Blues singer and pianist
In the late 1920s and early 1930s, among the African-American audiences that nurtured the blues, there was hardly a better-known performer than Leroy Carr. He made over a hundred recordings, the first of which, 1928's "How Long, How Long Blues," made him a star who could fill large theaters around the Midwest and South. After Carr's death in 1935, tribute songs were put on record by other blues performers, and later giants of the genre paid tributes of their own by covering Carr's songs repeatedly.
Yet in the decades after his death, Carr was almost forgotten. An LP compilation of Carr's music issued in the early 1960s by the Columbia label sold poorly, while a similar set devoted to Delta bluesman Robert Johnson became a nearly essential part of a rock-era record collection. Historians have offered several explanations for this comparative neglect of Carr's legacy.
One had to do with the fact that Carr lived in Indianapolis, somewhat apart from the major center of blues development on Chicago's South Side. Another was that Carr's music was low-key, conversational, and rather wry. He mightily influenced black musicians who followed him, and the sound he created with guitarist Scrapper Blackwell set a pattern for countless blues records to come. But the extreme guitar heroics prized by Eric Clapton and other rock musicians had little place in Carr's music. And finally, Carr didn't fit the image of a blues performer that the genre's audiences, predominantly white later in the twentieth century, expected. He wasn't a sharecropper but a musician born and raised in the city; he didn't speak in a mysterious, obscure dialect but rather in a precise, linear, carefully detailed English. And he wore the fanciest suits he could find.
Carr was a native of Nashville, Tennessee, born on March 27, 1905. The family lived on the city's north side, not far from Fisk University, and his father John Carr worked as a porter at nearby Vanderbilt University. Accounts of Carr's early life disagree with one another in many respects, but at some point after his parents separated he left Nashville with his mother for Louisville, Kentucky, and then for Indianapolis, Indiana, a growing city that was a center for automobile-industry jobs until Henry Ford's innovations shifted the focus of black migration to Detroit, Michigan. Carr taught himself to play the piano. He may have dropped out of high school, but he had more formal education than most country blues players of the same time.
After a restless period that included a stint in a traveling circus and another in the U.S. Army in the early 1920s, Carr returned to Indianapolis and got married in 1922. He had one daughter. For a while, Carr worked in a meat-packing plant, but by the mid-1920s he was gravitating toward the city's Indiana Avenue nightclub strip, a rowdy area with abundant musical opportunities and also many bootleg liquor outlets, a temptation that snared Carr both as a drinker and as a bootlegger himself. It wasn't long before Carr's name became well known among black Indianapolis families looking for musicians to play at house parties or "rent parties" held to raise money when the bills came due. He found work in the notoriously wide-open city of Covington, Kentucky, in the mid-1920s and traveled to other cities as well.
It may have been through involvement in the liquor underworld that Carr met Scrapper Blackwell (1906-1962), a guitarist whose real name, according to Samuel Charters, was Francis Black. Blackwell made several recordings before joining with Carr on record, and some historians have stated that they were brought together by a talent scout from the Vocalion label in 1928. But others point out that even their very first recordings together show the uncanny mutual awareness that was to be one of their trademarks, suggesting that Carr and Blackwell had probably performed together along Indiana Avenue for several years.
"How Long, How Long Blues," the very first recording Carr and Blackwell made, was a hit from the start. Outwardly there was nothing very extraordinary about it; its theme of a man watching a train carry his lover away from town had been repeated in numerous blues lyrics, and although Carr and Blackwell were both solid, infectious instrumentalists, neither was a brilliant virtuoso. Yet "How Long, How Long," in the words of blues historian Elijah Wald (writing in the New York Times ), "had an effect as revolutionary as Bing Crosby's pop crooning, and for similar reasons." Carr seemed a singer born to the microphone. While country blues singers, performing in the street or in a noisy rural juke joint, projected their voices with powerful, deep-in-the-lungs shouts, Carr, Wald wrote, "sounded like a cool city dude carrying on a conversation with a few close friends."
Carr and Blackwell would remake "How Long, How Long" six times between 1928 and 1935, with Carr tinkering with the lyrics each time. Within a few weeks of its release, Carr was being advertised as an "exclusive Vocalion artist who is fast becoming the greatest blues singer in the land," and Vocalion had rushed a follow-up, "Broken Spoke Blues," into stores. Carr recorded prolifically over his short career. Even the Great Depression of the early 1930s didn't keep him out of the studio as it did other artists, although it did slow his recorded output.
Toured with Guitarist Blackwell
Gaining fame far beyond Indiana, Carr and Blackwell appeared in various cities. They played a succession of clubs in St. Louis and appeared at the Booker T. Washington Theater. The year 1932 saw them both penetrating the Deep South and making a trip to New York City to record a fresh set of sides for Vocalion. "Naptown Blues" (named for Indianapolis) and "Corn Licker Blues" were two of the hits they brought to Chicago to compete with another early urban blues performer of the day, Tampa Red.
