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.