Friday, October 19, 2012

Dark End of the Street - The James Carr Story

James Carr
Twenty-five years ago, Peter Guralnick changed my life.  It all started with his new book at the time, Sweet Soul Music.  Although, I was a big fan of soul music prior to buying the book, my eyes got opened much wider because I was able to find out more about some of my favorite singers (Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, James Brown, Ray Charles, Wilson Pickett, Al Green), and was introduced to a lot of artists I'd never heard of (Solomon Burke, Dan Penn, and Clyde McPhatter).

However, the one who made the biggest impact on me, not just because of his talents, but also because of his tragic circumstances, was James Carr.  Carr possessed one of the most amazingly soulful voices, rivaling those of Redding, Percy Sledge, Pickett, and even Aretha Franklin.  Indeed, some of his recordings are considered to be masterpieces of southern country soul.  Despite his talents, Carr was never able to achieve or maintain any real success as a performer.  The main reason for his lack of success stemmed from his lifelong battle with depression, which made touring and even recording a session an arduous process.

Carr was born in 1942, near Clarksdale, MS, but his father, a minister, moved him and his family to Memphis when he was very young.  Young James started singing in the church at nine and by the time he was a teenager, he had performed with several Memphis-area gospel groups, such as the Sunset Travelers and the Harmony Echoes.  A young man named Roosevelt Jamison sang with the Redemption Harmonizers and he and Carr struck up a friendship during the mutual appearances.

In addition to singing, Jamison was also a songwriter.  In fact, he had just penned the song, "That's How Strong My Love Is," for O. V. Wright.  Wright was recording for Goldwax Records in Memphis at the time, and Jamison knew that the label was looking for fresh young talent in order to compete with the more dominant Memphis label, Stax.

Goldwax soon lost Wright, who had previously recorded with Duke/Peacock Records and was forced to honor his contract with the Houston label, so Carr was at the right place at the right time and found himself being groomed to be Goldwax's next big soul star, releasing his first single in 1964.

In 1966, Carr had his first hit, with "You've Got My Mind Messed Up," which stayed on the R&B charts for two months, peaking at #7.  Even more impressive, the single made it to # 63 on the Pop charts, a rare trick for a single released on a small Southern-based label.  The song was written by O.B. McClinton, who also recorded for Goldwax and several other labels, and whose songs often charted on the Country & Western charts.

Carr's next hit was the Dan Penn/Chips Moman classic, "The Dark End of the Street."  Although this song didn't chart as well as "You've Got My Mind Messed Up" (# 10 R&B, #77 Pop), the song has enjoyed lasting popularity, having been recorded by countless soul and country artists over the years, and even showing up on the 90's movie, The Commitments.  This is the song that James Carr is remembered for.  His performance on the single has to rank as one of the all time deep soul vocals to be committed to wax.

Carr recorded some other high quality soul tracks during this time, like "Love Attack," "Pouring Water on a Drowning Man," "Life Turned Her That Way," "Freedom Train," and "These Ain't Raindrops."

Carr had nine singles to make it to the R&B charts (seven of which crossed over to the Pop charts), recorded some of the most intense southern soul records ever, and he toured stateside with artists like Wilson Pickett, James Brown, and Otis Redding.  So, why didn't he reach the heights of fame that some of his contemporaries did?

Some of the problems began with his material.  Though he did record some excellent songs, his catalog was not of the consistently good quality that his contemporaries at Stax enjoyed.  Also, Carr had married at a very young age and had seven sons, so maybe his commitment to stardom wasn't as strong and single-minded as others.

However, the main reason for Carr's difficulties stemmed from his constant battle with severe depression.  His friend, Roosevelt Jamison, started out serving as his manager, but soon ended up serving as his caretaker.  Soon after his hits began charting, Carr signed with Phil Walden, Otis Redding's manager.  Without Jamison, Carr's often found himself unable to deal with the pressures from success, touring, and recording.  By 1968, Carr's condition was so bad that he was having problems even recording.  During his last session, Carr sat at the microphone for hours, staring into space, managing to record only one song ("To  Love Somebody," the Bee Gees hit).

Roosevelt Jamison
Goldwax soon went under, but no one would touch James Carr with a ten foot pole.  Atlantic signed him in the early 70's, but he only recorded one single.  Throughout Carr's life, his greatest champion and friend was Roosevelt Jamison, who tirelessly worked to help get the singer the recognition and success he deserved.  In the late 70's, Jamison recorded Carr on his own River Bank label, and helped bankroll a Japanese tour in 1979 that went well until Carr suffered a meltdown during the Tokyo show, apparently taking too much medication and ending up in a catatonic state in front of the microphone.  After that, Carr returned to Memphis, where he alternated between living with his sister and spending time in various institutions.

  In the early 90's, after the release of the book, Sweet Soul Music, there was a renewed interest in his music, so there were a few attempts to get James Carr's recordings back in stores where people could hear what the fuss was about.

James Carr - 1990's
In the early  90's, Carr's condition improved enough that Jamison and former Goldwax head Quinton Claunch were able to record an album with  Carr called Take Me To The Limit.  While the album didn't really hold up to Carr's magnificent 60's sides (too many synthesizers and electric drums and horns), Carr sounded very good and it was really good to have him back recording.  He followed up that recording with another one in 1994, called Soul Survivor, but was soon diagnosed with lung cancer and died after a lengthy battle in January, 2001.

Carr's recording legacy is not as strong as some of his contemporaries, but his performances were magnificent, even on the lesser material.  He ranks as one of the greatest soul singers ever, talent-wise  and soul and blues fans who are familiar with his work regard him with admiration and respect.  If you've not experienced the wonders of James Carr, here's a couple of recordings for you to consider.

The Complete Goldwax Singles (Kent) - This contains every side that James Carr recorded for Goldwax in the 60's.  All of his classic material is presented here, along with the more Motown and pop-oriented tracks.  The fact is that Carr sounded good singing just about anything, so while the song quality may not always be there ("Row, Row Your Boat," anyone?), it's the place to go for the complete early recordings.  The Essential James Carr, from Razor & Tie Records, has twenty of his best Goldwax sides, so it could serve as a cheaper, but less complete alternative.  Simply put, every fan of soul music should have one of these collections in their possession.

A Man Worth Knowing - The 1990's Goldwax and Soultrax Recordings (Ace) - The recordings that Carr made in the 1990's don't hold up as well as his 60's work, but it's largely due to those cheap production values with electronic drums, horns, and synthesizers.  The man doing the singing is just fine, thank you, and sounds pretty darn good on these tracks, which include a "modern" version of "Pouring Water on a Drowning Man."  All in all, not a bad purchase, but get the 60's recordings first.


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