In a genre that was virtually defined by borrowing from a fund of traditional lyrics and ideas, Carr recorded almost exclusively original material. Occasionally he co-wrote songs with Blackwell, and once in a while he covered another blues of the time like Lucille Bogan's "Sloppy Drunk Blues": "I'd rather be sloppy drunk // Than anything I know," Carr sang cheerfully in 1930. But most of his texts were his own. Often he managed to restate common blues ideas in new language. His well-known "Midnight Hour Blues" expressed an ordinary blues theme of sleeplessness. But Carr sang: "My heart's in trouble // And my mind's thinkin' deep"—an idea original to Carr, not one that adapted a traditional blues line.
"Midnight Hour Blues" was one of many Carr songs that expressed a feeling of reflective melancholy, often lightened by a wry observation or a touch of wit. But he was also a gifted writer of comic songs. In "Papa Wants a Cookie" (1930) Carr takes up the common blues use of food as a symbol for sexual activity or favors. But instead of a simple double meaning he constructs an entire dialogue between a man and a woman (reported by the male protagonist of the song) in which the subject shifts quickly from cooking to attempted seduction and then back again, leaving the listener unsure as to what is really being talked about. Carr's "Carried Water for the Elephants" is a funny song about a boy who gets into a circus without paying by agreeing to bring water to the giant beasts. The song contains an impressive string of animal imitations from Carr.
These examples suggest that Carr often functioned as an entertainer, while the country blues of solo singer-guitarists like Robert Johnson gave the impression that the events and feelings they described had actually happened to the people singing them. In a way, Carr's music resembled the "classic" blues of singers like Bessie Smith who performed with small jazz groups, even though he never appeared with any musician other than Blackwell. Sometimes, though, Carr's songs seemed more personal.
At a Glance …
Born on March 27, 1905, in Nashville, TN; son of a porter at Vanderbilt University; died of complications of alcohol abuse, Indianapolis, April 29, 1935. Military Service: Served in U.S. Army, early 1920s.
Career: Musician, 1920s-35.
"Straight Alky Blues" (1929) was a long composition that covered both sides of a 78 rpm record. It describes an individual on a spree, drinking undiluted alcohol. "My eyes saw double // They could not steer my feet," Carr sings. Then the mood darkens—"Oh, this alcohol is killing me"—only to change direction once again and deliver a series of metaphors of the sexual dysfunction alcohol brings. The song contains especially fine examples of cooperation between Carr and Blackwell, as the guitarist shifts several times from the usual blues triple division of the beat into an even double division, effectively depicting the staggering of a drunk man.
Suffered Effects of Alcoholism
By 1935, the effects of years of alcohol abuse had taken their toll on Carr's slight frame. His final recording session, held in Chicago in February of that year, contained several grim songs, including "Six Cold Feet in the Ground," in which he seemed to forecast his own imminent death. He died of alcohol-related kidney failure in Indianapolis on April 29, 1935, and was buried in the city's Floral Park cemetery. Years later a group of Indiana blues enthusiasts, including Mishawaka bluesman Duke Tumatoe, marketed a comedy CD to raise money so that a headstone could be purchased for his previously unmarked grave.
Carr's popularity was amply demonstrated by his influence on the next generation of blues performers. T-Bone Walker covered "How Long," and fabled Delta-to-Chicago transplant Muddy Waters said it was the first blues song he had ever heard. Even Robert Johnson, the intense Mississippi Delta bluesman who was in many ways Carr's polar opposite, may have modeled his "Stones in My Passway" on Carr's "Rocks in My Bed." The restrained, detailed piano blues of the young Ray Charles, in particular, seem barely removed from Carr's music.
After many years during which his recordings were available only on the original 78 rpm records and on a few scattered LP re-releases, Carr's music began to awaken the interest of blues enthusiasts once again in the 1980s and 1990s. Austria's Document label released his complete recordings on a set of six CDs, and in 2004 the Columbia label released a two-disc set of Carr songs entitled Whiskey Is My Habit, Women Is All I Crave. Carr's place in American musical history was being emphasized anew by writers like Elijah Wald, who argued in the New York Times that "like rap, [blues] had deep, traditional roots but also a dynamic, modern sensibility that revolutionized American music. And Leroy Carr led that revolution, smooth voice, piano, fine suits, and all."
Naptown Blues, Yazoo, 1988.
Complete Recorded Works (7 vols.), Document, 1992-96.
American Blues Legend, Charly, 1999.
Essential Leroy Carr, Classic Blues, 2003.
Whiskey Is My Habit, Women Is All I Crave, Columbia Legacy, 2004.
Charters, Samuel, The Country Blues, Da Capo, 1959.
Davis, Francis, History of the Blues, Hyperion, 1995.
Harris, Sheldon, Blues Who's Who, Arlington House, 1979.
Herzhaft, Gérard, Encyclopedia of the Blues, 2nd ed., trans. Brigitte Debord, University of Arkansas Press, 1997.
Palmer, Robert, Deep Blues, Penguin, 1982.
Down Beat, September 2004, p. 68.
New York Times, July 18, 2004, section 2, p. 22.
"Leroy Carr," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (November 30, 2004).
"Leroy Carr (1905-1935)," http://www.io.com/~tbone1/blues/bios/carr.html (November 30, 2004).
—James M. Manheim
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