One of the greatest pure vocalists that deep Southern soul ever produced, James Carr is often mentioned in the same breath as Otis Redding, Percy Sledge, and Aretha Franklin in terms of the wrenching emotional power in his delivery. Or at least he is by hardcore soul aficionados; despite producing several classic R&B singles and some of the most intense country-soul ever waxed, Carr never achieved the pop crossover success that could have made him a household name, and his material wasn’t always as distinctive as that of Stax artists like Redding or Sam & Dave.
Ultimately, though, Carr’s greatest obstacle was himself: he was plagued for much of his life by severe depression that made pursuit of a career, or for that matter, even single recording sessions extraordinarily difficult, and derailed his occasional comeback attempts.Born into a Baptist preacher’s family in Mississippi, he moved with his parents to Memphis, Tennessee, at the age of three. By the age of nine, Carr was singing in the church choir, getting his first taste of public performance.
He continued to sing throughout his teens, joining up with several gospel groups in the Memphis area. In 1962, he was singing with the Harmony Echoes at the same time as making tables on an assembly line in Memphis.. The manager of that group, Roosevelt Jamison (who would later write the soul classic “That’s How Strong My Love Is,” covered by Redding and the Rolling Stones), had long been dreaming of pursuing a career in popular music without being so grounded in gospel. Carr shared this ambition, and the duo teamed up to begin shopping Carr’s solo career in 1963. After being turned down by Stax, he made his first recordings for Goldwax Records, a small Memphis-based independent record label, in 1964. He released several singles for the label including “You Don’t Want Me” before achieving his first success in 1966 with the country-soul ballad “You Got My Mind Messed Up,” a #7 R&B hit (#63 on the pop chart) that earned him comparisons to Otis Redding.
It kicked off the prime period of Carr’s recording career, and among his next few singles was his clear-cut masterpiece “Dark End of the Street.” The song reached #10 on the R&B chart and #77 on the pop chart. Given a tortuously intense performance by Carr, “Dark End of the Street” was a bleak tale of adultery that marked the first songwriting collaboration between Dan Penn and Chips Moman; although the song was recorded by the likes of Aretha Franklin, Clarence Carter, Linda Ronstadt, and the Flying Burrito Brothers, Carr’s original version still stands as definitive. Featuring other hit singles like the Redding-esque “Love Attack” and the exquisite “Pouring Water on a Drowning Man,” Carr’s 1966 debut LP “You Got My Mind Messed Up” is also considered a classic by many Southern soul collectors.Carr continued to record for Goldwax but failed to reach the same heights with his subsequent releases. By 1968, his mental state had deteriorated greatly, making even recording sessions a challenge.
He was able to complete a second LP in 1968 titled “A Man Needs a Woman”, and the title track reached #16 on the R&B chart and #63 on the pop chart, but despite Carr’s first flush of success on the R&B charts over 1966-1967, things were not looking up. Carr suffered from bipolar disorder for most of his life. This frequently found him unable to deal with the stress of performing and touring, He frequently wandered off alone and got lost. Carr had signed on with Phil Walden (Otis Redding’s manager) in 1966, but without Roosevelt Jamison around (who’d served as Carr’s caretaker just as much as his manager), In Muscle Shoals studio for his last Goldwax session in 1969, he simply sat at the microphone and stared into space, singing only one song (the Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody” which hit #44 on the R&B charts). Not long afterward, Goldwax went bankrupt; wary of the singer’s instability, Capitol rescinded an offer to buy out his contract, and although Carr signed with Atlantic, he released only one Atlantic single in 1971 and another on his manager Roosevelt Jamison’s River City label in 1977.
Two years later, he undertook a tour of Japan that started off well, but at the Tokyo gig, Carr (apparently having taken too many anti-depressants) stood motionless at the microphone as though in a hypnotic trance. However he completed the Japan tour before returning to Memphis, where he lived with his sister (in between institutionalizations), spending much of the 1980s barely conscious of the world around him, and was frequently hospitalized. A resurgence in interest in his music, spurred by his portrayal in Peter Guralnick’s 1986 book “Sweet Soul Music” helped return Carr to the recording studio (with medication) where Jamison and Quinton Claunch cut an album with him in 1991 for a revived Goldwax. The record, “Take Me to the Limit”, received mixed reviews, although its very existence was an achievement in itself. Carr was even able to return to the road, touring the blues circuits in America and Europe. In 1994, he released another album on Claunch’s new Soultrax label, titled “Soul Survivor”. Unfortunately, He also performed at festivals in the US and Europe and made a memorable appearance at the London Blues Festival in 1996. A collection of his recordings from 1964 to 1969 titled “The Essential James Carr” was released in 1995, but Carr was soon diagnosed with lung cancer, and spent several years battling the disease before the bitter end.