Elmore James – Shake Your Moneymaker: The Best of the Fire Sessions – Classic Music Review

I am temporarily suspending my boycott of American music for one day, for two very good reasons:

  • I wanted to acknowledge the ray of hope ignited by Nancy Pelosi. My former congresswoman finally got off her bony little ass and kick-started the painfully long-overdue impeachment process of he-who-shall-not-be-named.
  • But just like he-who-shall-not-be-named . . . I was BAITED BY A TWEET!

My response was succinct and immediate (accounting for the time difference):

Though I clearly and unashamedly state on the blog’s front page that my top priorities in life are sex and music (with baseball now a distant third), the wording gives the impression that I view sex and music as separate and distinct experiences. It’s more accurate to describe the relationship as partially symbiotic: I can enjoy music that doesn’t ignite my libido, but I can’t imagine fucking without music. While the origins of this inter-dependency probably lie in not wanting my parents to hear the grunts, groans and cries of delight emanating from my bedroom when I was fucking boys and girls in my teens (not that they would have given a shit), I eventually learned that certain kinds of music can add tension, drama and color to the sexual experience. This is particularly true in BDSM, where lengthy scenes integrating foreplay and various forms of orgasmic stimulation are the norm. I love to make my entrance to music, to pose suggestively to music and get my rocks off while the music is throbbing in the background, mirroring the throbbing of the bodies engaged in the act.

Most of the music I use in a scene is kick-ass rock, jazz, samba, R&B, soul and Chicago blues—music that makes your hips grind, music with attitude. And no single artist appears more often on my fuck playlists than Elmore James, a man who had attitude down pat.

It’s stunning that we still lack a full-blown biography of the man who influenced a generation of rock and blues guitarists, but from the bits and pieces in encyclopedia entries, we can conclude Elmore James was an introvert, rather bashful type who only emerged from his shell when he had a guitar in hand and a microphone close to his lips. Introversion is one of those good things/bad things, for while introverts tend to have an exceptional ability to concentrate that allows them to explore a given field in depth, they also tend to keep many thoughts and feelings to themselves, building up a huge amount of pressure in the inner boiler that often manifests itself in physical breakdowns. Elmore James was diagnosed with heart disease in 1957 at the age of thirty-nine; six years later he was dead at the age of forty-five, having ignored the doctor’s advice to cut down on his drinking and chill out.

You might say, “Gee, if only Elmore had taken care of himself, he could have lived to a ripe old age.” To which I respond, “Yeah, but he wouldn’t have been Elmore James.” The introverted intensity that defined his life and manifested itself with crystal clarity through his music may have killed him, but had he become a frightened middle-aged musician trying to hang on for dear life, we’d remember Elmore James as someone who lived way past his prime rather than a guy who left it all on the playing field.

The thought process that led Elmore James to attach a pickup to a Kay dreadnought guitar with high action and then opt to fingerpick in order to achieve the fat, raunchy sound he wanted is not available to us, but it clearly marks him as a man who refused to be stopped in the pursuit of the sound he wanted to achieve. Slide players back in Elmore’s day couldn’t go to Sweetwater.com, read the online guide “How to Choose the Right Guitar Slide for You” and then select from a wide range of state-of-the-art slides in glass, brass and porcelain. Well, when you ain’t got nothin’ you look around the house for something that will do (like those plastic bread clips you can use as an emergency guitar pick). According to Hal Leonard’s tabs-and-techniques manual, Elmore James – Master of the Electric Slide Guitar, “Elmore’s slide was the metal slip that fits over a tube in old radios and record players. These tube covers were made of light metal, often aluminum, and if one was too small for his finger, Elmore sawed it open with a hacksaw.” This sounds like a setup that most people today would associate with a desperate busker trying to earn a few pennies from the charitably-minded, but in the hands of Elmore James, it sounds like the guitar equivalent of a Stradivarius. The Kay wasn’t his only ax, but it’s the one he probably used for “most of his slide playing, both performing and recording,” and is now part of the treasure trove in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

