Thursday, December 31, 2009

December 31: Elmore James, "The Sky Is Crying"

Artist: Elmore James
Album: The Sky Is Crying
Year: 1930-1950 (recorded)/1993 (released)
Label: BMG International

When one looks at the history of blues guitar, there is often a noticeable gap in innovators between Robert Johnson, and more contemporary artists like Bo Diddley and B.B. King. This often leaves people to question just how the electric blues came to such a distinctive, yet mostly universal sound, as most people are not aware of any artist that could fill this gap in time and playing. The truth of the matter is, when one considers this situation, it becomes clear that there was no more important a slide guitar player in the postwar era than the one and only Elmore James. With one of the most distinctive voices in music history, as well as being one of the finest writers ever, it is the guitar sound and style of James that bridged the gap between the raw, simple sounds of Robert Johnson and the more modern sound of blues music. It is largely due to this massive amount of influence that James has posthumously been dubbed "The King Of Slide Guitar," and he also made great strides with his approach to amplification as well as incorporating different backing instruments into the music. As a majority of his recording was done in the "pre-LP" era, James only released a pair of albums during his lifetime, yet the amount of songs he actually recorded is quite staggering. It is due to this fact that one must sift through the mountains of collections of his music to find his finest recordings. With well over one hundred compilations of his music in existence, one can find the ideal collection of the songs of Elmore James on what is easily one of the greatest blues releases in history, 1993's The Sky Is Crying.

As was the norm in those days, the recordings featured on The Sky Is Crying were pulled from a wide range of labels and sessions, and it serves as a testament to the true talent of James that every song is equally as powerful, regardless of where and when it was recorded. There are, in fact, a handful of albums with this title, as it was unquestionably one of his finest songs. However, the version in question here was released as part f the sensational Charly Blues Masterworks collection, and nearly every album in that series is well worth owning. The fact of the matter is, when one looks back at the so-called "classics" of the blues genre, the original writer is almost always one of three people: Robert Johnson, Willie Dixon, or Elmore James. Truth be told, James played many shows alongside Dixon, and for decades, there have been rumors of recordings featuring both James and Johnson in existence. Having played alongside these iconic artists, it is little surprise that James himself is responsible for what is undoubtedly one of the most heavily covered songs in history, and it is this collection that contains James' original recording of the classic song, "Dust My Broom." Sticking to the simple, straightforward themes that make blues music so wonderfully universal, other classics like "Done Somebody Wrong," "Rollin' and Tumblin'," and "Stranger Blues" have been re-worked by other artists over the years, yet these original versions are just as powerful and amazing to experience.

Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the recordings found on The Sky Is Crying is that, even though they are taken from more than two decades worth of scattered sessions, the backing musicians remain virtually the same throughout all of the recordings. This is largely due to the fact that, in that era, if one found a talented blues frontman, it would have been quite counter-productive to try and find another gig, as such players were very few and far between. One of the keys to the distinctive sound that is found within the music of Elmore James is the way in which he involved horns within his blues arrangements. Though he would later play alongside everyone from Muddy Waters to Jimmy Rodgers, saxophone great J.T. Brown got his start as one of the core elements of the music of Elmore James. His counterpart on sax, Paul "Hucklebuck" Williams is equally as brilliant, and his work with James led him to later performances with the likes of Otis Redding and Dinah Washington. Trumpet from Danny Moore rounds out the horn section, and it is this element that truly sets the music of Elmore James aside from his peers. Though he is largely known for his work as a guitarist, the legendary "Homesick" James Williamson actually plays bass on nearly every track on The Sky Is Crying, and it is largely due to his work with James that Williamson developed his own sound. Rounding out the core of James' backing musicians is one of the most influential drummers in music history: Odie Payne. Having backed everyone from Junior Wells to Chuck Berry, Payne played on many of the most important albums of the century, and his presence on The Sky Is Crying only adds to his legendary status. Though there are also a pair of pianists (one of them being Johnny Jones), as well as a few rhythm guitarists featured on The Sky Is Crying, it is these musicians that helped define the sound that would make Elmore James the legendary artist that he remains to this day.

As fantastic as his backing musicians perform on every track, there is never any question that the spotlight of every song is firmly on Elmore James. With a voice that is in every way the "ideal" blues voice, James belts and cries his amazing lyrics, and his vocal style can be heard in countless later artists. Then of course, there is James' absolutely stunning work on his slide guitar. While one might argue that there were other artists who had more technical expertise on the instrument, the truth is, there was NOBODY else in music who brought as much emotion and pure sonic power to the instrument as one finds in the playing of Elmore James. It is largely due to this fact that nearly every blues guitarist who came after James finds themselves at some point being compared to this master of the blues sound. This unparalleled sound is perhaps no more evident than on the albums' title track, the oft covered and truly legendary song, "The Sky Is Crying." The song, which has been covered by everyone from Etta James to Jimi Hendrix to becoming one of Stevie Ray Vaughan's best known songs, is an absolutely iconic song across all genres of music. So massive was the impact of James' song, that it also holds the distinction of being the song that was played at the funeral of legendary Allman Brothers Band guitarist, Duane Allman. From his powerful, soulful vocal delivery, to his absolutely phenomenal guitar work, Elmore James cements his name as one of the all-time musical greats with his performance on this truly iconic song.

Even if one just looks at the titles of the songs found on the Elmore James compilation album, The Sky Is Crying, it becomes immediately clear that he was one of the most important figures i all of music history. From classics like "Done Somebody Wrong" and "Dust My Broom" to slightly lesser known songs like "Held My Baby Last Night" and "Fine Little Mama," there are truly few artists that can boast as many equally influential songs as those in James' catalog. As the creator of some of the most well known songs in history, it is also the way in which James delivered these songs that makes him a legend to this day. James is also widely regarded as one of the first "amplifier technicians," as he altered the circuitry in his amp so that it would produce a slightly distorted and far more raw sound. This seemingly louder sound can be seen as an early equivalent to "turning it up to eleven," and it is due to this alteration that James' music has such a distinctive, and more emotionally sound than that of his contemporaries. Such early innovations would lead to ideas like feedback and other amplifier modifications, and much of this came from James' relationship with Ike Turner. Truth be told, it is nearly impossible to find a sub-par song anywhere within the catalog of Elmore James, and this makes his sudden passing at the age of forty-five all the more tragic. Without question one of the most important figures in music history, it is the 1993 compilation of the songs of Elmore James, The Sky Is Crying, that serves not only as a great introduction of his music, but it also solidifies his spot as one of the key players in the development of modern music.

Standout tracks: "The Sky Is Crying," "Dust My Broom," and "Done Somebody Wrong."

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