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NauenThen

Leroy Carr

Leroy Carr (1905–35) only lived to be 30 but was “the most influential male blues singer and songwriter of the first half of the 20th century,” according to Elijah Wald in an article originally published in The New York Times in 2004. His songs include “How Long, How Long Blues,” “Blues Before Sunrise” “Midnight Hour Blues,” “Hurry Down Sunshine” and a lot more.

His music, most of it recorded with guitarist Scrapper Blackwell, has been covered by or influenced the likes of Robert Johnson, Ray Charles, Big Bill Broonzy, Moon Mullican, Champion Jack Dupree, Lonnie Donegan, Memphis Slim, Amos Milburn, John Lee Hooker, Elmore James and Muddy Waters (who recalled “How Long” as the first song he ever learned). “In Kansas City, Count Basie recorded Carr’s hits as piano solos,” Wald writes. “On the West Coast, T-Bone Walker and Charles Brown made Carr’s smooth urbanity the hallmark of the L.A. style. In New York, vocal groups from the Ink Spots to the Dominoes harmonized on Carr compositions. Nat King Cole’s first hit, ‘That Ain’t Right,’ was a Carr-inflected blues, and the R&B historian Arnold Shaw traced soul ballad singing from Carr through Dinah Washington and Sam Cooke to Otis Redding and Jerry Butler.”

Despite all this, many knowledgeable music fans of my acquaintance aren’t sure of who Carr even is. One reason, as Wald writes, is that people think of the blues as “the rawest, earthiest sound America has produced.” Robert Johnson is the mysterious heart of this tradition. “The rock scene has always equated primitivism with authenticity, and it is logical that it would latch onto the grittiest, least polished blues artists as its forebears. Likewise, people in search of an African-American folk heritage are naturally drawn to the music’s most archaic-sounding performers.” He goes on to say that before the blues was considered roots or folk music, it was black pop that looked to Harlem and Chicago for its style.

Leroy Carr, on the other hand was a swing pianist with a quiet, polished voice, who lived in Indianapolis. “Carr sounded like a cool city dude carrying on a conversation with a few close friends.”

Columbia followed up on the success of the 1960s Robert Johnson’s “King of the Delta Blues Singers” with a Carr compilation. “But the folk and rock fans who hailed Johnson as a genius showed no interest in the Carr album. His music was dismissed as an overly smooth variant of Johnson’s fiercer, more rural style, as if he were Pat Boone to Johnson’s Elvis Presley. Never mind that Carr’s first records predated Johnson’s first recordings by eight years, or that Johnson’s work showed an immense debt to Carr’s innovations.”

Wald goes on to say that it’s “no coincidence that the audience that hailed both Carr and Waters as up-to-date stars was overwhelmingly black, while the one that rejected Carr as over-sophisticated and reinvented Waters as a link to Robert Johnson was overwhelmingly white. Very few African-Americans have ever been nostalgic for Depression-era Mississippi, while the image of the Devil-haunted Delta bluesman has been a romantic touchstone for everyone from the Stones to the White Stripes.”

Wald’s article concludes:

Of course, some listeners will always prefer solo guitar to piano combos, and Charlie Patton’s hoarse country shout to Carr’s more subtle phrasing—just as some prefer B. B. King to Little Richard, the Stones to the Beatles or Missy Elliott to Norah Jones. But those are matters of taste, not authenticity. In its heyday, blues was not an old-fashioned folk style. Like rap, it 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.
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