cream of the crate review #215: elmore james – the sky is falling
cream of the crate review #215: elmore james – the sky is falling
Album cover – [CLICK to enlarge]

 

  These reviews are provided to help maintain a connection with various genres of popular music extending from the 1940’s through to present time.

 

 

 

"Across all 29 of the tracks on The Sky Is Crying James puts his heart and soul into his playing and his singing – the energy is palpable" - [Jazz Journal April 2009] .. .. .. ""it was like the earth shuddered and stopped on its axis"." - [Brian Jones] .. .. .. "(his) slide-guitar playing inspired a generation of players from the blues field as well as the world of Rock" - [Album liner notes] .. .. ..

This is album review number 215 in the series of retro-reviews of both vinyl LP’s and Cd’s, in my collection.

The series is called “Cream of The Crate” and each review represents an album from my collection that I believe is of significant musical value, either because of it’s rarity, because it represents the best of a style or styles of music or because there is something unique about the group or the music.

Links to the previous 200+ reviews can be found at the bottom of this review.

When it comes to blues and slide, or bottleneck guitar it is hard not to consider Elmore James as the best!

James only released one album during his life – Blues After Hours, in 1960. However, there have been a plethora of compilation albums released since he died and the album.

cream of the crate review #215: elmore james – the sky is falling
CD Label – [CLICK to enlarge]
This album, The Sky Is Crying, was released originally in 1965.

I have the CD, released on the CAMDEN label in 1997, with the catalogue number – 74321 523762.

It has 22 tracks and includes many of his best known tracks.

 

He was born Elmore Brooks on January 27, 1918 in Richland, Holmes County, Mississippi, and born illegitimate to field hand Leola Brooks and was raised by his mother and step-father Joe Willie “Frost” James, from whence he got his surname.

Customising a one-string (“diddley bow”) instrument, as a boy he performed at local dances.

In 1937 he bought his first proper guitar, a $20 National guitar.

After serving his country in the US Navy (between 1943 and 1945), his formative years were spent in the company of Rice Miller (Sonny Boy Williamson II), who was a regular on Radio KFFA’s King Biscuit Time show.

James played on the programme in 1947.

cream of the crate review #215: elmore james – the sky is falling
[CLICK to enlarge]

 

In fact he and Sonny Boy travelled together for several years, with James securing his first contract in early 1951 with Lillian McMurry’s Trumpet label. He initially appeared on disc as a session backing musician for Sonny Boy.

After these sessions, Sonny Boy convinced Elmo James (as he was then billed) to record the track `Dust My Broom’ (with Williamson on harmonica); the record went on to hit the R&B Top 10 in ‘52.

cream of the crate review #215: elmore james – the sky is falling
Elmore James & Sonny Boy Williamson II: late 1950’s in Chicago – [CLICK to enlarge]

 

James duly moved to Chicago where he formed The Broomdusters, signing to the Bihari brothers’ Meteor label for further variations (`I Believe’ and `Dust My Blues’) on his initial hit.

After heavy drinking affected his recording schedules, he was dropped by his record company in 1956 and was blacklisted by the American Foundation of Musicians for using non union backing players.

He went into semi-retirement after a mild heart attack which caused him to reflect on his life, returning to Chicago in 1957 to record with Mel London’s Chief Records, with backing from Wayne Bennett, Eddie Taylor, Fred Belew and Willie Dixon.

cream of the crate review #215: elmore james – the sky is falling
An early colour picture of James taken in the late 1950’s – [CLICK to enlarge]

 

By the end of the 50s, James was tempted to return to performing live, and it was at these spontaneous gigs that he was subsequently spotted by Fire Records boss, Bobby Robinson, who signed him for the release of `The Sky Is Crying’, which became another R&B success in 1960.

On May 24, 1963, on the verge of a comeback, Elmore suffered a third, and this time fatal, heart attack after a concert at the Copa Cabana in Chicago.

Elmore James’ unique bottleneck style of guitar resurfaced in numerous British R&B bands and in particular, Jeremy Spencer (of said Fleetwood Mac) and particularly with Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones, whose early stage name Elmo Lewis in respect of Elmore James.

