The Amazing Secret History of Elmore James was originally a masters' thesis project for author Steve Franz, and as he points out in the book's preface, he consulted over 300 recordings in addition to researching the artist through close to a combined 500 articles, books, liner notes, newspaper clippings, interviews, and more. All told, nearly fifteen years 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 by Mr. Franz, who maintained his thesis format throughout this self-published product. In Robert Gordon's "Can't Be Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters" (Little, Brown Publishers, 2002) the author elected to weave his extensive notes into a section following the main biographical storyline, in a job so well done, their inclusion seemed to be an additional bonus chapter that polished off the finished work. As opposed to placing his research notes toward the back of this work, Franz chose to include them at the bottom of each page, and while this might be far easier for the reader to reference, it does make for a somewhat disjointed undertaking. There's little question as to just how much work went into the story, but with notes numbering in excess of the 800-mark, it becomes a bit confusing to continually scan the lower half of the pages to figure where his numerous sources originated.
In a recent review of this book by a respected critic, Steve Franz was perhaps unfairly taken to task for compiling over 300 pages that, in the end, seemingly offer very little in the way of newly uncovered information on Elmore James. While that fact may well present itself to certain blues scholars who have been interested in the music for more years than most, a far greater number may have little knowledge of antiquated documents previously written by John Broven, Mike Leadbitter, and others that date back to the 1960's in what are now prized issues of Blues Unlimited or other hard-to-find publications. By thoroughly investigating everything he could locate on Elmore, Franz has managed to collect and collate decades of research and articles on the artist, many that haven't seen the light of day in years, and never before in complete form; that in itself is an accomplishment of major proportions. He details James' early life and playing excursions with his cousin, Robert Earl Holston, dating back to the 1930's, follows him through the 1940's when he frequently worked with Rice Miller (Sonny Boy Williamson II) and other luminaries, and offers richly configured passages on the lengthy stays in Chicago, as well as his trips back to the South. Also touched upon are the heart ailments that dogged the guitarist and eventually took his life in May of 1963, and his relationships with numerous band members and record producers are also looked at.
The picture that Franz paints of his chosen subject appears to be, for the most part, an honest one. Elmore James might well have been an exceptional guitar player and highly convincing vocalist, in addition to, at times, being a superb songwriter, but as with nearly any figure in blues lore, he wasn't without faults, inconsistencies, or the more than occasional backhanded attempt to pocket more than his share of money. He had a tendency to double-back on signed recording contracts and overlap labels as he did with Trumpet, Flair, Fire, and Chess, and James frequently ran afoul of Local #208, the federation of union musicians in Chicago, for often mishandling his business ventures either by working with others who weren't current cardholders, skipping out with deposits for performances that he failed to fulfill, or recording for an imprint that wasn't listed as part of the union. James was also a heavy drinker who seemed to have a certain level of contempt for his fans, berating them publicly at times, much to the dismay of others, including drummer Odie Payne, a longstanding member of The Broomdusters, Elmore's band.
If there is one recurring error that possesses this work, it's that the author goes overboard in trying to capture the essence of Elmore James through a rather extensive catalog of recordings. With efforts of this sort, especially when the artist in question passed away nearly forty years ago, a good deal of the story is conveyed by dissecting recorded works and the sessions that involved those recordings. This in itself doesn't detract from the contents, but Franz appears to be lopsidedly in favor of Elmore James as the do-all, end-all bluesman, which presents itself in glaring fashion in the closing section (paraphrased below) on James proper, where Franz challenges blues expert, Jim O'Neal:
But just to go O'Neal one better - if only to prove that being a founding editor of Living Blues magazine doesn't necessarily also make you the king of unlikely hypothetical scenarios - what if instead of one song, you could only have one minute? The one minute I would choose would be the last minute of "I Believe." There are few moments in recorded blues as defining as this one minute of audio... Oh, that solo! Part grit and part valve grinding compound fused into 19,000 volts of electricity, the sound of Elmore's guitar climbs out of the grooves of the disc and ascends to a towering height... For that one brief minute, all is right with the world. For one brief minute, there is nowhere else on earth to be than where I am right now. For one brief minute, the Broomdusters are always flesh and blood, never gone, but still with us in the here and now - alive and vital. For that one minute, all is well, balance has been restored to the universe, and I am at peace.