James learned at the feet of Robert Johnson and Sonny Boy Williamson II during his youth on the Mississippi Delta, and though you can certainly hear their influence in his music (especially in the early 50’s recordings), his expression of the blues at this later stage of his career is all his own. This is particularly noticeable in his vocals, which are marked by an unusual intensity and unbridled confidence. In many of his vocals, there is an undeniable urgency in his timbre, perhaps a manifestation of all that internal pressure, or perhaps fueled by the knowledge that he was living on borrowed time. Whatever the cause, listening to Elmore James sing gives you the impression that this is a man who needs to impart a message that is essential to his very existence. As he wrote most of his material—material that strictly adheres to blues norms—the result was a fresh take on the art that demonstrated the enduring vitality of the blues.

The Best of the Fire Sessions features most of his signature songs, some in the form of remakes of earlier releases. As these are from multiple recording sessions, the album features a variety of backing musicians depending on who happened to be in town on the recording date. No matter—Elmore James was an accomplished bandleader who worked with some of the best blues musicians of the time, and when you work for a leader with a clear artistic vision, it’s a lot easier to figure out where you fit in and what you can add to the mix.

So without further ado . . .

“Shake Your Moneymaker”: The collection is bookended by two classics, but though one could argue that “Dust My Broom” should have come first due to its status as Elmore’s first hit, the album version is a remake, so the timeline hardly matters. My review of “Shake Your Moneymaker” in the Dad’s 45’s series wasn’t as much a review as an emotional-sexual reaction to both the orgasmic experience of finding the record in his collection and the orgasmic experience of the song itself. “I had been planning to do a full review of Elmore James’ The Best of the Fire Sessions, but every time I started to write it, it sounded more like porn than a music review,” I wrote, and my commentary on the song suffered from trying to write in bitch-in-heat mode.

What is unique about Elmore’s vocal approach to this song is his restraint, eschewing the gravelly belt-out approach featured in many of his classics. He sounds cool and collected, like a man sitting in a tall, upholstered leather chair with cognac and cigar, savoring the merchandise. Although some women may find it offensive to refer to a woman’s nether regions as a “moneymaker,” the lyrics clearly indicate that Elmore was unsuccessful in fulfilling his desire to plunge his member into the honeypots and back ends of two different women. This tells me he was attempting to maintain his self-esteem by writing the whole thing off to the cynical motivation of unliberated women to trade pussy for a payoff. So while Elmore may pride himself on having the biggest dick in town, he knows he can’t compete in the financial arena, so he’s shit out of luck and headed for the (cold) showers.

The music is subtly inviting, and before long you’ll be shaking your moneymaker with abandon. Elmore uses his go-to tuning (open D); his 12th fret call-and-response bending slides are sweet and expressive. Johnny “Big Moose” Walker defies his nickname and gives us a smooth, rolling boogie on the piano, syncing perfectly with King Mose on the skins. While Jeremy Spencer’s tribute performance on Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac rocks harder, it doesn’t come close to capturing the sheer sexuality of the original.

“Look on Yonder Wall”: James modified the lyrics to this Memphis Jimmy tale of a wounded veteran returning home from WWII who shacks up with another veteran’s squeeze only to learn that hubby is on his way back to the States to reclaim his property. Not to worry: Elmore’s already made other arrangements and will gladly step aside for a fellow vet:

Your husband went to the war, and you know it was tough
I don’t know how many men he killed but I know he killed enough
Look on yonder wall and hand me down my walking came
I got me another woman, now baby, yon come your man

War does tend to throw all the usual norms out the window for a while. I hope there wasn’t a sequel featuring the hubby hunting down Elmore to “thank” him for services rendered to the missus in his absence.

James’ version is slightly more upbeat than the original, and the comparatively rare appearance of an accompanying harmonica (courtesy of Sammy Myers) gives this piece a front porch feel. I absolutely love the nimble display of Elmore’s fretboard skills in the introduction.