Just quickly, a bit on his guitar tuning. More often than not, he would tune his guitar to open E [E, B, E, G#, B, E] or open D [D, A, D, F#, A, D] tuning.

His greatest recognition came when B.B. King admitted to adopting areas of Elmore James’ style of guitar work.

So let’s move onto this CD album.

Track Listing:

  1.   The Sky Is Crying
  2.   Dust My Broom
  3.   Fine Little Mama
  4.   Can’t Stop Loving You
  5.   Done Somebody Wrong
  6.   Rollin’ And Tumblin’
  7.   I Need You Baby
  8.   Something Inside Me
  9.   I’m Worried
  10.   Early One Morning
  11.   She Done Moved
  12.   Strange Angels
  13.   Anna Lee
  14.   Stranger Blues
  15.   Look On Yonder Wall
  16.   Standing At The Crossroads
  17.   Baby Please Set A Date
  18.   Shake Your Moneymaker
  19.   My Bleeding Heart
  20.   One Way Out
  21.   Make My Dreams Come True
  22.   Mean Mistreatin’ Mama
cream of the crate review #215: elmore james – the sky is falling
Rear of the CD Cover – [CLICK to enlarge]

 

I’ll start at track one for several reasons, as I have written in many previous album reviews,  take track 1 as the “calling card” of the album; the track which introduces us to the artists and the music.

Secondly, The Sky Is Falling it is also the name of the album and finally, it was only one of five tracks he released as a single that charted, – 1960 on the US R&B chart.

Of course a track that charts or doesn’t, isn’t necessarily an indicator of how good the track is, many great tracks never make it to singles to start with, but this is a beauty.

It is an enduring track that has been covered by many, many greats including Albert King and Eric Clapton.

The sky is crying, look at the tears roll down the street
The sky is crying, look at the tears roll down the street
I’m waiting in tears looking for my baby, and I wonder where can she be?

I saw my baby one morning, and she was walking on down the street
I saw my baby one morning, yes she was walking on down the street
Made me feel so good until my poor heart would skip a beat

I got a bad feeling, my baby, my baby don’t love me no more
I got a bad feeling, my baby don’t love me no more
Now the sky’s been crying, the tears rolling down my door

Recorded in 1959 it is one of two Elmore James recordings to have been honored with a Blues Hall of Fame induction.

The Sky Is Falling

It is impossible to move past Track 2Dust My Broom. This track was his first single and released in 1951.

It was the track that put his name in ‘lights’ when it came to slide guitar, also known as bottleneck”.  The track was written and played originally by the great Robert Johnson, but was electrified by James.

cream of the crate review #215: elmore james – the sky is falling
Elmore with “slide” – [CLICK to enlarge]

 

The startling introduction to this track, in which his slide bar permits a loud, repetitive screech on the high strings while he chugs on the bass strings, changed the history of popular music.

But like many great blues songs, actually tracking down its origins is full of tracks and trails.

In early December 1933 Roosevelt Sykes accompanied Carl Rafferty, a man about who we know absolutely nothing, mention dust my broom on ‘Mr Carl’s Blues’. What we do know is this session was significant in the history of the Blues. ‘Mr Carl’s Blues’ contains the immortal lines, “I do believe, I do believe I’ll dust my broom. And after I dust my broom, anyone may have my room”.

As you will see from the lyrics below – this is a key line. Back then, unlike today, performers swapped songs, heard others sing and lifted what ranged from bits of a song to the complete thing with no thought to copyright – a concept few recognized as important. The blues have an oral tradition which meant that all this happened as a natural process.

I’m gettin’ up soon in the mornin’
I believe I’ll dust my broom
I’m gettin’ up soon in the mornin’
I believe I’ll dust my broom
Out with the best gal I’m lovin’
Now my friends can get in my room
 
I’m gonna write a letter, telephone every town I know
I’m gonna write a letter, telephone every town I know
If I don’t find her in Mississippi
She be in East Monroe I know
 
And I don’t want no woman
Want every downtown man she meets
No I don’t want no woman
Want every downtown man she meets
Man, she’s a no good doney
They shouldn’t allow her on the street, yeah
 
I believe, I believe my time ain’t long
I believe, I believe my time ain’t long
I ain’t gonna leave my baby
And break up my happy home
 
The track starts off with what became his trademark – a thundering full-octave slide guitar opening. 
 
