Suggesting that the name of swing rhythm section man Elmer James sounds like a badly pronounced version of slide blues guitarist Elmore James is not just a joke, especially for anyone attempting to properly celebrate the birthdays of their favorite artists straight. More than one prestigious music resource provides Elmore's birthday in the place of Elmer's, although the latter player was nearly a decade older than the bluesman and hailed from urban New York City environs, not the Mississippi Delta. Elmore James was the classic frontman, a blues superstar whose name and sound are legendary. Elmer James was the typical background rhythm guy, holding down the time expertly, not really innovating and never attracting much attention on an individual basis.
Already working professionally in Gene Rodgers' Revellers as a teenager, Elmer James started out providing the harmonic bottom end on tuba, switching to string bass a few years later when that became the norm. He also has credits on baritone saxophone, revealing a facility as an instrumentalist in three distinct families of instruments. His early career involved stints with June Clark, Chick Webb, and Benny Carter, and then back into the Webb band. In 1934 James joined the rhythm section of Fletcher Henderson. In the same period he began establishing a rapport with bandleader Lucky Millinder that resulted in gigs over the next several years. During the late '30s, James could be found with the combo of Edgar Hayes as well as holding forth in Mezz Mezzrow's Disciples of Swing.
Superb pianist Claude Hopkins had James safely nestled in his group as the next decade commenced. Hopkins was apparently saddened with James' subsequent decision to leave music. His new career choice, a bread salesman, provides an opportunity to toast the crummy lot of the itinerant jazz musician, who in this case was still able to nibble on a few of drummer Zutty Singleton's rolls during his loafing, or rather non-loafing, hours. Then again, maybe he still needed the extra dough. He kept time only part-time until his own timekeeper gave out in the summer of 1954. Any reference that has him alive until 1963 is once again mixing their Elmores with their Elmers.