Born: March 27, 1905 | Died: 1935 Primary Instrument: Piano
Born in Nashville, Leroy Carr moved to Indianapolis as a child. While he was still in his teens, he taught himself how to play piano. Carr quit school in his mid-teens, heading out for a life on the road. For the next few years, he would play piano at various parties and dances in the midwest and south. Carr wandered back toward Indianapolis, where he met guitarist Scrapper Blackwell in 1928. The duo began performing and shortly afterward they were recording for Vocalion, releasing How Long How Long Blues before the year was finished. The song was an instant, surprise hit. For the next seven years, Carr and Blackwell would record a number of classic songs for Vocalion, including Midnight Hour Blues, Blues Before Sunrise, Hurry Down Sunshine, Shady Lane Blues and many others.
Lery Carr was the most influential male blues singer and songwriter of the first half of the 20th century, but he was nothing like the current stereotype of an early bluesman. An understated pianist with a gentle, expressive voice, he was known for his natty suits and lived most of his life in Indianapolis. His first record, How Long, How Long Blues, in 1928, had a revolutionary effect. Previous blues stars, whether vaudevillians like Bessie Smith or street singers like Blind Lemon Jefferson, had needed huge voices to project their music, but with the help of new microphone and recording technologies, Carr sounded like a cool city dude carrying on a conversation with a few close friends.
Carr's lyrics were carefully written, blending soulful poetry with wry humor, and his music had a light, lilting swing that could shift in a moment to a driving boogie. Carr sang over the solid beat of his piano and the biting guitar of his constant partner Scrapper Blackwell. The outcome was a hip, urban club style that signaled a new era in popular music.
Given his importance, it was logical that when Columbia records had a surprise success in the early 1960's with Robert Johnson's King of the Delta Blues Singers, the label followed up with a Carr compilation. It was titled Blues Before Sunrise, after one of Carr's most popular songs, a haunting ballad that had been covered by John Lee Hooker, Elmore James and Ray Charles.
But the folk and rock fans who hailed Johnson as a genius showed no interest in the Carr album. Never mind that Carr's first records predated Johnson's first recordings by eight years, or that Johnson's work showed an immense debt to Carr's innovations. Carr's suave; laidback style was not what the new audience wanted in a bluesman.
But although Carr died of an alcohol-related illness shortly after his 30th birthday, what made him a key figure in American music were his records, not his blueman lifestyle. His followers dominated blues for more than 20 years and affected every aspect of the African-American pop scene. In Chicago, studios filled up with piano-guitar duos and Carr clones like Bumble Bee Slim and Bill Gaither (billed as Leroy's Buddy). In Mississippi, Muddy Waters recalled How Long as the first song he ever learned. In Kansas City, Count Basie recorded Carr's hits as piano solos. On the West Coast, T-Bone Walker and Charles Brown made Carr's smooth urbanity the hallmark of the L.A. style. In New York, vocal groups from the Ink Spots to the Dominoes harmonized on Carr compositions. Nat King Cole's first hit, That Ain't Right, was a Carr-inflected blues, and the R & B historian Arnold Shaw traced soul ballad singing from Carr through Dinah Washington and Sam Cooke to Otis Redding and Jerry Butler.
Maybe the time has come, though, when blues can escape its stereotyped mythology and Carr can assume his rightful place. The subtle eloquence of lyrics like When the Sun Goes Down helped bring a new simplicity and directness to pop writing. The lonesome passion of Carr's voice on songs like Midnight Hour Blues set the stage for Ray Charles. As for the roots of rock 'n' roll, the pounding piano and sharp guitar lines of Sloppy Drunk and It's Too Short sound like direct antecedents of Ike Turner and Chuck Berry.
In its heyday, blues was not an old-fashioned folk style. It had deep traditional roots but also a dynamic, modern sensibility that revolutionized American music. And Leroy Carr led that revolution, smooth voice, piano, fine suits and all.
Adapted in part from article by Elijah Wald.
Source: Elijah Wald