“The Sky Is Crying”: This is a James classic that was played at Duane Allman’s funeral, and has been covered by other luminaries such as The Yardbirds, Albert King, Little Walter, Stevie Ray Vaughn and Etta James. The debate about Elmore’s slide setup rages on, with Homesick James claiming studio accident, others claiming a different amp and Ry Cooder insisting that Elmore had abandoned the Kay setup for this recording. I think all three views have validity: it certainly isn’t his Kay guitar; James certainly could have plugged into a different amp; and the omnipresence of reverb could indicate an acoustic interaction with open space, intensifying any reverb coming through the amp. Whatever it is, it sounds fucking great—a distant, terribly lonely expression of loss. James’ lyrical imagery—“The sky is crying, look at the tears roll down the street”—was inspired by one of those tremendous downpours that often accompany thunderstorms in Chicago and the greater Midwest, a powerful symbol of the destructive power of loss and the consequent helplessness. Elmore’s vocal balances command and heartfelt emotion, his phrasing emphatic without crossing the line into histrionics. Here he is backed by his usual guys, The Broomdusters, and the synergy inherent in a trusting relationship shines throughout the song. The boys knew their man and his tendencies, and provide just enough backing for you to know that if they weren’t there they would be sorely missed . . . and no more. That support gives Elmore plenty of room to rip, and “The Sky Is Crying” is full of fills that absolutely knock me out. Kudos to The Broomdusters: J. T. Brown on saxophone, Johnny Jones on piano, Odie Payne on drums, and Homesick James on bass.

“Rollin’ and Tumblin'”: A blues classic recorded by a slew of artists, the Muddy Watters and Cream versions are probably the most familiar to the listening audience. James’ version is certainly more intense than Muddy’s but not over-the-top like Cream’s. The Johnny Winter version is . . . well, meh . . . and the latest rendition featuring Jeff Beck on guitar and Imogen Heap on vocals is like . . . what the fuck? Personally, I’ll take the 1925 original “Roll and Tumble Blues” by Hambone Willie Newbern for its authenticity and continue to wonder why this particular song has generated so many cover versions. Not my favorite Elmore James contribution.

“Held My Baby Last Night”: Goddamn—this is one seriously sexy breakup song. Elmore is in fine voice as he belts out this lament for a relationship on the skids, and once again The Broomdusters provide a suitable background for the emotional dynamic expressed through his vocal pleas for freedom and the heartfelt riffs delivered between lines. The drone of J. T. Brown’s saxophone establishes a mournful mood of a love gone wrong while Odie Payne’s more active drumming reinforces the stutter-stop communication that invariably accompanies separation. I like to put this one at the end of fuck playlists when my lover and I are finishing off the booze and enjoying our post-fuck cigarettes while stroking each other with messages of reassurance.

“I’m Worried”: This track from the posthumous release The Sky Is Crying is a tightly played number featuring Elmore laying out some classic blues figures and a few clever variations from the norm toward the end of the song. I think the song could have been a stronger track with The Broomdusters; alas and alack, Homesick James is pretty much on his own, surrounded by unknown studio musicians who do their bit, pick up their checks and move on. This so-so support places Elmore in the position of having to save the song, which he does with aplomb because he’s Elmore Fucking James, people!

“Done Somebody Wrong”: Powerful stuff here. A black man trying to reconcile the teachings of Christ with the cruelty-laden apartheid of Jim Crow faces a task equivalent to Sisyphus pushing that damned boulder up the hill for all eternity. The downside of having a sense of moral responsibility is that the morally responsible person develops a tendency to feel responsible for every misfortune that comes their way, particularly when frightened. Here Elmore is blaming himself for the loss of his baby, but the story is easily translatable to the African-American experience. “Man, what did I do wrong?” is a sadly pathetic question for which there is no answer because no, you didn’t do anything wrong. The syncopated two-beat-rest pattern certainly draws the listener’s interest, but Elmore’s vocal is the main attraction—a pleading, anxiety-ridden expression of the search for meaning and forgiveness.

“Fine Little Mama”: The flip side to “Done Somebody Wrong” features a nice easy mid-tempo beat, outstanding guitar work and two renditions of Elmore’s delightful groans of satisfaction: “Hmmmm-hmm.” I love to hear that sound from any man I fuck, as it’s a foreplay cue that tells me I’ve found his sweet spot with either hand or mouth. Apparently his Fine Little Mama knows exactly what to do, as confirmed in the closing verse when Elmore admits, “Well, when she start the lovin’/My love come tumblin’ down.”

