|James Carr 1942 - 2001|
|Click here for the Discography|
The world lost one of its most magnificent voices on Sunday, January 7, 2001 when James Edward Carr died of lung cancer at Court Manor Nursing Home in Memphis, Tennessee. For connoisseurs of deep southern soul, Carr was unrivalled as a male exponent of the gospel-drenched R&B ballad, greater even than the great Otis Redding. Sadly, though, Carr never attained the heights the Big O reached, partly because he wasn't lucky enough to be on Stax, partly because he was a fragile and unworldly man whose brief brush with fame in 1967 was itself more than he could handle.
Carr recorded a clutch of late '60s singles for the Memphis label Goldwax that stand today as incontrovertible masterpieces. Foremost among them was 'The Dark End of the Street', a sombre and dread-filled ballad co-penned by two blue-eyed, soul-besotted country boys, but equally searing were sides like 'Love Attack' and the desolate 'That's the Way Love Turned Out For Me'. After almost two decades of virtual silence, Carr returned to live performance in the '90s, touring America's blues circuit and even venturing over to Europe. Yet his emotional instability continued to thwart him, and physical illness finally laid him low.
At The Dark End of the Soul - Robert Gordon, L.A. Weekly, May 1993
When it was built in the '50s, Memphis' Mid-South Building was probably stylish and sleek. Today, the blocky turquoise exterior pales next to the snap of the nearby fast food joints. The elevator moves slowly to the third floor. The hallway to the Goldwax Records office feels institutional, with no natural light and a musty smell. The tiled floor reflects the dim ceiling lights, and the yellow paint job dulls any spriteliness.
The walls of the office are mostly bare, the blue carpeting subdued. The fax machine in the corner seems like an anachronism. Only the large coffee table littered with music magazines indicates the nature of the office's business. That, and the two men who now run the company.
Founded in 1964 in the wake of Stax's Memphis soul success, Goldwax Records was revitalized in the mid-80s. Elliot Clark, an avuncular black man in his 50s, is the label's director; Quinton Claunch, a decade older and white, co-founded the label and now serves as president. Put these two in the same room - any room - and no matter how spare the furnishings, they will fill it up. They've travelled the record business road, long, winding, paved and potholed. Goldwax doesn't need platinum records or autographed photos hanging on the wall. They've got Clark and Claunch.
When Quinton Claunch helped found the soul music label, he was already established in the business: he'd been a radio musician with a flour company sponsorship, a session man at Sun (he once toured two weeks with Elvis), a founder of Hi Records, a producer of regional hits. Though he's played and performed all his life, Claunch would be the first one in a crowd of a thousand people you'd assume was not in music. Coke-bottle glasses and arms crossed uncomfortably, he speaks in a Mississippi drawl that is at once rushed and clunky. His tan polyester pants and plaid shirt are more suited to his forty-three and a half years as a tri-state supply company salesman, peddling steel products, heating and air conditioner supplies and sheet metal. Nothing about him indicates a man who discovered and produced such great talents as James Carr and O.V. Wright.
Elliot Clark laughs like your best friend. His demeanour says he's seen it all and now knows that laughing is better than crying. "Million-seller" dots his conversation as regularly as whole notes in a ballad. A large man sharply dressed, he could be a former sports star doing a product endorsement. Clark's also been in music all his life, managing soul artists, producing tours, promoting concerts and owning labels. Between him and Claunch, they've been involved in enough record company logos to make a deck of cards. Clark became interested in the Goldwax catalogue when it was sitting dormant in the late 70s. He eventually reincorporated the company, enlisting Claunch for direction and as tangible connection to the earlier talent.
The Goldwax catalog includes the Ovations, who achieved brief fame with 'It's Wonderful To Be In Love', Percy Milem, whose 'Slipped A Little' was a recent beach music hit, and Ollie Nightingale, a vocalist who had modest success on Stax; some of O.V. Wright's early material belongs to Goldwax. The catalog is important to fans and collecters, but what gives it weight is the presence of James Carr.
James Carr has been accorded the title "World's Greatest Soul Singer," though certainly other great soul singers are more renowned. From the mid to late 60s, he established himself with sad songs and songs of desperation, singing them not like his life depended on them, but like what his life depended on was gone and these songs were what was left. His voice is deep and full, operatic even, and though heavy with conviction, he can soar like a preacher giving warning.
