Leroy Carr - Biography

By J Poet

Blues pianist Leroy Carr was one of the seminal figures in the genre’s history, and he was a key figure in transforming the blues from rural folk music to a more sophisticated urban style. The word crooner wasn’t in use during his short heyday in the 1920s-’30s, but his smooth vocal style influenced singers like Champion Jack Dupree, Charles Brown, Nat King Cole, Ray Charles and Lou Rawls. Carr’s composition “How Long, How Long Blues” is one of the best-known blues songs ever penned. With his partner, guitarist Scrapper Blackwell—whose own innovative style directly influenced Ike Turner and Chuck Berry—Carr was part of the most popular recording duo of his time. He was only 30 years old when he died from the side effects of alcohol abuse in 1935.


Carr was born in Nashville, Tennessee in 1905. His father worked as a porter at nearby Vanderbilt University, but left the family shortly after Leroy’s birth. His mother moved the family to Indianapolis where Carr took up piano. He dropped out of high school before graduating, and not long after scored his first professional gig—backing up blues singer Jack Wiley at the Gold Star Dance Hall.


Carr enlisted in the Army while still a teen, but by 1922 he was back in Indianapolis, married with a child. He worked as a bootlegger and piano player in the rough black bars of the ghetto, playing rent parties and clubs throughout the Midwest. In 1925, Carr spent a few months in prison after being convicted of bootlegging, but was soon back playing bars and nightspots upon release. He met another bootlegger on the rent party circuit, guitarist Francis “Scrapper” Blackwell, and the two started performing as a duo. When Blackwell came aboard, Carr was already well-known throughout the Midwest and had begun playing the upper South, as well.


In 1928, Vocalion Records asked the duo to make a record to test the market. Their first session produced the classic “How Long, How Long Blues,” a song marked by a sophisticated interplay between the men. It was more laid back than the raw country blues, with Carr’s smooth vocals and witty lyrics lending the music a poppier air. “How Long” became a huge hit, so Carr and Blackwell followed up with “Broken Spoke Blues,” which would end up another bestseller. At that point, they had found their niche.


The duo toured the South and the East Coast with unprecedented success. Carr’s tunes were the backbone of their repertoire, songs that foreshadowed the classic American pop sound of the ’40s with equal parts clever lyrics and memorable melodies. The tandem added a new string of hits, including “Straight Alky Blues,” a darkly humorous description of the effects of alcohol on the singer’s sexual prowess. They also performed “Midnight Hour Blues,” “We’re Gonna Rock,” “It’s Tight Like That,” and the playful, “Papa Wants a Cookie.” Even during the lowest points of the Great Depression their records continued to sell well.


In February of 1935, Carr and Blackwell cut their last session for RCA. It included a Carr solo on “Six Cold Feet in the Ground,” an eerie blues number that foretold his own imminent demise, as Carr died of alcoholism less than two months later. Blackwell never fully recovered from Carr’s death and, after making a few solo records, gave up recording altogether.


The duo’s music can be sampled on Whiskey Is My Habit, Women Is All I Crave: The Best of Leroy Carr (2004 Columbia Legacy); Hurry Down Sunshine (1998 Indigo UK); Essential (2003 Classic Blues), a two-disc 36-song collection; Sloppy Drunk (1999 Catfish UK), another two-disc 44-song anthology; and Leroy Carr & Scrapper Blackwell – How Long Blues: 1928-1935 (1998 EMP Musique France).


For fanatics, Document Records has excellent reissues of Carr’s music on seven discs—Leroy Carr: Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 1 1928-1929 (1996 Document UK); Leroy Carr: Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 2 1929-1930 (1996 Document UK); Leroy Carr: Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 3 1930-1932 (1996 Document UK); Leroy Carr: Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 4 1932-1934 (1996 Document UK); Leroy Carr: Complete Recorded Works Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 5 1934 (1996 Document UK); Leroy Carr: Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 6 1934 -1935 (1996 Document UK); and Leroy Carr: Unissued Test Pressings & Alternate Takes 1934-37 (1996 Document UK).


Steve Earle and the Dukes
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