Uh oh. Sounds like premature ejaculation or a guy that can’t hold back long enough to give me some deep thrust pleasure. THAT IS NOT MY IMAGE OF ELMORE JAMES. Well, she is a “red hot mama,” and hot women do have a tendency to overwhelm even the best of men, so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.

Shit, this is turning into a porn review, but goddamnit, that’s how I respond to Elmore James.

“Anna Lee”: The b-side of the final single Elmore released in his lifetime features erotic, groaning baritone sax from Paul “Hucklebuck” Williams and smoky jazz-tinged trumpet from Danny Moore, who would go on to play with Yusef Lateef, Les McCann and Wes Montgomery. Elmore more than holds his own in the presence of these jazz musicians and the timbre of his strong and confident vocal tells us that he loved working with a larger combo and was thrilled to the expand the blues with greater sonic variation. I can’t leave the song without extending appreciation to drummer Johnny Williams, who kills the finish with an emphatic run that truly seals the deal. I have no doubt that had Elmore James lived a bit longer he would have steered his core blues arrangements towards jazz sensibilities.

“Stranger Blues”: Tampa Red had to find a way into this collection, and this modified version of one of his lesser-known songs pays suitable tribute to one of the earliest (single-string) slide players (and one of the first to use the National steel guitar). Red did a lot of what were called “hokum” songs—bawdy tunes filled with double entendres like “Tight Like That” by Ma Rainey. This song takes on a darker cast as it deals with the mass migration of African-Americans to the northern states in search of jobs during the WWII manufacturing boom. Elmore’s version opens with a riff that sounds very close to the main riff of “What’d I Say?” and soon settles into an aggressive samba-like beat enhanced by the jazz trumpet offerings of Danny Moore. The baseline story is that the narrator feels like an outcast in northern climes and decides to return to the Deep South “if I wear out 99 pairs of shoes.” You may wonder any African-American would want to return to the land of Jim Crow and the KKK, but though they didn’t have to worry too much about white terrorism up north, they experienced the more subtle and insidious forms of racism, particularly when it came to choosing a neighborhood. And for many people, there is an inexorable pull towards home, no matter how shitty a place it might have been. That paradox would give anyone the blues, and choosing to record this song at the dawn of the activist phase of the Civil Rights Movement formed a coded but clear message that Elmore James felt the sting of second-class citizenship and wanted to say something about that intolerable condition.

“Something Inside of Me”: I don’t mean to engage in a weird form of schadenfreude, but this “my baby left me” slow blues is one sexy bitch of a song. Elmore gives it everything he’s got and then some—a full-throated passionate vocal married to a cascading variety of riffs from nearly every spot on the fretboard. Some of the riffs sound like a man trying to hold it together; others go deep down the bottom strings to capture the darker thoughts of bitterness and despair; still others try to rise to the heavens but are held back by hints of dissonance. At brief moments Elmore gives the rhythm a push, indicating he is totally immersed in the overall flow of the song. An absolutely hypnotic grinder that makes you want to get oh so close to your baby.

Cigarette!

“Early One Morning”: A nice little pick-me-up (assuming you and your baby have exhausted every drop of passion) in the form of mid-tempo blues . . . until you get tired of the saxophone repeating the same fucking figure ad infinitum. Still, Elmore gives a powerful vocal performance, making the short trip more than worthwhile.

“Sunnyland”: Robert Johnson’s influence is obvious in this straight-up, don’t mess with me rollicking blues number. This was another posthumous release featuring King Mose and Big Moose Walker, a remake of a 1954 b-side (originally titled “Sunny Land”). Sunnyland, by the way, was the name of the train that Elmore’s baby used to hightail it out of town. The delightful twist in the story comes when baby writes to Elmore to say she’s coming home . . . under one condition: “Cool down papa, you better change your ways.” Like the aforementioned Mr. Johnson (who admitted he wanted to beat his woman till he got satisfied), Elmore took the first step towards toxic male recovery by admitting he’d been a fucking asshole.

