As a little departure from the usual articles here of a song by a particular artist, this time the song is the focus. This song is deservedly an epitome of The Blues. While various examples can be offered, this song must be included in any discussion. The lyrics exemplify the source of Blues expression and the musical composition is quitessential. In 1991, Elmore James’ “The Sky Is Crying” was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in the “Classics of Blues Recordings” category.
This time around we’ll concentrate more on the recordings of this classic than the individual artists. Let’s go through them by major artists in chronological release order.
Initially wriiten and recorded by Elmore James in 1959, it was inspired by a Chicago downpour during the recording session, it features James’ slide guitar work and vocals. Accompanying James is his longtime backing band, the Broomdusters: J. T. Brown on saxophone, Johnny Jones on piano, Odie Payne on drums, and Homesick James on bass. James’ unique slide guitar sound on the recording has generated some debate; Homesick James attributed it to a recording studio technique, others have suggested a different amplifier or guitar setup, and Ry Cooder felt that it was an altogether different guitar than James’ usual Kay acoustic with an attached pickup. This is the first recording he made, but he released later versions.
In 1963, blues harmonica player and singer Sonny Boy Williamson II recorded the song as a country blues-style duet with Matt Murphy on acoustic guitar.
Hound Dog Taylor recorded a live version with Little Walter on harmonica at the 1967 American Folk Blues Festival.
In 1969, Albert King recorded the version that became one of his signature songs. He recorded several live versions of the song during his career. One reason he never sounded like anyone else is that he played left-handed, turning the guitar upside-down without re-stringing it. (Elizabeth Cotten was doing it in 1902. She played a guitar strung for a right-handed player, but played it upside down, as she was left-handed. This position required her to play the bass lines with her fingers and the melody with her thumb. Her signature alternating bass style has become known as “Cotten picking”.)
This gave King a unique sound – where other guitarists pushed to bend notes, he would pull. With a career that spanned 40 years, he would be a huge influence on rockers like Gary Moore, Eric Clapton, And Stevie Ray Vaughan. King recorded “The Sky Is Crying” many times, the version here is from 1969.
Stevie Ray Vaughan and Albert King did a wonderful recording session together in 1983, which was also filmed. Here they are blazing through “The Sky Is Crying”.
Speaking of Stevie Ray Vaughan, this is probably the most remembered version of the song for todays listeners. He was an astute student of the blues and built his vocal and guitar sounds around many of the Texas players he grew up with, like W.C. Clark and Larry Davis. An undeniable influence was Albert King—especially his crisp staccato and elegant phrasing. Stevie Ray recorded “The Sky Is Crying” in 1985, but it wasn’t released until 1991, a year after he died. Here he is in 1987 live.
His recorded version (1991), on his “Soul To Soul” album, as it is probably the most accessible version we have come to know.
Lastly, here is an excellent rendition by Gary B.B. Coleman from his 1992 album “Too Much Weekend”.
While this song has been recorded by so many artists, each of which may be worthy of note, some are not included here. The best version is the one you enjoy the most. The Blues is not just a style or genre, it speaks to all of us across the years. It captures the emotions of all of us at some point in our lives. Music allows us to connect through the years and tears and revel in our common existense.