JAMES CARR-UNDOUBTABLY THE GREATEST SOUTHERN SOUL SINGER
James Carr-Undoubtably The Greatest Southern Soul Singer.
By 1964, Memphis was a musical hotbed, and home to many up-and-coming soul singers and songwriters looking to make a breakthrough. Roosevelt Jamieson was a friend of many of these songwriters and soul singers, including OV Wright and James Carr, who were both looking for a label. It was a frustrating period for the two future soul greats, and Roosevelt Jamieson was determined to help the singers on the road to success.
Roosevelt Jamieson arranged for OV Wright and James Carr to audition at Stax, in the hope that his two friends would be signed to what was one of soul’s top labels. When the three men arrived at Stax, they were greeted by Steve Cropper who was going to audition OV Wright and James Carr. Given both singer’s voice’s and talent surely, Steve Cropper would be keen to secure the signature of OV Wright and twenty-two year old James Carr?
After OV Wright and James Carr had auditioned, Steve Cropper showed very little interest in signing either singer. His rational was that they already had two male vocalists on their roster, Otis Redding and William Bell on their roster. Stax didn’t want to add any more male vocalists to their roster. This was a decision that Stax would come to regret.
In late-1964, Roosevelt Jamieson arrived at the home of Quinton Claunch the owner of Goldwax Records on a cold wet winter’s night with OV Wright and James Carr. After some small talk, the two singers sung unaccompanied in front of Quinton Claunch. That was all he needed to hear, and that night, Quinton Claunch signed both OV Wright and James Carr. Stax’s loss was Goldwax Records’ gain. During his time with Goldwax Records, James Carr matured into one of the greatest soul singers of the past six decades, and his single Dark End Of The Street which redefined the future of Southern Soul.
The Goldwax Records’ Years.
With OV Wright and James Carr now signed to Goldwax Records, Quinton Claunch set about finding the right song for his latest signings. He chose That’s How Strong My Love Is for OV Wright, which when it was released on Goldwax Records, charted and gave the twenty-five year old a hit single. There was only one problem though.
After the success of That’s How Strong My Love Is, Don Tobey who owned and ran Duke-Peacock Records claimed to have OV Wright under contract, dating back to when he was a member of The Sunset Travellers. Quinton Claunch, who knew of Don Robey’s alleged business practises, wasn’t going to argue with the ‘music impresario’ who had a reputation for allegedly using intimidation and violence to get what he wanted. OV Wright’s contract at Goldwax Records was canceled, leaving Quinton Claunch with just James Carr.
With OV Wright out of the picture, Quinton Claunch decided to give his other new signing his full attention. Quinton Claunch started looking for the right song for James Carr’s debut single for Goldwax Records. Eventually, the pair settled on Only Fools Run Away, which was released in late-1964 and distributed through Vee-Jay Records.
By then, Vee-Jay was starting to experience financial problems, and no longer had the budget to promote singles, including James Carr’s Only Fools Run Away. Sadly, James Carr’s debut single failed to trouble the charts, which was a disappointing way to start his career at Goldwax Records.
Things didn’t improve for James Carr when I Can’t Make when I Can’t Make It was released in February 1965, and also failed commercially. By then, Vee-Jay’s finances were worsening, and it no longer had the financial muscle it once had.
History repeated itself in September 1965, when James Carr released his third single She’s Better Than You. With Vee-Jay’s financial situation worsening all the time, James Carr watched as another single failed to find the audience it deserved. This was a frustrating time for James Carr and Goldwax Records’ owner Quinton Claunch.
Fortunately, by late-1965 Quinton Claunch had managed to negotiate a new long-term distribution deal with the New York-based Amy, Maia and Bell group of labels. Quinton Claunch was pleased because this meant that Goldwax Records’ releases would be distributed and promoted properly. This was perfect timing, as James Carr’s career was about to be transformed.
For James Carr’s fourth single for Goldwax Records, and his first under the new distribution deal was You’ve Got My Mind Messed Up was chosen. It was a song with a complicated past.The roots of You’ve Got My Mind Messed Up could be traced back to That’s How Strong My Love Is, which OV Wright sung at his Stax audition. Steve Cropper liked the song, and after putting the words to a different melody, gave it to Otis Redding. This didn’t please its Roosevelt Jamieson and Quinton Claunch, who asked one of the Goldwax Records’ staff writers OB McLinton, if he could change the melody. The last thing that Quinton Claunch wanted was to release a hit single, and be accused of plagiarism. After OB McLinton made the necessary changes, James Carr could record You’ve Got My Mind Messed Up.
