Songlines: ‘Bleeding Heart’

Fleetwood Mac / Jeremy Spencer 1968 – 2006

‘Bleeding Heart’ is one of Elmore James’ later originals, done for producer Bobby Robinson.  From late 1960 through early 1963 James cut over thirty titles for Robinson during sessions held in New York City and New Orleans.

The majority of those titles were released posthumously, including this one. 

Elmore James

Elmore James: guitar & vocal /

Nehemiah “Riff” Ruffin: guitar / Unknown: bass /

Johnny Williams: drums /

Paul “Hucklebuck” Williams: baritone saxophone / (probably) George Coleman: tenor saxophone /

Danny Moore: trumpet / (probably) Dickie Harris: trombone

Recorded in New York City, 1961

Elmo James – My Bleeding Heart* (3:05)

James’ opening notes ring out in silence, calling out into the void. 

Ten seconds in, and the horns flood in, taking him up in a swirling vortex of despair.

James’ voice is front and center in the mix, capturing his mournful rasp in all its harrowing glory.   He sounds like a man literally drowning in sorrow, shouting for help to those watching passively from the banks.

The trumpet’s squeal, echoing his ringing slide and the second guitar and saxophones act like an undertow, pulling him down no matter how hard he struggles.

There is a rawness to James’ guitar here that was rarely captured, heightened again by the trumpet, which makes it that much more of a shame that the number is faded so quickly.

The music of Elmore James had been part of Jeremy Spencer’s repertoire from his earliest days as lead guitarist in the Levi Set.

There are twenty-two recordings, studio sessions and live performances, of Spencer covering songs that had been done by James just during his time with Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac.

Songs such as ‘Shake Your Moneymaker’ and ‘I Can’t Hold Out’ (‘Talk to Me Baby’) were performed from the band’s debut up to their last shows with Green.

Other songs, like ‘Madison Blues’ and ‘Stranger Blues’ would be played almost nightly during a given tour, and then dropped from the sets.

Then there are those of which only one (known) recording is in circulation.  Just how many times these numbers may have been performed, we of course have no way of knowing.

Among these “one-off” titles are ‘The Sky Is Crying’, Make a Little Love’ and ‘Bleeding Heart’. 

To the best of our knowledge, none of these songs were ever recorded in a studio setting. 

The Fleetwood Mac recording of ‘Bleeding Heart’ was caught on tape at a show recorded at the Regent Street Polytechnic on April 27, 1968. 

After the 1970 Boston Tea Party shows, this is the most frequently reissued collection of “live” Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac recordings.**

Fleetwood Mac

Jeremy Spencer: vocal & guitar /

Peter Green: guitar /

John McVie: bass / Mick Fleetwood: drums

Recorded April 27, 1968 at the Regent Street Polytechnic

Released as London Live ’68 (Thunderbolt LP 1986)

Fleetwood Mac – Intro (0:10) / Bleeding Heart (4:26) –

The rough sound quality siphons some of the power from the opening chords, but the “isolation” of Spencer’s vocal brings heightens his desperation to good effect.

McVie’s bass is faint but insistent, like the throbbing of a bruise. Green’s second guitar whispers in the background, like a drinking companion there for the company, not conversation.

Fleetwood starts off with sticks on a wood block, but switches to the drums as Spencer begins the vocal: the drum beats cracking like a whip, forcing Spencer through verse after verse, the cries of his slide slicing though the stanzas. 

After four grueling verses, Spencer stops singing, and lets his guitar take over; Fleetwood goes to the cymbals, their hits like a burst of spray as a wave hits rock.

Unfortunately, the song is almost over at this point and the number is faded to silence before Spencer can bring it to a satisfactory conclusion.  Same as on James’ original recording.

Although it was Spencer’s choice, it seems like a true missed opportunity that he had not chosen to put the number to tape during the sessions at Chess Studios nine months later.

For decades, that was the only available recording of Jeremy Spencer performing the song.

Then, thirty-eight years after that recording was made, a new version appeared on Spencer’s 2006 “comeback” LP, “Precious Little”.

Jeremey Spencer

Jeremey Spencer: vocal & slide guitar /

Espen Liland: guitar / Rune Endal: bass /

Anders Viken: drums / Trond Ytterbo: harmonica /

Runar Boyesen: keyboards

Released on: Precious Little (Bluestown 2006)

Jeremey Spencer – Bleeding Heart (4:48) –

It is disconcerting at first to hear how the intensity of James’ original and Spencer’s earlier take has been replaced by this mellow arrangement, but as Spencer begins to sing, his altered lyrics make clear this is a radically different interpretation.

The number is no longer about personal pain; he is now observing the condition of the world.  Time (nearly four decades) has widened his perspective; “I” becomes “you”. 

He no longer questions if anyone could possibly know how it feels to be left alone; he now accepts it as a fact that everyone does.  He can take comfort in the idea no one is truly alone; we are all in this together.

The break before the final verse is a communal gift, a sharing of the “blues”.

With the final verse and outro the number finally gets the cathartic release that it had been missing (including on James’ original recording) all these years. 

Jeremey Spencer

Unknown musicians

Date & location of recording unknown

Jeremy Spencer – Bleeding Heart (5:35)

I have been unable to find any information as to the origins of this recording, but I have to say, this is probably my favorite version that Spencer did[R1] .

There is much more slide throughout the number and the tempo has been quickened just a bit.

I feel that his vocal is stronger than on the studio take and the piano is a very welcome addition.

If anyone has any information, please share and I will add it here with full accreditation.

*In 1965, Robinson was forced to sell the catalogs of his Fire and Fury labels to Bell Records to pay off loans owed to Morris Levy (real life inspiration for the character Hesh Rabkin in “The Sopranos”).

The Bell Records subsidiary, Sphere Sound was the first to release the song, titled ‘My Bleeding Heart’ on the LP “The Sky Is Crying” credited to Elmo James, in 1965.

Around the same time, (I have not been able to establish firm dates), a shortened version of the song (faded out at 2:37) was released as the B-side to a later recording of ‘It Hurts Me Too’ under the title ‘Bleeding Heart’ on Bobby Robinson’s Enjoy label.

Also, that year, Sue Records in the U.K. (a subsidiary of Island) released “Elmore James Memorial Album” a fourteen-track collection mixing eight of the later Robinson recordings, including the full length ‘Bleeding Heart’ (again, dropping the “My”) with six of the seven numbers James had recorded for Mel London’s Chief label in 1957

** Originally appearing in 1986 on the Thunderbolt label under the title “London Live ’68”, it has been reissued in various forms well over a dozen times over the past thirty-seven years.  Many have been issued fairly recently as vinyl exclusives. 

And yet, not one label, that I am aware of, has ever made any attempt to clean up the sound, and while many scramble the song order (to no particular purpose) too many simply copy an older release verbatim, including the inaccuracies in titling (i.e. ‘Worried Dream’ is often listed as ‘The Dream’) and song credits (many releases credit Jimi Hendrix as the composer of ‘Bleeding Heart’.  

The opportunistic nature of many of these releases is most evident on those featuring Danny Kirwan in their artwork.


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