A James Carr press release once called him “The World’s Greatest Soul Singer”. While open to debate, what can’t be questioned is that Carr, irrespective of any opinions, only needs one song to earn his place in the annals of Southern Soul – the superb “The Dark End Of The Street”.
That’s not to say that Carr was a one hit wonder – he had 9 chart entries in a fractured career – but “Dark End” has few rivals in consideration as one of the all-time best Southern Soul songs. And no James Carr story can be considered complete without its mention. So much so that many Carr narratives quickly pivot solely to details of the origin and recording of the song; not to mention existing stand-alone essays that analyze the details that make the song so compelling and enduring.
So, following suit, for the record, here’s the story, as I understand it, on the writing and recording of “The Dark End Of The Street”. James Carr was a Goldwax Records recording artist and label owners, Quinton Claunch and Rudolph “Doc” Russell, were at a DJ convention in Nashville in early 1966 where they met songwriters and producers Dan Penn and Chips Moman for the first time. Penn and Moman happened to be playing cards and working on a song in the hotel lobby bar. Claunch, looking for material for Carr to record, offered the use of his room to complete the song, on the condition that he could have the song for Carr to record. “Dark End” was Penn and Moman’s first co-write; (the pair would also go on to write “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” for Aretha Franklin as well as others).
There’s some debate as to the recording of the song that was released in late 1966. Claunch has said that, like most of Carr’s recordings, he produced the song that was cut live off the floor at Sam Phillips Recording Studio, (Sun), in Memphis with the usual session musicians including Reggie Young on guitar (who provides the iridescent intro). Penn sees the scene differently. While in agreement on the backing band, he contends that the basic of the recording was put on tape at Hi Studios with vocals added later at American Sound Studios, (both in Memphis). He goes on to say that he taught Carr the song by singing it to him, and added the background vocals himself. He also contends that Moman produced the session with Claunch and Russell looking on.
Whatever the particulars are, the result is Carr’s finest hour. “The Dark End Of The Street”, Carr’s biggest hit, would reach # 10 on the R&B charts and #77 Pop. There is one primary factor that comes into play on this variation of a recurring theme of stolen love found frequently in Country and Soul. With an expression of Soul so deep the bottom is nowhere in sight, Carr sings every line with a scorching hurt knowing full well that this is a love that he will never be able to call his own. His robust baritone wrings all the pathos possible out of the song that provides no resolution, only resignation:
“And when the daylight hour rolls around
And by chance we’re both downtown
If we should meet, just walk on by
Oh darling, please don’t cry”
The song has been covered at various times by Linda Ronstadt, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Gregg Allman, and Aretha Franklin. In addition, the song was featured in the movie “The Commitments” (and won a Grammy Award). None of these versions – even Aretha’s ethereal take – can hold a candle to the original. More specifically, none of the singers mentioned make you believe that they actually lived the experience to the extent that Carr does.
James Carr started his career at roughly the same time as Otis Redding. And although he never enjoyed the acclaim, Carr was Redding’s only real Southern Soul rival. (Carr and Redding certainly shared some vocal commonalities on ballads). Like Redding and countless other Soul singers, Carr’s foundation was Gospel and the Church. But unlike Otis, Wilson Pickett, or Sam & Dave – given Carr’s personality – he displayed none of their on-stage fire and command of the bandstand. Rather he would either sit or stand motionless while delivering a song. With no visceral stage show, so the norm in the world of Soul, Carr didn’t reap the benefit of glowing reviews.
The son of a Baptist minister, Carr was born near Clarksdale in Coahoma County MS on June 13, 1942, and moved to Memphis at a young age. And even though he grew up in the city, James never learned to read or write – a fact that Carr attributes to a serious head injury suffered in Mississippi cotton fields as a child. That is, Carr claims that the accident hindered his ability to learn. Whether true or not, it could have served as a harbinger for the social and mental challenges that would plague James for the rest of his life.
A very reserved and quiet person from childhood, Carr started singing in his father’s church at the age of 9. His Gospel background never left him – while working as a day labourer Carr started his career singing Gospel and the form would serve as the underpinning for all of his recordings. And, it was as a member of The Redemption Harmonizers, (with another Soul great O.V. Wright), that drew the attention of Roosevelt Jamison. Jamison, a singer and songwriter, would prove to be a key figure in James’ life as sometime manager, overseer, and attendant.
Jamison, immediately recognized Carr’s extraordinary talent but at the same time characterized James – who exhibited little ambition or emotion – as “slow”, and as someone who needed firm guidance to realize his full potential. Acting as Carr’s manager, Jamison pitched Carr to Stax but was turned down. (Steve Cropper stated that the label already had two fine male singers in Otis Redding and William Bell and, as such, weren’t in the market for another male singer). Instead, it was suggested that Carr try another Memphis label, the fledgling Goldwax Records.