Quinton Claunch sent James Carr to Chips Moman’s American Studio in late-1965, where he was scheduled to record You’ve Got My Mind Messed Up. Accompanying James Carr was a band that featured some of the top session players. They Quinton Claunch hoped would play their part in James Carr’s breakthrough single.
Goldwax Records scheduled the release of You’ve Got My Mind Messed Up for February 1966, and when the single was released, the powerful, soul-baring ballad entered the charts and reached sixty-three on the US Billboard 100 and seven on the US R&B charts. After four attempts, James Carr had a hit single to his name.
Four months later, James Carr returned with his fifth single for Goldwax Records, a cover of Quinton Claunch’s Love Attack. It featured an impassioned, hurt-filled vocal, and was released in June 1966. Love Attack reached ninety-nine on the US Billboard 100 and twenty-one on the US R&B charts. While Love Attack hadn’t replicated the success of You’ve Got My Mind Messed Up, it gave James Carr his second hit single. James Carr was no one hit wonder.
In September 1966, James Carr returned with his sixth single, Pouring Water On A Drowning Man. Just like James Carr’s two previous singles, it sounded as if he had lived the lyrics to Pouring Water On A Drowning Man. It reached eighty-five on the US Billboard 100 and twenty-three on the US R&B charts giving James Carr his third consecutive hit single. However, James Carr would one more single during 1966.
For his fourth single of 1966, James Carr covered the Chips Moman and Dan Penn composition Dark End Of The Street. It was recorded at Hi Studios in Memphis, as Chips Moman’s American Studio was being upgraded. With some top session players accompanying James Carr, he recorded one of the greatest songs in the history of soul music. Its lyrics hinted at an extramarital or interracial relationship, and James Carr sounded as if he had experienced the hopelessness and torment that comes with this pursuit of forbidden fruit. When Dark End Of The Street was released by Goldwax Records in December 1966, and reached seventy-seven on the US Billboard 100 and ten on the US R&B charts, and redefined the future of Southern Soul.
As 1966 gave way to 1967, James Carr had four hit singles to his name, and was seen by many within the Memphis music industry as one of soul’s rising stars. Steve Cropper at Stax must have been ruing his decision not to sign James Carr, as he was outperforming William Bell. He had just two minor hit singles, and hadn’t enjoyed the crossover appeal that James Carr had. It looked like Steve Cropper had backed the wrong horse.
After enjoying the biggest hit of his career with The Dark End Of The Street, James Carr and Goldwax Records’ owner Quinton Claunch were keen to build on that success. The beautiful ballad Let It Happen was chosen for his next single. However, when Let It Happen was released in May 1967, it just missed out on the US Billboard 100, but reached thirty in the US R&B charts. This gave James Carr his fifth consecutive hit single.
James Carr’s hot streak continued when he released I’m A Fool For You in August 1967. He was joined by Betty Harris, who wasn’t credited on the single, and their duet reached ninety-seven on the US Billboard 100 and forty-two on the US R&B charts. James Carr had now enjoyed six consecutive singles.
During 1967, James Carr released his debut album You Got My Mind Messed Up on Goldwax Records. It featured the Dan Greer composition I Don’t Want To Be Hurt Anymore and other tracks including You Got My Mind Messed Up were Pouring Water On A Drowning Man, Love Attack, The Dark End Of The Street and You’ve Got My Mind Messed Up. When You Got My Mind Messed Up was released in 1967, the album reached twenty-five in the US R&B charts. The James Carr success story continued.
For James Carr’s final single of 1967, he released a cover of Quinton Claunch and OB McLinton’s A Man Needs A Woman. It’s a Southern Soul ballad whose roots are in the church, and features a tender, heartfelt vocal from James Carr. When A Man Needs A Woman was released in December 1978, it reached thirty-three on the US Billboard 100 and sixteen on the US R&B charts. Just like 1966, 1967 had been a good year for James Carr who had enjoyed seven consecutive hit singles.
James Carr was, by then, one of Quinton Claunch’s most successful signings for Goldwax Records. What must have made James Carr’s success even sweeter was that Stax had rejected the chance to sign him. However, tragedy had struck during 1967, and Stax’s most successful male vocalist Otis Redding, had died in a plane crash. Within Memphis’ close knit musical community the death of Otis Redding was mourned.
By 1976, Stax which was enjoying one of the most fruitful periods its history and had a strong roster. This included several male vocalists, including William Bell, who had a handful of minor hit singles to his name, and Johnny Taylor who had signed to Stax in 1966. Neither were regarded as being of the standard of James Carr though.
