Passionate music followers have been known to trade thoughts on times, places, and musical line-ups they can only fantasize being there to catch. An easy nominee might for one of those would be Sylvio’s bar on Chicago’s West Lake Street in the 1950s and early ‘60s, where Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf traded off as headliners, occasionally shared bills. In those cases, the management definitely wanted an act strong enough to sandwich between those fierce competitors and their enormously skilled and exciting bands to keep both the musical heat and customers in place, and for that, the choice would often be house regulars Elmore James and His Broomdusters. Elmore’s slashing slide guitar and explosive vocal attack were famous in themselves, and had produced the hit “Dust My Broom,” that gave his band its name.
That celebrated song, and its lasting riff, had been taught to Elmore by legend-to-be Robert Johnson, but Johnson’s own record was long out of circulation when James’ electrified version became a hit in 1952, and remained so until 1970; the hundreds of blues revival and rock versions heard since were picked up directly from Elmore, though he didn’t live to know it, having died from a heart attack at age 45, in 1963
The style of guitar and vocal attack stuck because Elmore’s turns on older blues, and songs he came up with himself, were flat out electrifying in all senses of the term. As rock ‘n roll gave way to harder rock, his vocal and instrumental example became all the more a model, for all the more performers. He’d played with a full band (horns sometimes, electric always) as early as 1939, when that was an utterly novel way to present intense, personal Delta blues numbers; his songs and arrangements were built to work in hot band situations. When you hear country traditionalist Jamey Johnson’s take on the now standard blues “It Hurts Me Too,” you can be sure it’s Elmore James’ sturdy and adaptable song being saluted—though history shows that Elmore had adapted it from Tampa Red’s “When Things Go Wrong With You.’ Elmore’s music sticks, instructs, and sets a pace.
That’s evident throughout this salute album— which puts such often-revisited James numbers as “Shake Your Moneymaker,” “Look on Yonder Wall,” and “Person to Person” alongside songs known mainly by James aficionados, gets them into the hands of masterful interpreters from out of the blues, soul, country, pop and Americana arenas, as far-ranging as Tom Jones, Rodney Crowell, Keb Mo, Deborah Bonham of the rocking Bonham family, and sisters Shelby Lynne & Allison Moorer. The set reveals something fresh in the process: Elmore James contributed more than riffs and intensity to American music, he left a body of memorable, adaptable songs that can be renewed again and again in surprising ways. They’re that sturdy—and no less electrifying for it.