In a span of five years, from 1965-69, James Carr went from singing in local gospel groups to become a 1960s soul sensation, then disappeared from the music scene after he developed a mental illness. Yet, his songs lived on through decades of cover versions by dozens of other artists. “Were it not for the extreme gravity of his psychological condition, he would have become one of the great soul singers, such was the strength and range of his voice,” Hugh Gregory wrote in Soul Music A-Z. Carr returned to the recording studio in the early 1990s, receiving critical praise and proving that his talent had not waned after nearly 20 years away from the music industry.
Carr was born in Memphis, Tennessee, where he grew up singing with gospel choirs. “I learned everything in church,” Carr told Internotes. “It’s not different from singing pop music. The only difference is that instead of calling on God, you’re calling on a woman.” In the early 1960s, Carr worked with O.V. Wright in the Harmony Echoes, where he met his soon-to-be manager, Roosevelt Jamison. In 1963, Jamison led Carr to the head of Goldwax Records, Quinton Claunch. The meeting resulted in a record contract for Carr, and he released his first single, “The Word Is Out (You Don’t Want Me),” the following year.
Carr continued to release singles over the next few years, and released the album You’e Got My Mind Messed Up in 1966. The title track, reminiscent of an Otis Redding ballad, became Carr’ first hit single. During the same year, he released the single “Love Attack.” In Colin Escott’s description of the song in the liner notes of The Essential James Carr, he wrote, “you can hear the not-too-distant echoes of those gospel singers who would sometimes collapse and die right on stage.”He followed that single up with “ouring Water on a Drowning Man,” which was later recorded by British rocker Elvis Costello.
In 1967, Carr released his biggest hit ever, “The Dark End of the Street.” In Esquire, Kurt Loder described the song as “a tale of furtive love so frankly bereft of hope, it might send the most sanguine listener rooting around for a razor.” “I like singing songs that are stories,” Carr said in Internotes. “I sing songs that actually happened, so you could say I’m telling a story.” The tune was later recorded and performed by numerous artists, including Aretha Franklin and Linda Ronstadt, and was used on the soundtrack for the film The Commitments. Despite his success, Carr continued his fevered musical pace. He released two more albums, A Man Needs A Woman and Freedom Train, in 1968. The following year, he released a cover version of the Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody” in his trademark soulful style. Not long after
Born June 13, 1942, in Memphis, TN.
Began singing in gospel choirs; signed to Goldwax Records, 1963; released debut single, “The Word Is Out (You Don”t Want Me), 1964; released debut album You’ve Got My Mind Messed Up, 1966; Goldwax folded, 1969; developed mental illness which kept him out of the music industry for over twenty years; released Take Me to the Limit, 1991; signed to Soul Trax and released Soul Survivor, 1994.
Addresses: Record Company —Razor & Tie Music Corp., 214 Sullivan St., #5A, New York, NY, 10012, (212) 473-9173, fax (212) 473-9174.
that single’s release, though, everything began to change for Carr.
Carr soon found himself ill equipped to deal with the trappings of his newly acquired success. Feeling the mounting pressure of higher expectations from the music industry, as well as his fans, Carr retreated from reality. Carr’s stress levels increased exponentially when Goldwax Records folded in 1969. The loss of his record company resulted in a total upheaval for Carr and his career, as he had already had a difficult time learning to cope with the price of fame. After Goldwax’s demise, he began to rely more and more on drugs to help him get through the days, sometimes sitting in the studio, staring into space for hours at a time. Later, itwas reported that he was suffering from a manic depressive illness.
“In five short years, James Carr cut some of the most majestic sides in Southern R&B history,” wrote one reviewer in Rolling Stone, and his work had not gone unnoticed. When it became obvious that Carr would be unable to perform because of his illness, though, he returned to his native Tennessee to live with his relatives. Carr returned in 1977 with the single “Let Me Be Right,” released on River City Records, only to return to his gospel music roots two years later. His early music continued its popularity with At the Dark End of the Street, a compilation of 14 of his greatest hits, released on Blue Side/Upside Records. Stereo Review urged readers to, “Imagine a cross between Otis Redding, Percy Sledge, and any number of gospel singers, and you’ll begin to have an inkling of the power of his performances.” Roy Greenberg wrote in his review of the LP in Audio, “One listen to At the Dark End of the Street will convince soul and blues fans that Carr must be counted among the best.”
In 1991, former Goldwax President Quinton Claunch hooked up with Carr to resurrect his career. He arranged for recording sessions, which resulted in the album Take Me to the Limit. The album did not receive much attention, but Claunch and Carr didn’t give up there. Three years later, Claunch formed a new label called Soul Trax Records, with Carr at the top of its roster. “I kept in real close contact with James Carr all these years,” Claunch told Chris Morris in Billboard. “He had some problems a few years ago, but it’s under control. He’s back to being James Carr.” Carr returned with a vengeance on his 1994 release Soul Survivor, an apt title after all he’d been through.
The album reflected Carr’s trademark sound, updated for the 1990s. Chris Morris wrote in Billboard, “The abyss-voiced Carr sounds as assured and as vital as he did on his unforgettable ‘60s singles.” Although he didn’t receive the attention he had in the 1960s, with Soul Survivor, his strength, hope, and talent came through loud and clear.
Carr’s comeback resulted in yet another hits compilation in 1995, The Essential James Carr. Released on Razor & Tie Music, it included many of his hits from the 1960s, once again proving the timelessness of those songs, and why so many artists continue to record their own versions of his work. After more than 30 years, Carr had yet to become a household name, but his music continued to live and inspire listeners across many musical genres.
You’ve Got My Mind Messed Up, Goldwax Records, 1966.
A Man Needs a Woman, Goldwax Records, 1968.
Freedom Train, Goldwax Records, 1968.
At the Dark End of the Street, Blue Side/Upside, 1987.
Take Me to the Limit, Ace Records, 1991.
Soul Survivor, Soul Trax Records, 1994.
The Essential James Carr, Razor & Tie Music, 1995.
Gregory, Hugh, Soul Music A-Z, Da Capo Press, New York, 1995.
Audio, January 1988.
Billboard, June 18, 1994.
Esquire, April 1992.
Rolling Stone, July 2, 1987.
Stereo Review, September 1987, June 1995.
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