James Carr died in January 2001. There wasn’t a lot of fanfare. His career had all but dried up. He was 58 years old, and living in a nursing home, battling lung cancer.
The sin here is that Carr was unknown. Never have I heard a voice that could gallop with such precision one moment, and slip into the shaking fears the next remaining absolutely convincing the whole time. Carr had soul dribbling out of his little pinkie finger. But mostly it leaked out of his heart, and up into his head, and he did his best to share it with the rest of the world.
There are other soul singers who have sad stories, but mostly they’ve been awarded some kind of success. Otis Redding simply died too soon. And Redding is a good barometer for Carr; the two men at one time shared the same manager, and both based themselves out of Memphis, musically and spiritually if not always physically. Redding was a magnanimous performer — so much so, that at the Monterrey Pop Festival, the acts following his performance became so desperate to generate the kind of charisma Redding naturally shed in his sweat that they set about destroying their instruments, by fire, and by smashing them on stage. Carr, on the other hand, legendarily lost his mind on stage in Japan, freezing almost in mid song.
But Carr’s songs and story match up perfectly. He suffered from depression, or was bi-polar, or perhaps it was an inability to charter the grief he felt through and through. But when you listen to him sing his songs, a freeway opens up and drives right to the soul of raw emotion. While Redding certainly sang with supreme emotion, that emotion was predicated on confidence. James Carr dove into his own embattled soul, and pulled from the painful reaches of his psyche an ability to bend half notes into whole ones, sometimes drenched with tears.
Perhaps his past singing gospel helped, but that’s no different than many of his soul singing brethren. Carr’s youth was spent at disadvantage. Race prevented him from getting an education, he didn’t get much out of school, and ended up married with children while still in his teens working manual labor gigs to keep the cupboards full. But Carr had this voice. This extraordinary magnificent voice, a voice that flew down from Mt Olympus only to nest in the barest regions of the loneliest soul. Muscular one moment, explosive the next. He could cop Redding’s cocksure platitudes and Percy Sledge’s raw vitality. It was James Carr’s voice songwriters dreamt about at night upon realizing their own was too brittle, too ineffectual in the right spots.
His manager, Roosevelt Jamison, referred to Carr as childlike. As manager, Jamison behaved accordingly. He held Carr’s hand, helped him get dressed, handled his money. Because Carr grappled with demons a lot of the other singers round Memphis knew about, but did not themselves possess. And you can hear it in his songs. The maturity grief lays under even his most ebullient songs stretches them into multi layered pop operas, all because of the emotional topography the singer creates.
Carr recorded the bliss inducing album, You Got My Mind Messed Up, in 1966. And this was the record that did what all other soul records have since sought to do. Each song has become a standard. And each of those standards have adopted Carr’s interpretation as its true path.
Because what James Carr did was not so much sing, as give the rest of us listeners an example of what it felt like in his deeply empathetic heart. Critic Thom Jurek wrote, “the 12 songs (on You Got My Mind Messed Up are all classics merely by their having been sung and recorded by James Carr.”
Deep in the heart of this bliss is the Dan Penn/Chips Moman collaboration, “The Dark End of the Street.” At once both immediately recognizable, and wholly unknowable is Carr’s signature version. While many have covered this gem about heartache and infidelity and raw commitment to lust, Carr did it first, and no one could ever match his version. It’s a ballad, filled with risk, haunt, and undeniable love. Moman and Penn supposedly borrowed a hotel room of Hi Records honcho Quinton Claunch, who let them in to write long as they promised the fruits of their labor went to his singer James Carr. “The kept their word,” Claunch told Robert Gordon, and Carr got the song.
What Carr does with it is something out of this world. As the strum of a heavily tremeloed guitar plots the mysterious cadence, Carr’s voice sets down his worry. And from the very first line to the last, Carr doesn’t exert control over Dark End of the Street. Instead, he rummages through his own internal conflicts, and pins those demons to each verse with such deep knowingness you automatically reach for a bottle to quell the doom he’s singing about before the chorus arrives. And what a chorus it is, cavernous, stentorian, and willowy all at once, Carr’s voice booms through some tormented echo chamber, they’re gonna find us, they’re gonna find us, they’re gonna find us, lord, someday.