Like many of his peers, Carr has been influenced by the gospel tradition. Unlike Otis Redding, however, he is not a roller and shaker whose energy reflects the hand-clapping and swaying of the choir. Nor, like Sam and Dave, does he work into a frenzy through call and response. Carr has always been a quiet person, and his best work is with slower material, ballads. His father was a Baptist preacher, and one imagines Carr as a youth in church, eyes trained on his father, observing the hysteria but absorbing the solemnity. A gospel influence is apparent in many of his songs ('Freedom Train'), but so is the twang of country music ('Pouring Water (On A Drowning Man)') and the grittiness of Stax ('Love Attack').
Carr's place in soul music history is assured with the original version of 'Dark End Of The Street', the version to which all others are still compared. His tremulous voice conveys a knowingness, an acceptance of responsibility. He's not coming to grips with the ways of fate, but rather facing his reflection and pointing the finger.
Carr's periodic comeback attempts have been plagued by mental illness, hospitalization, and management squabbles. After two decades in the shadows, his reemergence is distinguished not only by the release of new material, but also by his return to Goldwax. He may still be a cipher, but something has changed.
Carr's career and the history of Goldwax are practically one and the same. The label had just gotten underway when Claunch met Carr. "About midnight one night, there came a knock on my door," recalls Claunch. "I opened the door and there stood three black guys. Roosevelt Jamison, James Carr and O.V. Wright. Said, 'Man, we got some tapes we'd like for you to hear.' They didn't make an appointment or nothing, they just knocked on my door. They had their little tape recorder, portable, and I said come on in, and we sat right down in the middle of my living room floor and man, we started playing those dang tapes of O.V. Wright and James Carr, and I really got hooked then."
Carr and Wright had been singing spirituals together in the Redemption Harmonizers, and Jamison was enlisted to help them cross over to the more popular and lucrative soul music; the gospel group's manager did not want to truck with the secular world. Jamison is a tall man with a soft voice, and he exudes courtesy. If he sometimes complains he is too compassionate, that quality has also led him to compose good songs. He wrote 'That's How Strong My Love Is', which was first done by Wright, then Otis Redding, then the Rolling Stones. Its melody was the basis for 1966's 'You've Got My Mind Messed Up', Carr's third single and his first to receive national attention. Jamison, who remains devoted to Carr, was ousted as manager in 1966 by Phil Walden, who also managed Otis Redding.
Both Claunch and Jamison, who don't agree on much, agree that Carr has never been ambitious. When he left with Walden, he withered; Carr has always needed someone to manage more than his career. Jamison recalls telling him when to wake up and when to go to sleep. Claunch remembers driving to Jackson, Mississippi for a session after he was no longer involved with Carr's career - the singer wouldn't sing unless he was there.
Despite his obvious talent, Carr never achieved the success his initial hits promised. He recorded briefly in 1971 for Atlantic, then was dropped. More people than Elliot Clark assumed he was dead. A new record, Take Me To The Limit is one of Goldwax's first releases (alongside a reunion album by Black Oak Arkansas and a good soul collection, Echoes of Yesteryear). "In 1990," says Claunch, "I decided to do a demonstration thing with him, see if he could still sing. Rather than spend a lot of money, I figured I'd go to a little studio down in Iuka, Mississippi. So I picked James up every Saturday morning for eight weeks. If I'd known he was going to sound that good, I would have used real musicians." Take Me To The Limit is not a great record; the synthesized backing tracks often make it unlistenable. But it proves that Carr still has a voice, and that, after twenty years, he can even create feeling from a lifeless keyboard program.
Left to himself, Carr would just watch TV. "I think it's a physical problem," says Claunch. "He's on medication and man he goes off somewhere for three or four days and don't take his medicine, he starts sliding back." "If he stays on his medicine, he's just A-1," says Clark.
"I really became conscious of his imbalance right after he started working on the road," says Roosevelt Jamison. He remembers a trip to the Apollo in Harlem, 1966. "He was touring with Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, James Brown, these kind of acts. When we were in New York, James told me he was going to sign with Phil Walden and Larry Utall. They had promised to make him bigger than Otis Redding. Later, I went up to Phil and Larry's office, and they gave me $3200 for James contract. I came downstairs and gave James $1600 and told him he better hold onto it, because I didn't know which way it was going from then on, I was going back home.
"I didn't hear from James for a while. A couple months later, he seemed to have lost his way. He had nobody out there with him. After they pushed me out and James got super sick - he came to me. He always kept my number in his mind, and he would call me from Atlanta or various places or if he was lost at an airport, drifting around the streets, wandering around, and he would call and ask me why wasn't I with him."
