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After years of consideration I've come to the conclusion that, within limits, gear is more important as a topic of conversation than as a way of making music. It's just not that important - Chris Smither

Author Topic: Amazing Secret History of Elmore James  (Read 4560 times)

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Offline Bunker Hill

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Amazing Secret History of Elmore James
« on: July 27, 2008, 10:36:35 AM »
Not sure whether this belongs here or in other interests, but I note from the Roots & Rhythm July/August catalogue this is now back in print so thought I'd post what they have to say about it.

The Amazing Secret History of Elmore James by Steve Franz $34.95

Back in print. Originally a masters thesis project, "The Amazing Secret History of Elmore James" combines research from 300 recordings and close to 500 articles, books, liner notes newspaper clippings, interviews, and more. All told, nearly fifteen yean of work were poured into what is now the finished product. The first question that should arise is whether or not that lengthy period of time was well-invested. In a recent review of this book by a respected critic, Franz was taken to task for compiling over 300 pages that, in the end, offer very little in the way of newly uncovered information on the guitarist. That fact may present itself to blues scholars but a far greater number will have little knowledge of outdated documents dating back to the 1960's. By collecting decades of research and articles on the artist, many unseen for years, the book succeeds at capturing the life of Elmore. His entire life is covered nicely, from his early years through the 1940's when he frequently worked with Sonny Boy Williamson II and other luminaries, as well as richly detailed passages on Chicago and trip back and forth from the South. Also touched upon are heart ailments that eventually took his life, plus his relationships with band members and record producers.

The picture Franz paints appears to be, for the most part, an honest one. James might well have been an exceptional musician and convincing vocalist, in addition to being a strong songwriter, but he wasn't without faults, inconsistencies, or the more than occasional backhanded attempt to pocket more than his share of money. Known to double-back on signed recording contracts and overlap labels, Elmore also ran afoul of the Chicago union for working with others who weren't current cardholders, skipping out with deposits for performances that he failed to fulfil, or recording for a company outside of the union, and he was also prone to drinking heavily and seemed to have a certain level of contempt for his fans, berating them publicly at times, much to the dismay of others. If there is one recurring error that possesses this work, it's that the author goes overboard in trying to capture the essence of the artist through a rather extensive catalog of recordings. With efforts of this sort, a good deal of the story is conveyed by dissecting recorded works and the sessions that involved those recordings, and while this doesn't detract from the contents, Franz comes across in favor of Elmore James as the do-all, end-all bluesman, which presents itself in glaring fashion now and then.

The book is peppered with biographical sketches on Joe Carter, Hound Dog Taylor, John Littlejohn, J.B. Hutto, and Homesick James and also covers some "Myths and Folklore". Curiously absent among the photographic layout is the earliest known picture of Elmore, one found in a private collection by noted researcher, Dr. David Evans. There are short sections on family members and musicians as well as producers and labels along with a complete discography, including a dizzying array of label shots, trade paper items, and a breakdown of all known LP's and CD's that contain Elmore's music, which shows the author's propensity for binding together all pertinent information. Unfortunately written off by some as a slide guitarist with little more than one credible lick in his pocket, which is far from the total picture of the man or his enormous contributions, his story has been long overdue considering the early research of Europeans that began as far back as the late l 950's. lames was never interviewed by today's standards, and when he was it was well before his catalog of work was completed. Although "The Amazing Secret History of Elmore James" might not uncover any earth shattering finds, the fact that everything has been neatly gathered together is unquestionably commendable. Its list price is a bit expensive for a paperbound book, but what is included will thoroughly satisfy those interested in getting a total picture of the man and his numerous recording ventures. Highly recommended. (Craig Ruskey)

Offline snakehips

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  • Hi there !
Re: Amazing Secret History of Elmore James
« Reply #1 on: July 27, 2008, 02:01:29 PM »
Hi there !

As a fully 100% commited Elmore James fan, I bought it when it came out, as I just HAD to have it !!! In fact, I bought two ! One for one of my pals, also an Elmore fan.