It was around midnight one night in 1964 when Quinton Claunch answered a knock at his door. He opened it to find James Carr, O.V. Wright, and Roosevelt Jamison with a tape recorder and demo tapes in hand. He invited them in, and all parties remember sitting on the living room floor listening to the tapes with a suitably impressed Claunch agreeing to sign both artists to the label*. While this marked the start of Carr’s career, Carr’s fortunes would coincide with those of Goldwax Records, and the label’s limitations would become readily apparent.
(*O.V. Wright’s tenure at Goldwax would be brief. Don Robey of Peacock Records would cite a contract signed by the Gospel collective, The Sunset Travellers, which included Wright as a member, thus claiming Wright as a Peacock artist. Accordingly, Goldwax would lose a much needed asset).
Goldwax Records was started and owned by former musician, and then current hardware supply salesman Quinton Claunch and his partner, local pharmacist, Rudolph “Doc” Russell. As such, although every effort was made to compete with other Memphis labels, (e.g. Stax), Goldwax, was, for all intents and purposes, a part-time endeavour with nominal capital to sustain it.
Not having sufficient funds to compete successfully meant that Claunch and Russell couldn’t attract top flight artists or songwriters resulting in releases being somewhat sporadic, limiting further operating revenue. (It should be noted that the fact that Carr turned the less than first rate material presented to him into releases to be reckoned with is a further tribute to Carr’s artistry). And, going further, Carr and Goldwax, (specifically Claunch), would form a symbiotic bond. Carr, with his unassertive nature, needed the grounding and direction he received from Claunch; and Carr, in turn, was the label’s only viable asset, and, in fact, its meal ticket.
Despite Goldwax’s limitations, Carr made some incredible music on the label; and for 3 years, (’66-’69), James was responsible for some of Southern Soul’s finest songs. It all started with his 3rd single “You’ve Got My Mind Messed Up”; Carr’s top recordings were (in chronological order):
- “You’ve Got My Mind Messed Up” (1966) #7 R&B, # 63 Pop
- “Love Attack” (1966) # 21 R&B, # 99 Pop
- “The Dark End Of The Street” (1966) # 10 R&B, # 77 Pop
- “Pouring Water On A Drowning Man” (1967) # 23 R&B, # 85 Pop
- “Let It Happen” (1967) # 30 R&B, # 106 Pop
- “A Man Needs A Woman” (1968) #16 R&B, # 63 Pop
- “I’m A Fool For You” (1968; featuring the wonderful Betty Harris) # 42 R&B, # 97 Pop
- “Freedom Train” (1968) # 39 R&B
- “To Love Somebody” (1969) # 44 R&B
All of the above singles can be found on 2 incredible albums: “You Got My Mind Messed Up” and “A Man Needs A Woman”.
The year 1966 proved to be the high point of Carr’s career with the 3 hits noted above and a show stopping performance at The Apollo Theatre. It was also in the same year that Carr’s failing mental state started to manifest itself.
It’s not known for certain as to whether Carr was suffering from depression or if he was bi-polar. Unfortunately, the resulting erratic behaviour became commonplace and James was proving to be unreliable both in his public appearances and in the studio. (And, compounding the problem, Carr cut ties with Roosevelt Jamison who looked out for him and attended to all the things that he knew James was not capable of handling on his own).
Carr’s last recording date before the initial demise of Goldwax – that produced only one song, “To Love Somebody” – was in 1969. Given the difficulty experienced in the studio and James’ deteriorating mental health, there were no plans in place for any future sessions. No longer having James Carr or a suitable replacement would for all intents and purposes mark the end of Goldwax Records. (There was a last ditch effort to keep the label afloat with the sale of Carr’s contract to Capitol Records, but the deal wasn’t consummated given the unstable Carr. And although the label would be reactivated in the mid 80’s, it was a short lived return.)
James Carr, for his part, was adrift. He would make periodic appearances but not always with positive results. For example, a 1979 tour of Japan started out promising enough but was overshadowed by one disastrous gig that found Carr motionless and in a catatonic state as a result of taking excessive antidepressant medication.
The following decade was lost as Carr was in and out of mental institutions. He would return to a briefly revitalized Goldwax in the 90’s and record 2 more albums with mixed results; (saved from being termed “unremarkable” because Carr still possessed that voice).
James Carr’s best days, both artistically and health wise, were behind him. James Carr died of lung cancer on January 7, 2001 in Memphis.
It’s been said that the special affection for James Carr fits with that reserved for the obscure, (e.g. Don Varner or Tony Borders come to mind). But anyone who’s really listening knows, in their heart, that’s not the case. The talent and depth are undeniable. Just listen to “Dark End Of The Street” one more time. Any such doubts will evaporate before the record ends.
A SUGGESTED JAMES CARR PLAYLIST
- The Dark End of The Street
- Pouring Water On A Drowning Man
- Love Attack
- You’ve Got My Mind Messed Up
- To Love Somebody
- These Ain’t Teardrops
- Life Turned Her That Way
- A Man Needs A Woman
- Freedom Train
- A Message To Young Lovers
- I’m A Fool For You
- That’s The Way Love Turned Out For Me
- Forgetting You
- Everybody Needs Somebody
- Rico Ferrara, February 2021