James was born fifty miles north of Jackson (not to be confused with another Richland just south of Jackson). He began playing as a teen, under the names "Cleanhead" and "Joe Willie James", alongside musicians such as the first Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin' Wolf, and Robert Johnson. During World War II James joined the United States Navy and was stationed in Guam.
Upon his discharge James returned to central Mississippi and eventually settled in Canton. He began recording with Trumpet Records in nearby Jackson in January 1951, first as sideman to the second Sonny Boy Williamson and others, then debuting as a session leader in August with what became his signature song, "Dust My Broom". It was a surprise R&B hit in 1952 and turned James into a star. His "I Believe" was another hit a year later. During the 1950s he recorded for the Bihari Brothers' Flair and Modern labels, as well as for Chess Records. His backing musicians were known as the Broomdusters. In 1959 he began recording what are perhaps his best sides for Bobby Robinson's Fire Records label. These include "The Sky Is Crying" (credited to Elmo James and His Broomdusters), "Stranger Blues", "Look On Yonder Wall", "Done Somebody Wrong", and "Shake Your Moneymaker", all of which are among the most famous of blues recordings.
The slide guitar riff from "Dust My Broom" is one of the best-known openings in all of blues.
Elmore James died of his third heart attack in Chicago in 1963, already a major influence on guitarists such as The Rolling Stones' Brian Jones. His classic "Done Somebody Wrong" and "One Way Out" were often covered by The Allman Brothers Band, who cited James as a major influence. James was also covered by blues-rock band Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble many times in concert. The most famous of these covers is Vaughan's take on James's legendary recording, "The Sky Is Crying". James is mentioned in The Beatles' song "For You Blue". While John Lennon plays the slide guitar, James' trademark, George Harrison says "Go, Johnny, go ... Elmore James got nothin' on this, baby." Another famous guitarist who admired Elmore James was Jimi Hendrix. On a sleeve of the posthumously released Hendrix CD Blues, there is a photo of Hendrix wearing his famous military jacket and holding Elmore James's vinyl. Read more on Last.fm. User-contributed text is available under the Creative Commons By-SA License; additional terms may apply.