Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Homesick Again

Reissues recognize the work of unheralded bluesman

By Ron Wynn

APRIL 24, 2000:  Homesick James is a wonderful vocalist and sorely neglected guitarist, yet even many longtime blues fans have lost track of this musician. That's partly due to the murky details of his career--so much is shrouded in mystery, including the year of his birth. What is known is that James was born in Somerville, Tenn., sometime between 1905 and 1915, and his earliest musical influences were his parents. His father played in a fife-and-drum band, and his mother was a guitarist. By his teens, James was already working with several major figures, including Sleepy John Estes, Blind Boy Fuller, and Sonny Boy Williamson I (John Lee).

Homesick James had one 1939 recording session in Memphis, then headed to Chicago. He subsequently worked with Big Bill Broonzy, Lonnie Johnson, and Memphis Minnie, among others. But he's best known for the sides he cut with his famous cousin, Elmore James, as part of the Broomdusters. The two cousins teamed with pianist Little Johnny Jones and tenor saxophonist J.T. Brown, plus various drummers and occasionally a second saxophonist. They were among the first great Chicago ensembles, with Elmore James' gritty vocals and splayed riffs adroitly complemented by cousin Homesick's rhythm licks and bass work, Jones' bustling piano, and Brown's robust honking.

But Homesick James never acquired the profile of his cousin, even though he cut numerous dates for such labels as Chance, Colt, USA, Bluesway, Blues on Blues, Spivey, Vanguard, and Trix, among others; he also did plenty of session work as a bassist. Now the label 32 Blues is reissuing two prime James titles, one from the '70s, the other recorded almost two decades later.

Got to Move was initially released in '94 and was among a string of titles James recorded in the '90s after a long hiatus from music. An LP of standards, the selection ranged from spirited versions of numbers immortalized by his cousin, along with songs previously done by Memphis Minnie, Curtis Jones, and Blind Boy Fuller, among others. Sadly, the Trix label folded only a couple of months after this was released, and the disc quickly disappeared from sight. This remastered version not only reaffirms James' vocal splendor, it also affirms his skills as lead guitarist and soloist.

The other James release, Goin' Back Home, will be issued late next month. A solo acoustic work, it got rave reviews when initially released in the '70s, only to drop out of sight soon thereafter. Perhaps these discs will trigger enough interest to persuade 32 Blues to reissue James' finest date, the classic Blues on the South Side.

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