Leroy Carr Saturday

by John Holbo on October 25, 2008

I was going to say YouTube Saturday. But YouTube has only got a couple. Whereas you can download 10 free Leroy Carr mp3’s here. Says they are in the public domain. I recommend: all of them. But you might start with “How Long How Long Blues”, “When the Sun Goes Down” and “How Long Has That Evening Train Been Gone”, later covered by the Supremes. Speaking of which: you can hear an unreleased demo of the Supreme’s version here.

I don’t know much about Leroy Carr. I heard him for the first time a few days ago, bought a bunch [amazon], and I think it’s fantastic. Here’s a short appreciation, which appeared in the NY Times a few years ago:

… But before blues was marketed as roots or folk music, it was a vibrant black pop style, and its original audience had very different standards from those of most modern-day fans. While today’s blues lovers look back to rural Mississippi, black Americans at the height of the blues era were looking forward to Harlem and “sweet home Chicago.” This split is perfectly exemplified by the two audiences’ reactions to Leroy Carr.

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 an effect as revolutionary as Bing Crosby’s pop crooning, and for similar reasons. 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. Rather than Smith’s vaudeville jazz combos or Jefferson’s idiosyncratic country picking, Carr sang over the solid beat of his piano and the biting guitar of his constant partner Francis (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. His music was dismissed as an overly smooth variant of Johnson’s fiercer, more rural style, as if he were Pat Boone to Johnson’s Elvis Presley. 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.

I don’t know how accurate that is. It does fit with what my ear has been telling me the last few days: yeah, this stuff sounds different than anything I’ve heard before. It’s exciting. (Mostly he sings about being drunk. Apparently that didn’t work out for him too well.)



tristero 10.25.08 at 4:17 pm

Leroy Carr is one of the lesser-known influences on delta blues master Robert Johnson, who lifted many ideas verbatim from Carr. Carr’s guitarist, Scrapper Blackwell, is also a terrific musician.


Alexei McDonald 10.25.08 at 8:03 pm

My favourite Leroy Carr side remains “Carried water for the elephant”. It’s a great song for children with its funny lyrics and fast pace. It’s certainly not his most influential piece, but I’m okay with liking an outlier.


Righteous Bubba 10.25.08 at 8:54 pm

You can find a mandolin-centred version of “Cow Cow Blues” called “Jackson Stomp” here:


It’s one of my favourite instrumentals.


jackie D 10.25.08 at 10:42 pm

The Kings of ‘Naptown – Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell – a great great tune is ‘(All Trains Goin’ To) Memphis Town’…..”shovel in da coal, see da wheels go ‘roun…” Just totally awesome.



Josh in Philly 10.26.08 at 2:57 am

Awesome musician and songwriter–I rediscovered him while researching influences on Bob Dylan in order to dissuade a racist student (who admires Bob) from writing “those people are all thugs” paper. “Papa’s on the Housetop” (inspiration for “Tombstone Blues”) is a delight. Eventually I made myself an iTunes compilation called “Papa Wants: Blues, Ballads, and Hokum Songs” containing
Gettin’ All Wet
Naptown Blues
How About Me?
Memphis Town
I Won’t Miss You When
You’re Gone
Alabama Woman Blues
Let’s Make Up and Be
Friends Again
Four Day Rider
Let’s Disagree
Papa Wants to Knock a Jug
Hold Them Puppies
Muddy Water
Looking for My Sugar
Don’t Start No Stuff
I Keep the Blues
My Good for Nothin’ Gal
Bobo Stomp
Bread Baker
You Got Me Grievin’
Papa’s on the House Top
Together with the now OOP Hurry Down Sunshine cd, they make a nice representative set.

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