One of a half-dozen essential drummers from the Chicago scene, Clifton James was closely associated with the mighty guitar slinger Bo Diddley for 16 years. This places James front and center at the creation of one of the most important beats in rock music, known as the "Bo Diddley beat" — as if there was anything else it could be called. Actually, there might just be some other things that this beat might be called, as it is traceable back to ceremonial drummers of the African nation of Burundi, as well as forward into the avant-garde rock of Captain Beefheart, who often credited this beat as being the source of most of his songs. Although in the latter case, at least one of his Magic Band drummers, Jimmy Carl Black, has indicated that the exact instructions were to "play the Bo Diddley beat backwards."
James worked off and on with Diddley, who also adopted the African traditions of praising himself through song, from 1954 through 1970, and is also heard on straight-ahead Chicago blues recordings by artists such as Sonny Boy Williamson II, Muddy Waters, and Buddy Guy. The drummer was also one of the Chicago players who was involved in bringing this great genre of blues directly to audiences, when the public's interest in the style mushroomed in the '60s. As a member of the Chicago Blues All Stars in the late '60s, under the loose direction of bassist and songwriter Willie Dixon, he toured Europe, the United States, and Canada, hitting many cities where this style of blues had never been performed live. Other members of this group included pianist Sunnyland Slim, harmonica champ Shakey Walter Horton, and the fine guitarist Johnny Shines. He had also toured Europe in 1964 as part of an especially stripped down Howlin' Wolf quartet rounded out by Slim and Dixon. A live recording released by this outfit, although not legitimate, is certainly worth seeking out. Better known, but not as strong musically, are the European recordings of Sonny Boy Williamson II, which combined Chicago bluesmen with members of the British blues-rock combo the Yardbirds. Another all-star outfit was the Chicago Blues Band, which included both Shines and John Lee Hooker in the frontline, despite the fact that the latter blues great was not from the Windy City at all.
The drummer was also a popular choice if a loose jam session was the order of the day, as he had a pleasant, giving personality that helped smooth out any rough spots that might occur between these highly competitive blues stars. Although albums such as Super Super Blues Band, featuring four of the top names in Chicago blues, or Two Great Guitars, which brings together archrivals Diddley and Chuck Berry, tend to be disappointing, the tracks show off the ease with which James can lay down a nice groove, even if the stars can't seem to think of anything to do on top. James was also granted the occasional vocal number when performing with these type of all-star outfits, and sang the blues with enough aplomb to make some listeners wish he had had more of a solo career. He has led bands occasionally, including a tour of Holland in the '70s. ~ Eugene Chadbourne