Jamison's voice becomes hushed as he finishes this story. "He managed to make it to my house one cold morning. There was somebody knocking on the door, and my wife asked about it. When I went to the door, snow was everywhere and he was sitting down on the steps. He said, 'Man, I kept looking for you and looking for you, where you been so long?'"
Easley Recording occupies the first building in Memphis built to be a recording studio. It was designed for hitmaker Chips Moman (left), the man who co-wrote and engineered Carr's 'Dark End Of The Street'. The Bar-Kays, the funk band that sprang from the survivors of Otis Redding's plane crash, owned the studio not long back; recently it has been the site for albums by Lydia Lunch, Alex Chilton and other perverse underground characters. It carries a heavy vibe.
Easley's also keeps a somewhat obsolete 16-track tape machine in working order, and Clark and Claunch have dug up 16-track masters from the '70s and '80s, tapes they own from previous ventures. When I walk into the studio, the equipment if being properly dusted off. James Carr is sitting behind a cloud of tobacco smoke in the corner.
The oxides on the old tapes have deteriorated, and while the engineers are threading the machine, Claunch launches into an explanation of how he's baked the tapes with a lightbulb for 72 hours to make them playable. The control room is not small, but between the number of people in there and the frenetic explanation which nobody quite understands, it's getting claustrophobic. The tape-baking is explained again, and finally Clark and the rest of us accept it as truth, its merits attested to by the playback.
While the first song plays, a soft hum wafts from a corner of the control room. By the second verse, the hum has assumed more definite characteristics and by the next chorus, James Carr is belting out the words. In the half-hour of set-up time, he's been practically invisible, but once the music begins, it's as if an empty stage has been filled.
Carr is handsome in his sports jacket, though he is a wisp of a man. He has high cheekbones, thinning hair, and extremely long fingernails. In his cap and sunglasses, he establishes an air of removal that would make movie stars envious. A stranger entering the room might think Carr was aloof, simply famous.
Claunch sends Carr out onto the studio floor. Except for a spotlight over the one microphone, the room is dimmed. Carr puts on the headphones and stands in place - there's no music yet, and it's hard to tell whether it's Carr there or just his shadow. When the tape rolls, he nods his head, coming in on cue and singing the entire song in one take. Claunch tells him that it was good, but wants to do it again. Carr sings it several more times, usually all the way through, and the improvement is the difference in how a car runs if it's driven on a cold engine or has a chance to warm up.
While they are cueing up the next song, Carr intently smokes Kools in the control room, pulling drags that leave half-inch coals glowing. So far, the session's been a piece of cake. If the first track was not a hit, it was suitable filler, which is all Claunch and Clark intend it for. They are anticipating a James Carr series, fleshing it out with these old masters. They've cut new tracks with a live band, tracks which achieve the feeling that these songs lack. Their series will mix the good with the not-as-good, keeping Carr visible for some time to come.
Trouble starts when the second song rolls. Carr can't remember the words, and after several tries, Claunch is getting steamed. "I gave him these two songs to learn a month ago," he says, "and I told him we wouldn't go in till he was ready. He told me he knew'em, but he don't know this one."
Somewhere the session gets out of control. Carr sings words out of order, repeats lines already sung, so that the song lacks not only feeling, but sense. Take after take, the producer hears his artist almost get it. After nearly an hour, I'm sent out to the floor to prompt him, but the lyrics I've accumulated are from the jumbled mess Carr's been singing. He misses the cue for the first line, one he'd previously gotten every time. Communication between the control room and the floor gets mangled, and we're not always sure what verse they're playing. For two hours, Claunch plows ahead, line by line, and despite continuing problems, the tape keeps rolling, a finished take finally pieced together. Whatever merits the first song had, even as filler, this one lacks.
Out in the lobby, Carr is calm, though I may be projecting my own sense of relief. The cloud of smoke which envelops him, the sunglasses, the reticence, even his kidding about the role I've just played - somehow it seems he knows everything that's happened, even orchestrated it. Claunch and Clark shuttle him out the door, and the sudden silence which fills the studio is broken by our nervous laughter.
After another difficult recording session, I arrive at the Goldwax office with mixed feelings. I've been bothered by an impression of small-time graft, of men in the know trying to squeeze one last hit from someone out of the know. Something to retire on. Their conversation doesn't clarify their intentions.
"I dare to say, if he got a hit record right now, he couldn't handle it," says Claunch (left). "If he had a million dollars today, a month from now he wouldn't have a nickel."
"So why are y'all trying to help him have a hit?"