While most would agree that Elmore James is deserving of his place in the pantheon of blues immortals, many would also have a far different view of what their defining moment of recorded blues would be. While it's understandable that the author is certainly bent in Elmore's favor, each and every blues aficionado could argue that Charley Patton, Son House, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, or any one of scores more offer that one moment which ultimately restores balance to the universe. While Franz is to be applauded for his conviction, he can also be faulted for serving up what is less than an objective view of blues as a whole or, indeed, his subject.
Franz later shortchanges himself and his book by summarizing; At last, then, here is the real kicker about Elmore. If you wanted to know the secret that people like Elmore carry in their souls, then here it is: In spite of the fact that we might be alone in the universe, and in spite of the fact that we suffer, what the blues teaches us about life is that it is still possible to dance - it is still possible to boogie and be joyous - it is still possible to celebrate life. What the music of Elmore James is about is the undeniable and inexpugnable spark of the human spirit - a spark that will not go out - than cannot be overcome by darkness... Elmore James didn't just stand on the brink of the abyss and cry out into the void, he boogied on it - and because he has done this for us, we, in turn, will never have to fear it ourselves. And if that doesn't rank as one of the most remarkable and amazing things that ever happened on this planet, then I honestly don't know what does.
By using statements like these, the author perhaps unintentionally managed to deflate his own work. While Elmore James often seems to have danced and boogied on the edge of a canyon (and you definitely get that impression listening to his chaotic slide guitar and impassioned voice), Franz offers far more in the way of having gathered little known facts and secrets than his personal comments suggest.
(This earliest known photo of Elmore James is oddly missing)
However, he redeems himself by fleshing out the book with keen views on some "Keepers of the Flame," a number of individuals that followed the path of Elmore James and his legendary slide antics; Joe Carter, Hound Dog Taylor, John Littlejohn, J.B. Hutto, and Homesick James and also covers the "Myths and Folklore" that surround Elmore, in addition to an interesting question and answer section in the second appendix where Franz explains how he arrived at certain recording dates, personnel, and other events. There are numerous photographs throughout the pages, a few that have rarely been seen, but curiously absent is the earliest known picture of Elmore, which was found in a private collection by noted researcher, Dr. David Evans, and not on the wall of an old rooming house as reported by Lawrence Cohn in his book, Nothing But the Blues (Abbeville Press, 1993). Also, while there are pictures of some of Elmore's contemporaries, there are indeed other photos of James that could well have been considered before Arthur Crudup, an artist who had perhaps minimal impact on James, or singer Ricky Allen with producer Mel London, the man behind Chief, Age, Profile, and other labels, one of a number of producers who worked with Elmore. There are also short paragraphs on the James family, musicians that influenced or worked with Elmore, and the producers and labels responsible for distributing his original recordings.
There is a complete and detailed discography included that compiles each and every session Elmore took part in; those with Sonny Boy Williamson II, Junior Wells, Big Joe Turner, and others, as well as compiling all known research by Ray Topping, who has tirelessly worked on furthering the groundbreaking efforts initiated by Mike Leadbitter and Neil Slaven. Accompanying the discography is a dizzying array of label photographs and trade paper items, in addition to a breakdown of the multitude of budget-line LP's and CD's that have included Elmore's music over the years, which again shows the author's propensity for binding together all necessary and pertinent information.
Elmore James, has, at times, been 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 Marcel Chauvard, Jacque Demetre, George Adins, Yannick Bruynoghe, and other Europeans that began as far back as the late 1950's. Unfortunately, James was never interviewed by today's standards, and when he was, it was well before his catalog of work was completed, but he has certainly been well-documented in countless books, magazines, and liners that accompany a minefield of releases that started as early as 1951.
While The Amazing Secret History of Elmore James might not uncover any earth shattering finds, the fact that everything has been neatly gathered together, is without question, highly commendable. While its list price of $34.95 is a bit expensive for a paperbound book, what is included will undoubtedly satisfy many who consider Elmore James an intriguing and important artist. In closing, adding this book to your collection is far cheaper and easier than attempting to amass a complete collection of tattered magazines like Blues Unlimited, Living Blues, Juke Blues, or any other printed publication that ever uttered the name of Elmore James. Highly recommended.
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Simply click on the image at left for another book on Elmore James: "The Ultimate Guide to the Master of the Slide" by Steve Franz
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