James Carr – The Dark End of the Street


James Carr


Greetings all….

Here’s hoping the morning finds you well, and that you haven’t melted yet (which applies to most areas of the continental US).

As I said on Monday, this week (at least Monday and today, I may drop a new mix on Friday) the focus is on ballads. Though Monday’s Van Dykes post doesn’t seem to have spurred on much in the way of commentary or discussion, I’ve decided to soldier on and bring you one of the greatest soul ballads ever committed to vinyl.

James Carr is one of those names that will likely cause any soul fan worth their grits and gravy, first to smile, and then shake their head sadly. Those that are familiar with the music he made during his life and the sad events that surrounded the making of same will tell you that while Carr was capable of amazing vocal performances, he was barely able to keep it together outside of the studio.

Born in Mississippi in 1942, but raised in Memphis, Carr began his career in gospel, singing with the Jubilee Hummingbirds the Harmony Echoes and the Redemption Harmonizers (where he sang alongside O.V. Wright). In 1964 he came to the offices of Goldwax Records with Wright and their manager Roosevelt Jamison. The recordings that Carr made for Goldwax (more than a dozen singles and two LPs) between 1964 and 1968 were some of the finest to come out of Memphis in the 60’s (and that – keeping in mind that Memphis was home to both Stax and Hi records – was no mean feat).

I first became aware of James Carr in the mid-80’s, after reading Peter Guralnick’s indispensable ‘Sweet Soul Music’. Carr was still alive when that book was written, and Guralnick’s telling of his struggle with mental illness, his long friendship with Jamison – who was as much Carr’s keeper/companion as his manager – and multiple attempts at a comeback, was absolutely heartbreaking.

Once I became familiar with Carr’s music, it was difficult for me not to think of those struggles while listening to the music. Whether or not this colored my perception of the music is hard to say, because I simply cannot imagine someone hearing ‘You’ve Got My Mind Messed Up’, ‘Pouring Water On a Drowning Man’ or today’s selection ‘The Dark End of the Street’ without somehow sensing that the pain that emanated from Carr’s voice was in some way real.

From the moment that the needle hits the wax, and the warm, swampy tremolo guitar announces the beginning of the song, ‘The Dark End of the Street’ is marked as one of the cornerstones of Southern soul. Carr’s delivery of the lyrics – one of the great cheating songs of all time – is a wonder. This has much to do with the natural power of his voice. He was not a growler like Wilson Pickett, or endowed with the silky voice of a Solomon Burke. He was however capable of delivering a boxcar full of emotion in every note, making the listener feel that the pain in the lyrics, is in fact his. Though there are several brilliant moments on the record, the one that gets me every time is at the very end, right after Carr delivers the title of the song for the very last time. There’s a coda of sorts, where Carr just hums to himself in tandem with the very same guitar that began the song. That few seconds is the very definition of “deep”.

The lyrics – some of the saddest in all of soul music – are filled with regret, guilt and pain – yet the protagonist of the song knows that despite all of that, he and his lover will always return to ‘The Dark End of the Street’. Composed by Dan Penn and Chips Moman, ‘The Dark End of the Street’ is also a perfect example of the great music made by the seemingly unlikely intersection of black and white performers in Memphis, Muscle Shoals and elsewhere in the south. Goldwax Records was itself co-owned by Elliot Clark (who was black) and Quinton Claunch (who was white). Penn and Moman were both white men who made their mark writing soul music sung by black artists, as was Eddie Hinton (who co-wrote ‘Breakfast In Bed’, the slightly more optimistic, sexy counterpart to ‘The Dark End of the Street’), Spooner Oldham, and many of the bands that played on the greatest southern soul sides were integrated. There’s also no denying that Carr – like Arthur Alexander – had elements of country music in his sound. ‘The Dark End of the Street’ became a standard, covered both by singers like Percy Sledge, Aretha Franklin, Little Milton, Dorothy Moore, and Joe Tex, and in country versions by duets Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner and Archie Campbell and Lorene Mann, and later by the Flying Burrito Brothers (who also were clearly inspired to cover the Bee Gees ‘To Love Somebody’ by Carr’s version).

By the time that Carr ended his association with Goldwax, his condition had deteriorated considerably. This had a lot to do with his management being taken over by Otis Redding’s manager Phil Walden in 1968. Without the helping hand of Roosevelt Jamison, Carr was adrift. He managed a brief stint with Atlantic in 1971, and again with the River City label in 1977. He attempted another comeback in the 1990’s, recording albums for Goldwax and Soultrax, and touring sporadically before descending being stricken with lung cancer, which finally killed him in 2001.

