Whoever gave James Carr the title "The World's Greatest Soul Singer" was not doing him any favors. These are fighting words. You could make airtight cases for Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Al Green, Wilson Pickett, Solomon Burke. You might even pipe up for minor-but-memorable shouters like O.V. Wright or Garnet Mimms. You could bring up Otis Redding and be accused of cheating; Redding, who shared a manager with "The World's Greatest Soul Singer," lived less than half as long as Carr, who died Jan. 7 at age 58, but left more than five times as many recordings.
Don't blame Carr. It's a good bet that some rock critic saddled him with that nickname. Critics overhype talent when it's coupled with dysfunction, believing an artist's gifts are more precious when they're delivered through pain. And Carr's story offered plenty of evidence that his God-given talent was no match for his earthly troubles.
Born to a Baptist preacher's family in rural Mississippi in 1942, Carr began singing — as nearly all the great R&B vocalists of his generation did — in church. He was working in gospel groups and making tables on an assembly line in Memphis when he began recording in the mid-'60s for Goldwax, a puny crosstown rival to the mighty Stax. He first hit the R&B charts in 1966 with "You've Got My Mind Messed Up." A year later, he recorded his signature tune, Dan Penn and Chips Moman's "The Dark End of the Street," and continued making minor R&B-chart hits until Goldwax went bust in 1969.
After that, Carr scuffled along the edges of the music business, at times around the edges of society itself. A resurgence in interest in his music, spurred by his portrayal in Peter Guralnick's 1986 book Sweet Soul Music, helped land him some gigs and got his vintage recordings back into print. But he was never able to capitalize on the attention, either in recent years or in his short-lived heyday. Carr was a man overwhelmed by even the simplest demands of not only show business, but life. Reportedly he wrestled with a host of demons: illiteracy, drug and alcohol abuse, bipolar disorder. Frequently broke and transient, sometimes institutionalized, he was known to unexpectedly withdraw into wordless trances during recording sessions and even on stage.
None of that matters, because during those minutes when Carr did rouse his rolling-thunder baritone, for "Pouring Water on a Drowning Man" or "That's the Way Life Turned Out for Me" or especially "The Dark End of the Street," he just might have been the world's greatest soul singer after all. As writer Robert Gordon put it in a 1992 Q magazine profile, Carr sings his best songs "not like his life depended on them, but like what his life depended on was gone and these songs were what was left."
In the canon of '60s R&B, there's nothing as poignant and chilling as "The Dark End of the Street." A quiet tremolo guitar chord announces the tune, and the band locks in at a slow, stately march behind Carr. The lyrics tell a tale of a pair of forbidden lovers, "living in darkness to hide our wrongs." They fear discovery, but there's a suggestion that the revelation may liberate them — "They're gonna find us, Lord, someday," the singer warns on the bridge, his regal but aching voice rising in a mix of dread and hope. He is resigned to facing the consequences: "We'll have to pay for the love that we stole." The details of their liaison are left cryptic — we don't know, for example, if their sin is adultery. All we know is that they expect to be punished for their pleasure.
It's a song so adult and somber, so close to deep gospel, that it's nearly impossible to imagine it playing in a TV commercial, or from the sunny stages of Artscape, or alongside "Soul Man" and "Mustang Sally" on oldies radio. And that's why its singer should never be forgotten.
At the Drive-In - Samuel Z. Arkoff, 1918-2001
The Art of Living - Balthus, 1908-2001
No Big Eyes - Jane Greer, 1924-2001
Catch a Wave - Jeanne Loriod, 1928-2001
Talkin' Picture - Fred Neil, 1936-2001
The Smell of the Grease Pit - Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, 1932-2001
Do the Math - Iannis Xenakis, 1922-2001
People who died - A salute to some of 2001's dear departed cult culture heroes