His wasn’t the most vast of catalogues; but James Carr’s imprint on soul music was nevertheless inestimable, as he recorded some of the genre’s most enduring singles in a voice that ranks among popular music’s finest. Carr died of cancer in a Memphis nursing home on January 7th; he was 58.
Carr was born on June 13th, 1942 and grew up in Memphis. Singing with several gospel outfits in the early Sixties, Carr failed to land any songs with Stax Records, the obvious label-of-choice for a Memphis-based soul singer at that time. But he tracked down producer Quinton Claunch, who founded Goldwax, an upstart soul label that began in 1964. He charted his first single, “You’ve Got My Mind Messed Up,” in April 1966, and nearly a year later, Carr cut the first version of Dan Penn and Chips Moman’s soul staple, “Dark End of the Street.” Though the song was subsequently covered by vocal titans including Aretha Franklin, Clarence Carter and Linda Ronstad, Carr’s rendition remains the definitive take.
“James was a special singer,” Penn says. “He definitely had the best cut of ‘Dark End of the Street.’ We didn’t have anybody in mind when we wrote the song. Just one of those things where we wrote the song and it was his time to cut and he got the song. And the right guy got it. It’s always nice to have somebody do your song the way you wrote it. I completely copied his version when I got ready to cut my own record. I did it as close to James as I could.”
While soul music has more than its share of Kings and Godfathers, Carr was handed the title of “World’s Greatest Soul Singer.” Without the stage charisma of Otis Redding or Sam and Dave, Carr kept his focus fully on his instrument. “He’s one of the world’s greatest soul singers. I think it’s the depth of his voice,” Penn says. “He had a deeper voice than most of ’em, kind of a ringing in his voice, this identifying deep baritone. When he was right, he was right.”
Despite the importance of Carr’s Sixties output, his recording career was hardly consistent. He pulled a short stint with Atlantic in 1971, but was largely quiet for most of the Seventies and the Eighties, due in part to repeated hospitalizations as he struggled with mental illness. Carr did resurface on the rejuvenated Goldwax in 1991 for Take Me to the Limit, and his last recording was 1994’s Soul Survivor.
Carr is survived by four siblings and his five children.