I wasn't disappointed at all with the book. I would have loved to have included all the photos known to exist of him - ones missing are - (mentioned above) the "rooming house photo", gig  photos with the Les Paul shaped Kay electric (only ever seen them in a book of Elmore guitar tab) and a gig picture of Elmore playing a huge archtop electric (with F-holes - a 1950's Harmony guitar with P13 pickup, I think).

One photo important to me, first published in this book, was Elmore playing his Kay guitar, with his picking right-hand out of the way, showing proof of the Dearmond Rhythm Chief Model 1000 pickup, mounted on it. It took me like 15 years to work out what pickup he was using and to locate one, for a half decent price on ebay and try it out on a dreadnought acoustic - and YES, it gives the "Elmore sound" ! " months later, the book came out with the proof I had been looking for all those years !!!

While he dispells most myths about Elmore, one area I felt was lacking in actual facts (and thus perpetuates guess-work that is essentially WRONG !) is about Elmore's supposed guitar tinkering. Having being obsessed by this myself, I know that all he did was stick a pickup (Dearmond Rhythm Chief) on his Kay acoustic on to the body (between the soundhole and the bridge) and experiment with other pickups IN the soundhole. None of those soundhole pickups stayed for long, if anyone bothers to check the photos (and dates when they were taken). The Rhythm Chief pickup is in ALL photos - thus I think it shows it was his favoured pickup. My main example of this is the Dearmond soundhole pickup - long thought to be the pickup to use, to get the Elmore sound. Well, this pickup is only on his guitar on the colour photos from an October 1959 gig. The pickup isn't there in 1957 pictures and gone in December 1959 pictures (Big Bill Hill radio session). I have tried this pickup on my Kay acoustic and there are 2 problems with it :
1. it doesn't have the Elmore sound,
2. On his guitar, the pickup would be miles away from the strings - so it would have a very poor signal/volume compared to the Rhythm Chief pickup.

I have the exact same guitar - so I know ! See the link :
http://i51.photobucket.com/albums/f390/snakehips82/Colne20077.jpg

One thing that I feel is WAY un-necessary in the book is to provide FULL listings of every issue of Elmore LP's and CD's etc etc (including every cheap reissue) - especially including what tracks are on each issue.
First issue label and dates plus all available tracks, where to find them now, seems all that is necessary, to me.

Overall though, I think it is a great book, collating together all (most) about what is known about him, plus stuff I had never seen/read about before.

I wish he could have made attempts to interview some more key figures who were associates with Elmore. Ike Turner springs immediately to mind - too late now, as he has passed away. Ike might have been able to give more info about Elmore, if asked the right questions, and if he wouldn't mind answering.

Great overall though.

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Amazing Secret History of Elmore James
« Reply #2 on: July 28, 2008, 04:55:38 AM »
I wish he could have made attempts to interview some more key figures who were associates with Elmore. Ike Turner springs immediately to mind - too late now, as he has passed away. Ike might have been able to give more info about Elmore, if asked the right questions, and if he wouldn't mind answering.
He was asked about working/recording with Elmore by a variety of EJ researchers dating back to the early days of Blues Unlimited. From memory he didn't have much to impart other than confirm that he was present at sessions. I guess that's why Franz didn't pursue the matter with Ike. I'll do a bit of digging if you are keen to find out.
« Last Edit: July 28, 2008, 04:58:06 AM by Bunker Hill »

Offline snakehips

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  • Posts: 40
  • Hi there !
Re: Amazing Secret History of Elmore James
« Reply #3 on: July 28, 2008, 02:18:47 PM »
Hi again !

Yes, please !

Questions that bug me are - did he take 2 guitars to gigs ?
One for his open D slide stuff and one in regular tuning for his T-Bone Walker stuff ?

Surely he couldn't have played for hours in the key of D, per gig ???

His recordings all sound like they are using the same guitar (and specifically, the Rhythm Chief pickup) - only the studio sound and amp he used changes the sound of his guitar quite a bit.

Offline Bunker Hill

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  • Posts: 2832
Re: Amazing Secret History of Elmore James
« Reply #4 on: May 24, 2013, 09:41:08 AM »
In light of today being the 50th anniversary of his death, I thought I'd reactivate this ancient topic.

Tags: Elmore James books 
 


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