 
Let’s pause at Track 6Rollin’ and Tumblin‘.
 
Just as we get to the point of expecting a every Elmore James track to start with his slide guitar work, we get Rollin’ and Tumblin’.
 
This is a classic delta blues track first recorded by Hambone Willie Newbern in 1929 and then made into a classic” by Muddy Waters in 1950, and since covered by a plethora of black and white artists.
cream of the crate review #215: elmore james – the sky is falling
Early publicity picture – [CLICK to enlarge]
 
One of those was indeed Elmore James who put his own spin on the piece when he recorded it with the Broom Dusters, in 1960. 
 
THE BROOM DUSTERS:
Frank Fields (bass), Little Johnny Jones, Ike Turner,
Edward Frank (piano),
Earl Palmer, Odie Payne, Jr. (drums), Maxwell Davis (tenor sax), Jewel Grant (baritone sax),
James Parr (trumpet), among others.
 
James believed he had changed it sufficiently to claim the authoring rights!
 
It kicks off with a tempo and feel that I immediately thought of, of all people, Bo Diddley! It has a nice “lay-back” tempo, certainly not sounding anything like a delta blues piece with the bass taking pride of place.
 
It’s not until we are into a minute plus, does his guitar come into play, with in an almost “accidental” feel. A bar or two and it disappears almost never to be heard of again!
 
What it means is, that we tend to focus on his vocals which were pitched high. Rock critic Greil Marcus, in his book Mystery Train, described James’s rough and emotional vocal style as “a slashing vocal attack that traded subtlety for excitement.”
 
 
Track 16 has Elmore playing Standing At The Crossroads, not only with slide guitar but with a brass backing.
 
Written in 1936 by the the giant of the blues – Robert Johnson, it’s another track covered by so many.
 
Elmore recorded this version around 1961, and his use of brass certainly gives it a different feel, but the more you listen the more it compels you to listen, even more.
 
 
Track 17 Baby Please Set A Date; this track brings us back to that trademark full-octave slide guitar opening. Co-written with Memphis Minnie [Cream Of the Crate #163] this was not recorded until 1966 and there is a distinct difference in the overall sound, as recording techniques had improved.
 
cream of the crate review #215: elmore james – the sky is falling
Elmore with admirer – [CLICK to enlarge]
 
 
I love this track because it really features that slide guitar sound that is so Elmore James.
 
 
Track 22, the final track on the album, is Mean Mistreatin’ Mama. the track was first recorded and first released by Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell (February 20, 1934 / March 1934).
 

It’s a wonderful 12 bar blues. the use of the slide guitar is far more subtle and lay-back and allows Elmore to move back closer to his roots – the delta blues.

 
Compared too many other great blues payers – Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Lightning Hopkins, to name a few, little is actually known about Elmore James.
 
Passing away in his 45th year means we were never allowed to hear how his music might have grown – but dying young or dying with disaster seems to be the way of the great bluesmen.
 
cream of the crate review #215: elmore james – the sky is falling
Death Certificate: Elmore James – [CLICK to enlarge]
 
So we let his music, especially his slide guitar work, speak for him and – it speaks volumes!
 
Given he only released one LP before he died, the myriad of releases that have come since then are in the main, combinations of the music on that first LP and his singles. So, if you want an Elmore James album, perhaps it doesn’t matter which one you get as long as you get one.
 
cream of the crate review #215: elmore james – the sky is falling

VIDEOS:

Sadly, I was unable to locate any live performances by Elmore James.


Previous Cream of The Crate Albums:

 

To view/listen the first 50 vinyl album reviews just click the image below –

cream of the crate cd review #2 : robert johnson – the complete recordings

 

To view/listen the first 50 Cd album reviews just click the image below –

 

To view/listen album reviews 101 – 150 just click the image below –

 

To view/listen album reviews 151 – 200 just click the image below –

cream of the crate: album reviews #151 – 200