During the first half of 1968, James Carr had released his sophomore album A Man Needs A Woman on both sides of the Atlantic. However, when Goldwax Records released A Man Needs A Woman disaster struck, and the album failed to trouble the charts. This was a disappointment for James Carr and Quinton Claunch. Especially after seven consecutive hit singles. Quinton Claunch was hoping that this was a just blip.
It wasn’t until June 1968 that James Carr returned with a new single Life Turned Her That Way. It was a poignant ballad from James Carr’s sophomore album A Man Needs A Woman. Sadly, Life Turned Her That Way failed to chart, and James Carr didn’t enjoy his eighth consecutive hit single.
With his sophomore album A Man Needs A Woman and the single Life Turned Her That Way falling to chart, it was a worrying time for James Carr, and Quinton Claunch the owner of Goldwax Records. However, he still believed in James Carr, and in October 1968 Freedom Train was released as a single, and it reached thirty-nine in the US R&B charts. James Carr was back with his eighth hit single.
Five months later, and James Carr returned with a new single To Love Somebody which was written by the Gibb brothers, who were better known as the Bee Gees. When To Love Somebody was released in March 1969, it reached forty-four in the US R&B charts. This was James Carr’s ninth, and sadly, final hit single.
By then, music was changing, and soul music was no longer as popular as it had been. The exceptions were some of the music being released by the Motown soul factory, and artists like Aretha Franklin. However, other genres had overtaken soul in the popularity stakes and artists like James Carr was no longer as popular as they had once been.
Nothing more was heard of James Carr until he released Everybody Needs Somebody in December 1969. Sadly, the single failed to chart, and proved an inauspicious end to James Carr’s time at Goldwax Records.
Life After Goldwax Records.
Little did James Carr realise that he had enjoyed the most successful period of his recording career, and never again would he scale the same heights. That was despite James Carr signing to Atlantic Records after his departure from Goldwax Records. However, when Hold On was released in July 1971, it failed to chart and James Carr left Atlantic Records having just released one single.
Two years later, reissues of two of James Carr’s singes were released on the Flashback label. Neither The Dark End Of The Street which was released in 1973, nor A Man Needs A Woman troubled the charts. It looked as if James Carr was yesterday’s man.
Nearly four years passed before James Carr released Let Me Be Right (Don’t Want To Be Wrong) on the Memphis based River City label in 1977. By then, disco was flavour of the month and neither Southern Soul, nor soul in general, were no longer as popular.
Despite that, James Carr released a new album Freedom Train in 1977. It bore the Goldwax Records name and was released in conjunction with Vivid Sound. However, the album was only released in Japan and available as an import. Soul fans in America and Britain missed out on Freedom Train, where James Carr rolled back the years on several tracks.
A year after the release of Freedom Train, James Carr returned in 1978 with Oriental Live And Living. It was James Carr’s first live album, and again, was only released in Japan where he was still popular.
Nothing more was heard of James Carr, until Ace Records released Take Me To The Limit in 1991. By then, James Carr wasn’t in good health, but showed more than a few glimpses of his old magic. It was a similar case when Ace Records released the aptly titled Soul Survivor in 1993. The Soul Survivor showed further glimpses of why he was regarded as a true soul great on what was his swan-song.
Sadly, James Carr died of lung cancer in a nursing home in Memphis, Tennessee, on January the ‘7th’ 2001, aged just fifty-eight. Life had been tough for James Carr after freezing on stage during a tour of Japan in 1979. In his later years, he lived with his sister, and bravely battled the bipolar disorder that he had suffered from for much of his life. Sometimes, he required hospitalization, but for much of the final years of his life, soul great James Carr lived quietly with his sister. Music was his past, and was the legacy that he left after his death in 2001.
James Carr left behind a rich musical legacy after his death in 2001, including the ten singles and two albums that he released for Quinton Claunch’s Goldwax Records. That was where James Carr released the best music of his career including singles of the quality of You’ve Got My Mind Messed Up, Pouring Water On A Drowning Man and Dark Side Of The Street. On each song, James Carr breathes life, meaning and emotion into the lyrics. Sometimes, it sounds as if James Carr had lived and survived the lyrics so realistic is his impassioned, emotive and deeply soulful vocals. They’re a reminder and feature the late, great James Carr in his musical prime.
The Goldwax Records’ years were also the most successful period of James Carr’s career. Sadly, James Carr’s Goldwax Records’ years lasted just five years between 1964 and 1969, and saw him enjoy nine hit singles. His most successful single was the timeless Southern Soul classic Dark Side Of The Street, which redefined Southern Soul and is part of James Carr’s rich musical legacy. Dark Side Of The Street is also one reason why James Carr is regarded by many critics and soul aficionados as the undoubtably greatest Southern Soul singer
James Carr-Undoubtably The Greatest Southern Soul Singer.