With just one song almost as strong as “Dark End,” no one in Memphis, or anywhere else for that matter, doubted that great things were in store for Carr. But the whole lot of You Got My Mind Messed Up was solid gold. All the people around him predicted the money would roll right in. Everyone but Jamison, who knew on a deeper level just what great struggles Carr went through to get the gold sounds out onto wax. When Redding kicked about a year later, that seemed to cement the deal. James Carr would take the Soul Throne. But Carr never managed to reach superstardom. In fact, the hits dried up altogether.
Listening to a wave of newcomers, Carr did the unthinkable, and let go Jamison of, adopting the late Redding’s manager/agent as his own. But things continued tumbling. Carr wasn’t a doper, but he smoked a ton of reefer. With his already fragile mental state, that certainly couldn’t have helped things. By the time of a hastily cobbled together Japanese tour in the mid-seventies, Carr was taking a lot of anti-depressants, but even they couldn’t stem the demonic tide floating in his head.
As Jamison put it, “James’s problem was in his mind. He would go off into a trance, become spellbound almost. Other guys, when they got into the business, would sing and rehearse. But James very seldom did that. You had to pull him out of the house in order to get him to rehearse. The only thing he did well was sing. He just got totally mixed up and confused.”
Capitol Records waved upwards of 25,000 grand at Quinton Claunch, in exchange for Carr’s contract. But the deal never came to pass. mostly because Claunch couldn’t, or wouldn’t guarantee Carr to be in the proper mental state to record, and Capitol wanted that assurance in writing.
And so Carr drifted. And as he did, so did soul music, shifting into the harder funk, and then, by 1976 mutating into shiny unprincipled disco. Throngs of barely clothed hipsters bobbled in coked out fury on Soul Train, at Danceteria and Studio 54, while tearjerker soulsters like Carr found themselves sitting at the dark end of an uninhabited street.
A late in life performance captured on cheap video and posted on YouTube shows an aging Carr in an ill fitting suit, looking slightly lost until the song kicks in, and he begins to sing. The transformation is indelible. I’d never need to see the video again to remember that visage as the cameraman, so totally entranced by the intensity of the performance, pulls in close. Carr roars, pouring his guts out. It is one of those sublime moments when the situation and circumstance around the performance are almost as moving as the song being sung. Carr was at the end of his life, the suit he wears is too big to encompass that voice and his frayed mental state, but then, he starts to sing, and the song encompasses all life, all known existence, for the duration of the video.
I was outside of Buffalo, New York, on Lake Eerie late last summer, working on a documentary film. At night, to get beyond the mental struggle of the project, I’d go jog on the beach. It was a blissful, perfect idyll of a beach, the water shallow enough that the waves never came seemed to crash, instead gently kissing the shoreline before retreating back out again. And so I’m jogging along, on this serene lake, when I noticed this bird, this adult sea gull flapping it’s wings unable to fly. One wing wouldn’t flap. Upon closer inspection, I saw the bird was hooked by a fishing lure, wing to beak. I knew right off, there was no way out for that gull. But something got in the way of that. As we carefully circled each other, we shared a few moments where the gull understood I was there to help. So he let down his guard enough, we made contact, as individual members of different species, and that was something more than what that gull and this person normally did, and we were aware of that.
When I saw the video of Carr’s on YouTube, it was the same thing, the same kind of communication between band, and singer, between camera man and singer, between viewer of video and singer. Judging from the band’s falt top fades and jheri curl, the show was sometime during his comeback — late 80’s early 90’s. Carr looks more battered than he should, his shock of grey hair thinning, eyes almost feral. But when he opens his mouth, Carr’s still remarkable voice kick down the doors. He goes into a trance that may be well aware the glory days have gone, and yet, he soars past that recognition, into that same understanding I shared with the sea gull on the beach of Lake Erie is transmitted via internet technologies — the sum is greater than its parts. The horns push him higher into the regions he once surrendered to on a daily basis, and you can tell Carr is no longer just glad to be doing it once again. He reaches out through the glory of modern technology, you’ll be just as glad to feel the connection, if only for the three minutes and forty-four seconds the performance lasts.
Because in that 3:44, Carr melds the mystery of Soave Sia Il Vento, from Cosi Fan Tutte to that mid-sixties golden era of soul, deep in the heart of Memphis, his voice carrying all of us with him off into the verdant rolling hills of his delight. That’s a feat not many people can do, long after they’ve bitten the dust. Whether you believe in sin or not, that Carr remains so drastically unknown is the devil’s work.