Sunday, May 11, 2008

Elmore James – The Classic Early Recordings 1951-1956 (Ace 1993, 2007)

This three disc collection takes an extended look at the first half of the lamentably short recording career of the great blues slide guitarist and singer Elmore James. Disc one begins with James's most well known song, an adaptation of Robert Johnson's “Dust My Broom.” Propelled by a stinging slide riff and the swooping harmonica of Sonny Boy Williamson II, it became an unexpected hit and launched not only his career, but was the seed of many blues and rock 'n' roll ands to come. Many of the songs he was to record in the future were based upon this riff as producers tried to recapture the magic of that hit. But he was far from a one-trick pony, as shown by the likes of the fascinating instrumental “Hawaiian Boogie” where adapts aspect of the Hawaiian stlye of slack-key guitar playing to his own electric delta blues foundation. Other notable tracks on the first CD are the strong shuffle “My Baby's Gone” and the deeply emotional slow blues “I Held My Baby Last Night” As impressive as his guitar playing is, his vocals are equally important and hair-raising in their intensity. Some singles featuring James as a sideman are also included, with him sitting in with saxophonist J.T. Brown on some jump blues, and The Bep Brown Orchestra on the ironic “Dumb Woman Blues.” The multiple takes and breakdowns found on discs two and three can be a little repetitive, but that is natural in order to pad out such a large collection. The vast majority of the music found here is electric blues of the highest order, like the scalding up-tempo boogie “Elmo's Shuffle” and the hyper-emotional ballad “Sho' Nuff I Do.” The discs come with an excellent forty page booklet of essays, photos and discography. While this big set might not be the easiest way for a newcomer to discover James's great music, once you have fallen under his spell, it is a great place to dig deeper.

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