Fortunately all the James Carr you’ll ever need to hear is available in reissue.

Buy – James Carr: The Complete Goldwax Singles – on Amazon


15 Responses to “James Carr – The Dark End of the Street”

  1. Wazza Says:

    This is a song I never tire of listening to. Thanks for the track. I’ve been meaning to add some James Carr to my collection for a while now and this has spurred me on.

    My favourite version of this song is from The Commitments.

  2. Harry Says:

    What a great record.

  3. Rock & Roll Doctor Says:

    James Carr was an amazing singer and his Goldwax output is an essential addition to any serious music collection. I agree with the previous comment from Wazza, this is a song you never tire of. I first came across this track on Ry Cooder’s ‘Boomers Story’ LP but when I finally heard the version from James you knew it was the definitive reading of the Dan Penn/Spooner Oldham song.

  4. Todd Lucas Says:

    Nice post and thanks for the rundown on Carr. He’s one of those guys whose material I’ve never managed to catch up with.


  5. Martha Says:

    Amazing song–I only first became aware of it after the Stepfather of Soul included it in a recent podcast (#8 I think…). I’m looking forward to more ballads this week–thanks for all your great work Larry.

  6. red kelly Says:

    I actually got to see James Carr at Tramps in NYC some time in the early 90s… as you said, “he was barely able to keep it together outside of the studio”, but that VOICE was indeed intact. He disappeared after the first set, and nobody could find him…

    With the possible exception of O.V. Wright, I think he’s the greatest deep soul siinger of ’em all.

    Thanks for the vinyl version!

  7. Randy Fuller Says:

    I love your site! The songs you post are genuine gold, and most are new to me. The writeups are absolutely amazing…so much information about these great artists. I look forward to it everyday.

    I do have one complaint. Many of your mp3s seem to be distorted, my guess is from overdriving the output on one of your turntables. (I notice on your mixes, it’s every other song that seems a little too loud.) A petty complaint, though, considering the wealth you provide us with.


  8. Dan Says:

    James was under-appreciated, if not outright unknown to many in his own hometown, which was also where I grew up and lived for…a long time. But those who were familiar with him were, of course, devotees of this singer who embodied the term ‘deep soul’. I recall hearing the sad tales of his cronic illness long before Guralnick laid the story out in print. Unfortuately, I don’t think some people knew it was illness back then, attributing his problems to defects in character, etc. Wish I could have heard him live just once, as Red did. But the incredible recordings I first heard as a teenager hanging at the record shop will suffice. That Kent compilation is absolutely essential. Great playing on his sides, too. For those not familiar with his work, it quite possibly could change your whole take on soul music. Hats off to Larry for this fine post.

  9. dcin chatt Says:

    Imagine the irony: the greatest soul ballad ever written is also the greatest country ballad ever written. penn&oldham were/are an amazing team!

    Two other versions, well worth a listen–cosmic country from the Flying Burrito Bros.; and hard tonk country from a lesser known Texan, Gary Stewart.

    This is one of those songs that’s so strong as written, you almost never hear a weak version (and Penn and Oldham’s recorded versions ain’t half bad!), but for me, Carr’s will always be definitive.

    His body of work is amazingly strong (and consistent) for someone who’s barely known outside hardcore southern soul fans.

    thanks for the post, Larry!


  10. Lyle Says:

    Great song, and great introduction to James Carr. But it just scratches the surface. If you appreciate soul, get all his songs!

  11. Charlie LoPresto Says:

    A true soul classic, with shades of Jerry Butler throughout. Highly under-rated, James Carr’s performance on this track is indeed stellar.

  12. James Carr - Talk Talk « Funky16Corners Says:

    […] I won’t lay too much in the way of biography on you when it comes to James Carr. His life and music have been discussed here, if not at length, with enough substance to get the interested in you to the nearest search engine. […]

  13. Richard Lay Says:

    I’ve searched high and low to see who is credited with the harmony vocals on this song, with no luck. I’m going to take a shot here and guess that it was Joe Tex. Does anybody know for certain? I am really mesmerized with this song.

  14. Bill Says:

    I think I read in Guralnick’s Sweet Soul Music that Dan Penn sang the harmony on Carr’s version of Dark End of the Street.

  15. djnodj.com » Throwback Thusday: Only The Thirsty Die Young Says:

    […] by James Carr, a man recalled by Quinton Claunch as ‘a very reserved, religious-type person (16 Corners cover Carr better than I could) this archetypal ” cheatin’ “  soul ballad has […]

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