“Standing at the Crossroads”: This (remake) was the A-side of the “Sunny Land” single back in its 1954 form, and I’m going to go out on a limb here and say it was the first concept single. Both songs deal with the uniquely masculine choice: do I beat the crap out of my unsatisfactory baby or do I move on to a hotter, more compliant babe? Elmore’s tale omits the Johnsonian pleas for assistance from a higher being, preferring to work things out for himself. I love how he leaves us hanging right there on the crossroads, clueless as to what he’s going to do next. Despite his dismissal of the lord’s assistance, Elmore sounds remarkably like a hell-fire preacher (and just as horny).

“My Bleeding Heart”: I find it unbelievable that one of Elmore James’ greatest songs wasn’t rushed into the stores as soon as the master was finished but had to wait four long years to see daylight as a posthumous release. It’s no wonder that Jimi Hendrix made several attempts to duplicate its intensity while fashioning his unique interpretation of the original, finally getting it right in the live versions. Elmore’s original is intensity squared, opening with a disarming, understated set of riffs, gradually raising the heat through a no-holds-barred vocal performance that builds to a hard-picked bending crescendo as the horns of Danny Moore and Johnny Williams cry out in parallel agony. The blues rarely gets better than this.

“Dust My Broom”: This remake of Elmore’s first big hit is a radical departure from the original, which landed somewhere between the Delta and Chi-town. The Fire remake is 100% Chicago with horns blaring, percussion thumping, and Elmore ripping it like there’s no tomorrow. The difference between the two vocals couldn’t be greater, as young Elmore was terrified of recording, and his comparatively thin voice was further hampered by a common early-fifties recording technique: direct-to-disc with everyone on the same microphone. What is special about the original is the slide guitar on overdrive with that famous repeating triplet figure simmering in vibrato and delivered machine-gun style. The remake features Elmore with his fully-matured voice, laying out the vocal with complete command. While I appreciate the inventiveness of the original, I’m forever attracted to hot-and-steamy as well as a man in total command of all his faculties, whether real or in my imagination.

The Best of the Fire Sessions is a fully engaging listening experience, whether you’re libidinially oriented, emotionally centered or a music aficionado searching for excellence. The tragic aspect of his short existence comes through clearly in his stylistic development and the late-stage jazz leanings that reveal tremendous potential, but the sheer joy of listening to a man expressing heart, soul and fire through his music moves the discussion from what could have been to oh, my fucking god, listen to what this man is laying down.

And now, back to the Brits.

3 responses

  1. King of the electric slide guitar. What a great talent he was. This is classic.

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  2. Once when I was a teenager I was listening to “Shake Your Moneymaker” and my sister wandered in, said with dripping contempt “This is so sad!” and went out again. My sister is an idiot.

    There’s nobody who sounds like Elmore James! Somehow his voice is unique, his guitar sound(s) is unique, and the production on his records sounds like nothing else – that murkiness with the horns blaring in the background and his guitar fuzzing over everything. My old college room-mate said that Elmore’s guitar holds so much tension in it, and I think he was right. So it’s nice to see you reviewing him.

    I’m still finding it hard to get my head around this coupling of music and sex though. For me they’re completely different things. I can’t imagine finding music erotic at all or reacting to any kind of music the way you seem to react to almost all music… Am I missing out?

    (On a totally different note, do you have any plans to check out Matt Berry when you get back to British artists? I’ve been listening to his “Kill The Wolf” album quite compulsively. It is not my usual kind of music but I’m finding it hard to put it down. I think it’s easily his best one.)

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    1. I do lean in the direction of qualifying as “oversexed,” but I don’t think I’m entirely alone in linking sex and music. Remember, the censors made sure that the TV cameras avoided capturing Elvis from the waist down, so even the prudes knew something was up with this rock ‘n’ roll stuff. There are plenty of albums I admire that don’t trigger my libido, including most Beatles and Kinks albums.

      Love the comment about Elmore’s guitar holding so much tension—a perfect description of his style.

      I’m not at all familiar with Matt Berry, but thanks for the tip! I love exploring the unfamiliar!

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