GREATEST SOUL MAN EVER? The Case For James Carr
When James Carr died of lung cancer in a Tennessee nursing home on January 7, 2001, he did so in complete obscurity. There were no grand pronouncements from the music world on a great talent having finally fallen silent, no bleating in the street from anguished fans looking for a little face time in front of the cameras. Nothing at all was mentioned and the world simply moved on as another 58-year-old with mental illness fell by the wayside.
This was a shame, but hardly a surprise when it came to James Carr; the guy could never catch a break unless it was a bad one. It figured he would die a mostly-anonymous figure as, even when he was ‘famous’, he was mostly operating on the fringes while bigger names held the spotlight.
Bigger names, but not bigger talents.
It is largely considered something along the lines of heresy to even suggest that someone other than Otis Redding or James Brown (in his prime) might possibly be considered as the best soul singer of all time– and this is not entirely without reason. History has noted well the legendary and staggering brilliance of both men, and their importance cannot be overstated. Brown, the Hardest Working Man In Show Business, and Redding, the died-far-too-young legend have deserved every bit of praise they’ve received, but it’s time to bring James Carr into the conversation.
Yes, Brown, Redding and others have been far more influential than Carr, but this is only because they have had bigger platforms through which to gain their highly deserved recognition (i.e. bigger labels with wider distribution). The saying goes that luck favors the prepared, but sometimes it’s all just a crapshoot. Would Otis Redding have been OTIS REDDING if he’d been on the Goldwax label instead of Stax?
Hard to say. One thing less uncertain is this: If James Carr had been on Stax his death would not have gone largely unnoticed.
Why? Because, speaking strictly about talent and ability, James Carr was easily the equal of both James Brown and Otis Redding, or anyone else you’d care to mention. His voice, which could deliver everything from a near-whisper to a powerful, pleading wail, was an awe-inspiring, almost frightening instrument– as proven in such tracks as “Pouring Water On A Drowning Man,” “Dark End Of The Street,” “Gonna Send You Back To Georgia,” and his spine-tingling take on the Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody”.
Those songs, and a number of others in his relatively small catalog, are every bit the artistic achievements as the songs done by his more famous contemporaries, but due to circumstances beyond Carr’s control, he and his music would never get the acclaim and recognition such a monumental talent deserved.
Whereas James Brown and Otis Redding, in addition to being brilliant recording artists, were also unparalleled showmen, James Carr was not. Both Brown and Redding toured their asses off, putting on countless performances that have become as legendary as their records. James Carr, on the other hand, was a bipolar ball of confusion and insecurity. He couldn’t handle the long, drawn-out touring grind necessary in those days to make a name for one’s self due to his mental instability. And even if he could have handled a heavy touring schedule, there was also the showman aspect of the equation….
Needless to say, Carr wasn’t really much of a showman, and certainly not one even remotely capable of putting on the high voltage spectacles a la Brown and Redding. Prone to mood swings, deep depression and bouts of amnesiac confusion, it was all he and his handlers could do to put on what shows they were capable of putting on, as tending to Carr was something of a full-time job.
Between that and the lack of a topflight label behind him, Carr’s relative successes were held to the R&B charts, and he never made much of a dent in the pop charts that dominated the national consciousness. Sad to say, but while his recordings proved that he could have played alongside the Beatles, the Stones, in Motown and with others just like Brown and Redding, he never got the chance, and this is a shame– not just for him and what might have been a windfall that could have helped him later in life when he was forgotten and indigent, but for anyone who is a fan of music.
One of the greatest things about working in a record store, aside from the near-poverty, is coming across something you might have otherwise missed. Until the spring of 2001, James Carr was just a name to me, and likely would have remained as such had a new compilation of his music not been released. The Complete Goldwax Singles came in an order of new product and, being curious and having nine hours to kill, we unwrapped one of the products and stuck it in the CD player.
Simply put, we were jaws-on-the-ground floored by what we heard. There are almost no words to describe our reaction to it; “blown away,” “in awe,” “stunned” and all the others fall short. That disc got played a total of four times that day. For the next 14 months, until the store was shuttered for good, rare was the day that James Carr wasn’t played at least once.
The release of The Complete Goldwax Singles didn’t make him a world-famous household name, but he became a god at Record Rover in Mar Vista, California.
Again, I’m in no way trying to disparage JB, Otis, or anyone else. I just think that James Carr seriously deserves to at least be mentioned in the conversation when it comes to the “best soul singer of all time.” If you’re not familiar with Carr, hunt down his stuff. You will not be disappointed by what you find. All of it is very good, and some (including the tracks mentioned above) are downright mesmerizing and brilliant.
Especially “To Love Somebody.”
In fact, there is a little ironic twist having to do with that song. When written by the Bee Gees, their hope was that Otis Redding would record it, but, of course, he died before this could happen. And by the time James Carr got around to taking his shot at the song he wasn’t in such great shape, either….
During what would be his final session for Goldwax in 1969 (not long before they went tits-up), James Carr sat in a studio staring off into space, seemingly in an unresponsive world of his own. Finally, the engineers and handlers got through to him enough to get him to try a song. On a day when it seemed impossible to retrieve him from the fog he was in, James Carr had one song in him, and that song was “To Love Somebody.”
“To Love Somebody” is a powerful and majestic 2+ minutes. From the opening organ, through the somber recitation of the first verse and all the way to the electrifying fadeout, James Carr sat atop the world of music, even as his real world was slowly crashing down around him. This song never stoops into the maudlin or overwrought, and — in a just world — would have been a smash all over the planet. Even more impressive is the fact it was the only thing he managed to do the entire day as he was being swallowed whole by his illness and its attendant demons.
By any measure, this song is as good as any song ever put to vinyl, tape, disc, or whatever. If you do nothing for yourself the rest of the year, go out and find as much music by James Carr as you can.
And spread the word.
If you’re a fan of true, real soul music (no, not that watered-down 1990’s crap as done by five guys with boxy high-top fades wearing purple suits), you won’t be disappointed. Instead, I can almost guarantee your head will simply fucking explode.