When talking about deep bluesmen who are also great entertainers, the conversation will eventually get around to the coolest bassman/singer/showman the Windy City has in its blues arsenal, Big Mojo Elem. As a singer, he possesses a relatively high-pitched voice that alternately drips with honey and malice. As a bassist, his unique approach to the instrument makes him virtually one of a kind. Unlike most bass players, Elem seldom plays standard walking bass patterns, instead using a single-note groove that lends to any band he's a part of a decidedly juke-joint groove. And as a showman, he possesses an energy that makes other performers half his age look like they're sitting down. Born in Itta Bena, Mississippi, Elem grew up in fertile blues territory. Originally a guitarist, he soaked up licks and ideas by observing masters like Robert Nighthawk and a young Ike Turner first-hand. By his 20th birthday, he had arrived in Chicago and was almost immediately pressed into professional service playing rhythm guitar behind Arthur "Big Boy" Spires and harmonica man Lester Davenport. By 1956, Elem had switched over to the newly arrived (in Chicago) electric bass, simply to stand out from the pack of guitar players searching the clubs looking for work. He formed a band with harp player Earl Payton and signed on a young Freddie King as their lead guitarist, playing on King's very first single for the El-Bee label in late 1956. After Freddie's success made him the bandleader, Big Mojo stayed with King off and on for the next eight years. The '50s and '60s also found him doing club work -- mostly on the West side -- with Magic Sam, Junior Wells, Shakey Jake Harris, Jimmy Dawkins, and Luther Allison, with a short stint in Otis Rush's band as well. Aside from a stray anthology cut and a now out of print album for a tiny European label, Elem's career has not been documented in much depth, but he remains one of the liveliest players on the scene.
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