How Elmore James inspired a Jimi Hendrix classic

Known as the King of Slide Guitar, Elmore James was one of the most influential guitarists in music history. Born in 1918, the musician started making music when he was 12 by using a one-string instrument called a diddley bow. Inspired by the likes of Robert Johnson and Tampa Red, James pursued music until he joined the United States Navy during World War II.

When he returned home, a job at his brother’s electrical shop led him to devise his own loud guitar sound by modifying his instrument with parts from the shop. In the early 1950s, he began working with the likes of Sonny Boy Williamson II and Willie Love before acting as session leader on his track ‘Dust My Broom’, which became an unexpected hit.

The innovative musician released popular songs such as ‘Shake Your Moneymaker’, ‘My Bleeding Heart’ and ‘Look on Yonder Wall’. James influenced the greats of rock and roll, from Chuck Berry to B.B King to Frank Zappa. It’s hard to imagine what modern music would sound like if James had never picked up a guitar.

One musician that James had an indelible impact on was Jimi Hendrix. Described as “arguably the greatest instrumentalist in the history of rock music” by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Hendrix owes much of his success to James. The guitarist paid homage to James by calling himself Jimmy James in the early days of his career whilst also trying to emulate his sound.

In 1965, Hendrix recorded his first of many covers of James’ track ‘Bleeding Heart’, originally released in 1961. His first attempt at covering the song was in collaboration with Curtis Knight and the Squires, with Hendrix on vocals and guitar. In 1968 a live version was recorded in New York and later found on bootleg albums, including one called Bleeding Heart.

Another live version was recorded at the Royal Albert Hall for a potential documentary which never came to fruition, although the recording can be found on the album Experience. Multiple versions of the cover were recorded in the studio, showing Hendrix’s progression away from James’ characteristic blues sound, instead making the song considerably more upbeat.

But those weren’t the only instances of Hendrix paying homage to James, who passed away from a heart attack in 1963. In 1966, Hendrix recorded a song called ‘Red House’, which became a staple of his live sets. It was one of the first songs he recorded with his band, the Experience, and followed a 12-bar blues structure. The track was first released in the U.K. on the album Are You Experienced, and a similar take was released in the U.S. two years later on the Smash Hits compilation album.

Hendrix claimed that the song was inspired by the blues he played at the beginning of his career as a sideman. The song has drawn comparisons to ‘California Night’ by Albert King, which the guitarist played with Curtis Knight and the Squires. However, another source of inspiration for Hendrix was James’ song ‘The Sky Is Crying’, a blues standard he recorded in 1959.

In ‘Red House’, Hendrix sings, “I have a bad bad feeling/ That my baby don’t live here no more.” It is clear that the musician lifted this line from ‘The Sky Is Crying’, where James sings, “I got a bad feeling my baby don’t love me no more.” It seems as though Hendrix decided to pay tribute to his musical hero through a little lyrical nod, demonstrating just how strong James’ impact was on the young Hendrix.

Listen to Hendrix’s song below:

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