Personalities | Leroy Carr | Twenties | Jazz & Blues

Vocalist/pianist Leroy Carr’s life and career belie the myth that pre-war acoustic blues artists were necessarily ‘rural’ or ‘primitive’. Carr was born not on a plantation but in Nashville, Tennessee on 27 March 1905.

His father worked as a porter at Vanderbilt University. After his parents separated, his mother brought him and his sister to Indianapolis (known in the vernacular as ‘Naptown’), which at the time was a major nexus of the US automotive industry.

Carr’s Musical Match

Young Leroy taught himself piano and left school at an early age to go out into the world and seek his fortune; he travelled with a circus, he spent time in the military, he worked as a meat packer and as a bootlegger. But by the mid-1920s he was a professional entertainer, performing at private parties and in clubs around Indiana Avenue, Indianapolis’s primary black nightlife strip. Some time during these years he met guitarist Francis ‘Scrapper’ Blackwell (1903–62), who shared his urbane, somewhat wistful musical sensibilities. The two developed an uncanny musical telepathy; they could interweave melodies of pristine delicacy one moment, then charge into a drive-’em-down barrelhouse stomp the next, goading the patrons back on to the dance floor.

A Successful Formula

In 1928 the duo had their first recording session for Vocalion. ‘How Long, How Long Blues’, their debut release, turned out to be their most successful. A melancholy pastiche of images of loss and resignation – lonesome train whistles, departed lovers, desolate mountain vistas – set to a pop-tinged melody line of eight bars, it was sophisticated in feel, yet ‘country’ enough in its lyric content to strike a familiar chord in listeners downhome. In Mississippi, Robert Johnson became a devotee; plenty of others shared his tastes, and the team of Carr and Blackwell quickly became one of the most popular acts in blues. They followed up their first hit with a series of sides, almost all of them featuring Carr’s understated yet emotionally rich vocals – ‘Naptown Blues’, ‘Rocks In My Bed’, ‘We’re Gonna Rock’, ‘Mean Mistreater Mama’, ‘Blues Before Sunrise’ – which may not have sold quite as well as ‘How Long …’, but were more than sufficient to maintain their careers for the next seven years or so.

The Liquor Takes Its Toll

The blues life has never been an easy one, and both Carr and Blackwell (who had also been a bootlegger before he became a bluesman) were heavy drinkers. Their last session together was in February 1935; less than two months later, Carr died from the effects of acute alcoholism. His partner soldiered on for a while, but he was devastated by the loss and eventually dropped out of music. He was ‘rediscovered’ in 1959, and enjoyed a brief comeback until his death a few years later.

Despite his undeniable influence on Robert Johnson and others (Johnson’s ‘Love In Vain’ carries distinct echoes of both ‘How Long ...’ and another Carr/Blackwell song, ‘When The Sun Goes Down’), and despite the popularity the...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz & Blues, founding editor Howard Mandel


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