric Blues.
Elmore James suffered from a heart condition and died in 1963 of a heart attack. He was just about to join a tour of Europe, with other blues musicians in the American Folk Blues Festival. That tour fed the European appetite for the blues sound, and undoubtedly James would be even more famous had he lived long enough to join that trip. As it is, he is a figurehead in the world of guitar players. Jimi Hendrix sometimes posed for photos, with albums in hand of musicians he respected. One of the most famous photos of Hendrix has him holding an Elmore James record.
The four tunes included in this post are really just scratching the surface of Elmore James’ output. Any tune you run across that has James playing and singing is well worth your time to listen. The music is powerful, expressive, authentic, and something that I can hear over and over again.