Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Elmore James - The Classic Early Recordings - 1994.


Although a few hardcore electric Chicago blues fans might take offense at the remark, Elmore James' work does not comprise the most varied discography among major bluesmen. So a single-disc survey of his material, whether it covers the first five years or so of his career (as this three-CD anthology does) or a longer period, works better as both a general introduction and a more listenable compilation than a box set does. If you're a completist who does want everything known to exist that he laid down in the studio between August 1951 and January 1956, however, this 71-track compilation is the most thorough retrospective of that era likely to be produced. In addition to including songs that were not issued in any form until after his death (and sometimes long after his passing), there are multiple takes of specific tunes, alternates, false starts, studio chatter, instrumental version, songs on which he guested for J.T. Brown and Little Johnny Jones, and so forth. Indeed, there are so many multiple versions on this release that even the liner notes take care to suggest custom-programming the CD sequence if you'd rather not hear them all in a row. For all the if-we-can-find-it-release-it mentality driving this collection, however, it really is pretty listenable, at least if you like James and early- to mid-'50s Chicago blues a lot. For one thing, it does include a couple of big hits, those being James' original 1952 version of "Dust My Broom" and the 1953 Top Ten R&B hit "I Believe." More relevantly, James played and sang consistently well even on the material that languished in the vault. Plus all those multiple versions aren't wholly repetitive; James occasionally makes changes to the lyrics and music, though the similarity of style from song to song is prevalent enough that you have to be paying close attention to catch all of these. Some fans primarily familiar with James through his Delta-soaked electric slide guitar playing (and there's plenty of that here) will also be surprised at the commercial R&B edge to many of the sides, though it's commercial in the better sense of that term, often with horns and piano urbanizing James' approach. The 40-page booklet has a wealth of information, vintage photos, and a detailed sessionography, increasing its appeal to those who want all things James. [Initially released in 1993 in long-box packaging, The Classic Early Recordings 1951-1956 was reissued by Ace in 2007 as a standard-sized three-CD set with a different cover.]

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