James "Blood" Ulmer

As a guitarist, vocalist, and composer, James “Blood” Ulmer hovers atop the pantheon of American music mavericks. Born in 1942 in rural St. Matthews, South Carolina, to God-fearing parents, his first guitar was given to him at the age of four by his father, a preacher at the local ministry, in order to prepare him for the gospel life. While gospel may have sparked Blood’s passion for music, the flames quickly spread as he discovered new sounds and styles. On the radio, rock ‘n’ roll, country and western, and blues reigned. The blues was alternately alluring and frightening. Viewed as “the devil’s music” by his parents, he “broke every law in the book to listen to some blues.”

Some years later, after a stint in the juke joint scene, he dove headlong into jazz. While still struggling to develop his own unique voice, Blood wound up a sideman on a handful of Blue Note recordings. In New York City, 1971, he met the legendary avant-garde jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman, which led to a stint in Coleman’s revolutionary group, as well as collaborations with groundbreaking experimental musicians such as Larry Young and Joe Henderson.

His solo debut Tales of Captain Black (1978) saw him finally beginning to stake his claim to the American music tapestry. Critics touted him as the hottest new thing on the scene and fans packed his NYC performances. He recorded Are You Glad To Be In America? for Rough Trade, a frenetic concoction of free funk and jazz that pushed the concept of “harmolodic” guitar towards previously unimagined frontiers. On the back of ecstatic reviews of his album and live show, CBS bought out his contract with Rough Trade and released three landmark records: Free Lancing (1981), Black Rock (1982), and Odyssey (1983). Blending blues, jazz, funk, country, and freeform noise in dense musical themes and sonic structures, Odyssey was considered by many to be a peak moment in American music—if not altogether daring. Ironically, it was also the calling card by which CBS ultimately dropped Ulmer from his contract. Disillusioned at failing to reach a wider audience, Blood recorded sparingly through the remainder of the ‘80s.

Flash forward to the present. Ulmer is in the unique position of being hailed as an American music icon. Memphis Blood: The Sun Sessions re-awoke fans and critics alike to his power and electricity, earning him a Grammy nomination for “Best Traditional Blues Album.” Birthright was Blood’s first-ever completely solo recording, digging into deep, haunted blues. His latest effort is Bad Blood in the City, a cycle of songs that focus on Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.

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Jessye Norman