Clark answers. "We thought that we could help him. Most of the reasons for people being in a bad environment is because they don't have the finances to support anything other than that. But if you got him in the right environment, I really believe he could come back."
"I've been knowing him since he was 19 years old," says Claunch. "Thirty years. And I just think where he could be, in [the wealthy suburb of] Germantown in a mansion. Rather than skid row. He's got talent."
Clark: "But I just don't think he could handle it. Naw, naw."
For the past eighteen months, Claunch and Carr had been in almost daily contact, culminating in last April with Carr's first New York engagement in perhaps two decades. Returning home with a pocket full of money, he'd disappeared.
The New York show had been a success. Claunch drove him up, got him to the rehearsal on time, kept him away from the bar before the gig, and didn't let him get sidetracked with women during the evening. According to people in the audience, his performance at Tramps was a personal and professional triumph. Having heard the power in his voice at the studio, I can only imagine how much deeper the feeling must have been when he was singing songs he knew, backed by a live band, and to an appreciative audience.
Returning to Memphis, Claunch sat in Carr's kitchen and paid him, heard Carr say he was going to help his sister cover some bills. Then he vanished. Three weeks later when he called, he was broke: "He didn't even have no money to buy no cigarettes," Claunch says. "From now on, we're giving the money to his sister."
"He's been through some changes," says Clark, "but we've got him notoriety. They're calling from all over the world. Here's a man who could make a half a million dollars a year right now. What's so frustrating is, when we've got him set to come back, all it takes is a good record and the man is set for life. We may can get another good song, but he can't make that transition back to reality."
If half a million a year seems unreal, Clark has built a new career for Carr, with Take Me To The Limit and more unreleased recordings. "We put James in all the major magazines, bought ads, journalists wrote good articles on him, gave him good reviews. Before 1990, he was gone, nobody knew about James," he says. "When you're playing with the big boys, you can't screw around. When I was a kid growing up in the country, they'd shoot you for going in the watermelon patch."
Claunch: "One of my neighbors caught a couple guys in the watermelon patch, he brought the double barrel out there, made them eat two watermelons, rind and all."
Clark: "So, if you didn't plant it, don't pick it.
Claunch: "'There's the watermelons, just have at it. When you done eatin' that one, you're gonna get that'un too.'"
Clark: "That's business. A lot of people don't understand that. This is the music business, and the ones that's making it, they do business. It's not so much talent as it was back then. It's hype. Like those Billboard charts. Half of those records are hyped to number 30 anyway. Ninety per cent of 'em. You get above there, then you got a record. All those 40s -" Elliot Clark laughs hard. "When you start getting up in those 20s -" again, laughter.
"Why do you think Crest sells so much toothpaste?" asks Claunch. "Ain't no better than Pepsodent."
"Look at Coca-Cola," says Clark. "Got to promote, got to promote."
"I really feel sorry for him," says Claunch. "What he could have done. He can't hardly write his name, but he done it."
James Carr is waiting for me outside his apartment, ready for our lunch appointment at a nearby greasy spoon. His eyes are focussed. I can imagine what he was like appearing at Claunch's home in the middle of the night. You might just think he was quiet.
Over lunch at a CK's Kitchen, he discusses his New York gig, and it becomes clear that the reports I've heard were not exaggerations. This man here could have indeed thrilled audiences. He tells me that he and Claunch recently wrote a song together; he can't remember what it's about, but, "I know Quinton can think of it, he'll never forget." And he laughs.
"I've been learning songs and recording them," he continues. "I really like sentimental songs, I can really feel sentimental songs. But I've been recording all types, country-western, blues, rock and roll. Sometimes the band puts the tracks down when I'm not there. I like for the band to be there. You can get together more of it, knowing what everybody is gonna do and knowing what you gonna do too. But if it's already done, you just have to catch ahold to it and go on and do it."
'Dark End Of The Street', he says, was cut live with a band. I wonder aloud what makes that song so good. "It's really simple," he says. "It's really a simple song. Just sing it the way you talk." And then James Carr sings the whole first verse and chorus of his biggest hit, with plates clattering in the background, silverware falling on the floor, and conversations at nearby tables uninterrupted. With each line, he makes our presence in the diner more ridiculous. When I think he's through, he continues, carrying us away, out of CK's Kitchen and out of this world, and when he's done, I imagine that the whole diner will be suddenly still, then burst into applause. I'll look at the newspaper on the counter and the headline will read, JAMES CARR IS BACK. People will know.
When he finishes singing, he waits a beat, and then continues his explanation. "It's just easy, and I arranged it by the way I read it, the way I read the words. Didn't really have the music to it then, I arranged it by the way the words were." Our food is slapped on the table.
Carr makes eyes at a girl seated in a booth across from us, and also at our waitress. "If I had a hit and made a lot of money," he says, "I'd put it in the bank. I don't know if I need a house, but I know I need a place of my own. Can't have no privacy living with my sister. Whenever I get ready to do something, I have to go to a hotel. So I might get me an apartment, but I think I'd rather stay at the hotel where them women's be at."
In the course of our conversation, and because he seems so clear, I ask him about a notorious 1979 Japanese tour, a comeback event that, despite several good performances, is remembered for the one gig where he stood on stage catatonic, unable to perform. "I really wasn't ready," he answers, and his tone is definite. "We didn't have nothing really right, me and the band. We just thought about some songs we could do, but I don't think it was what they were playing. I sung my heart out, but it wasn't that good."
Roosevelt Jamison (left) remembers the Japan tour differently. "I've got the tape and it's not as bad as they said. I got James and the band in shape to go over there. One of the shows, he couldn't finish, but he finished the others. He was sick as a dog over there, mentally and physically. He had a fever and was stopped up in his chest, his throat was sore." When he continues, he is hushed, reverential, slowly building back up to a fatherly bluster. "I saw James on that stage being whupped, but he was too much of a champion to give up. I could feel his agony and pain out there. I knew his temperature was sky high, sweating like mad, I knew he couldn't hardly open his mouth, his throat was sore, his chest was clogged up. That was when he took too much medicine. But he stayed there and he took the beating, and I was proud of him. It made him a champion, made him realize that all the good that the stage had been to him, he also owed the stage something."
Jamison's story reminds me of an earlier conversation, from the day after I first met Carr. I'd expressed concern about his condition and Jamison told me that Carr was fine, he'd just been doing a little drinking earlier that night and was quiet. This deflection yields an insight into Jamison: He needs Carr perhaps more than the singer needs his longtime friend. Jamison has invested his life in Carr, is largely responsible for his career. Reconciling himself to James Carr would mean admitting a defeat a champion's coach can't face.
Quinton Claunch also knows Carr is a champion. What looks from a distance like graft is really the fundamental nature of the record business. Carr quit his job on an assembly line making tables when he started performing in clubs 30 years ago; music is all he knows and he's made his best music with Claunch. They are a team. Claunch may threaten to wash his hands of Carr, but it's like running away from home: You may put a lot of distance between you and your front door, but your heart never knows the miles.
In the car after lunch, I show Carr a twenty year old picture of himself. He looks at it and is silent. "All I am is a voice," he says. He is right: On his records, unlike those of Otis Redding or Sam & Dave, we are not sung to. The performance is not one we witness from the audience but one we feel through him. Redding made a gift of his passion, something we could admire from a distance. Carr's passion is reciprocal.
Carr today doesn't see himself as the man who made the Japanese tour, or the man who sung the early hits. He looks in the mirror often, as if confirming his presence. Coming back from his years of emptiness - which, despite his good days now, are probably not over - has made him a different person. "Lost in a dream," he says about the past twenty years. "Way out on a voyage."
Carr tells me a story after lunch. His voice retains the conviction it has held all day.
"After I was born I went to sleep and I woke up other people," says James Carr.
"What do you mean you woke up other people?"
"Some of them was parading, some of them was performing, some of them was doing actions in movies, stuff like that. So I woke up with them, and carried on their duty, their performing. For that short period of time, when I was first born.
"They put me to sleep, and I woke up then, woke up in mid air, in rain, woke up the rain, the rain was hurting, hurting me, yeah it was hurting me, it was hurting, I could feel it. Snow. Stuff like that."
"What did the rain feel like?"
"It was hurting. I was hurting too. I could feel the rain hurting, but it wasn't really me. I was there, in sight and soul and everything, but my body wasn't there. My body was at home. I can't forget it."
Carr hits me up for some cash before I leave him at the apartment he shares with his sister. He asks for a ride to the corner store, where he buys a quart of beer. As he exits the store, he pauses and asks me, "Do you want a beer?" I don't, and I drive him back home. I can't forget it.
© Robert Gordon 1993
RBP Contributor Robert Gordon is the author of It Came From Memphis, a book about Memphis music and culture published in 1995, and The King on the Road, written with the cooperation of Elvis Presley's estate and published in 1996. A regular contributor to Rolling Stone, Spin, and Mojo, Gordon is currently at work on a biography of Muddy Waters for Little, Brown.