This article about soul great James Carr
originally ran in Britain's Q Magazine and in the L.A.
Weekly, both in 1992. Upon publication, I dropped off copies at the
apartment James Carr shared with his sister.
When next I ran into him, he said he hadn't received the copies, that
someone had stolen them from his mailbox. More than a year passed before
I got new copies, and when I brought them by, the Carrs had moved, no
forwarding address. Goldwax had already left the Memphis office
described below and relocated to Nashville, with founder Quinton Claunch
leaving the organization.
mid-1996, I walked into a dark bar in a rough part of town with a couple
friends. While we were drinking beer, James Carr walked in the door.
Once he and his people got situated, I went over to greet him. He acted
like he remembered me, but I doubt it. His back was to our table and he
said, "Who is that pretty girl seated with you?" We were not that
conspicuous in the bar, and he'd only glanced at us when he entered;
James seemed healthy. I've gone to that bar several times since, looking
for him, but James Carr seems to still be Way Out On A Voyage.
When it was built in the '50s, Memphis' Mid South Building was probably
stylish and sleek. Today, the blocky turqoise exterior pales next to the
snap of the nearby fast food joints. The elevator moves slowly to the
third floor. The hallway to the Goldwax Records office feels
institutional, with no natural light and a musty smell. The tiled floor
reflects the dim ceiling lights, and the yellow paint job dulls any
The walls of the office are mostly bare, the blue carpeting subdued. The
fax machine in the corner seems like an anachronism. Only the large
coffee table littered with music magazines indicates the nature of the
office's business. That, and the two men who now run the company.
Founded in 1964 in the wake of Stax's Memphis soul success, Goldwax
Records was revitalized in the mid-80s. Elliot Clark, an avuncular black
man in his 50s, is the label's director; Quinton Claunch, a decade older
and white, co-founded the label and now serves as president. Put these
two in the same room-any room-and no matter how spare the furnishings,
they will fill it up. They've travelled the record business road, long,
winding, paved and potholed. Goldwax doesn't need platinum records or
autographed photos hanging on the wall. They've got Clark and
When Quinton Claunch helped found the soul music label, he was already
established in the business: he'd been a radio musician with a flour
company sponsorship, a session man at Sun (he once toured two weeks with
Elvis), a founder of Hi Records, a producer of regional hits. Though
he's played and performed all his life, Claunch would be the first one
in a crowd of a thousand people you'd assume was not in music. Coke
bottle glasses and arms crossed uncomfortably, he speaks in a
Mississippi drawl that is at once rushed and clunky. His tan polyester
pants and plaid shirt are more suited to his forty three and a half
years as a tri-state supply company salesman, peddling steel products,
heating and air conditioner supplies and sheet metal. Nothing about him
indicates a man who discovered and produced such great talents as James
Carr and O.V. Wright.
Elliot Clark laughs like your best friend. His demeanor says he's seen
it all and now knows that laughing is better than crying.
"Million-seller" dots his conversation as regularly as whole notes in a
ballad. A large man sharply dressed, he could be a former sports star
doing a product endorsement. Clark's also been in music all his life,
managing soul artists, producing tours, promoting concerts and owning
labels. Between him and Claunch, they've been involved in enough record
company logos to make a deck of cards. Clark became interested in the
Goldwax catalogue when it was sitting dormant in the late 70s. He
eventually reincorporated the company, enlisting Claunch for direction
and as tangible connection to the earlier talent.
The Goldwax catalog includes the Ovations, who achieved brief fame with
"It's Wonderful To Be In Love," Percy Milem, whose "Slipped A Little"
was a recent beach music hit, and Ollie Nightingale, a vocalist who had
modest success on Stax; some of O.V. Wright's early material belongs to
Goldwax. The catalog is important to fans and collecters, but what gives
it weight is the presence of James Carr.
James Carr has been accorded the title "World's Greatest Soul Singer,"
though certainly other great soul singers are more renowned. From the
mid to late 60s, he established himself with sad songs and songs of
desperation, singing them not like his life depended on them, but like
what his life depended on was gone and these songs were what was left.
His voice is deep and full, operatic even, and though heavy with
conviction, he can soar like a preacher giving warning.
Like many of his peers, Carr has been influenced by the gospel
tradition. Unlike Otis Redding, however, he is not a roller and shaker
whose energy reflects the hand-clapping and swaying of the choir. Nor,
like Sam and Dave, does he work into a frenzy through call and response.
Carr has always been a quiet person, and his best work is with slower
material, ballads. His father was a Baptist preacher, and one imagines
Carr as a youth in church, eyes trained on his father, observing the
hysteria but absorbing the solemnity. A gospel influence is apparent in
many of his songs ("Freedom Train"), but so is the twang of country
music ("Pouring Water (On A Drowning Man)") and the grittiness of Stax
Carr's place in soul music history is assured with the original version
of "Dark End Of The Street," the version to which all others are still
compared. His tremulous voice conveys a knowingness, an acceptance of
responsibility. He's not coming to grips with the ways of fate, but
rather facing his reflection and pointing the finger.
Carr's periodic comeback attempts have been plagued by mental illness,
hospitalization, and management squabbles. After two decades in the
shadows, his reemergence is distinguished not only by the release of new
material, but also by his return to Goldwax. He may still be a cipher,
but something has changed.
Carr's career and the history of Goldwax are practically one and the
same. The label had just gotten underway when Claunch met Carr. "About
midnight one night, there came a knock on my door," recalls Claunch. "I
opened the door and there stood three black guys. Roosevelt Jamison,
James Carr and O.V. Wright. Said, 'Man, we got some tapes we'd like for
you to hear.' They didn't make an appointment or nothing, they just
knocked on my door. They had their little tape recorder, portable, and I
said come on in, and we sat right down in the middle of my living room
floor and man, we started playing those dang tapes of O.V. Wright and
James Carr, and I really got hooked then."
Carr and Wright had been singing spirituals together in the Redemption
Harmonizers, and Jamison was enlisted to help them cross over to the
more popular and lucrative soul music; the gospel group's manager did
not want to truck with the secular world. Jamison is a tall man with a
soft voice, and he exudes courtesy. If he sometimes complains he is too
compassionate, that quality has also led him to compose good songs. He
wrote "That's How Strong My Love Is," which was first done by Wright,
then Otis Redding, then the Rolling Stones. Its melody was the basis for
1966's "You've Got My Mind Messed Up," Carr's third single and his first
to receive national attention. Jamison, who remains devoted to Carr, was
ousted as manager in 1966 by Phil Walden, who also managed Otis
Both Claunch and Jamison, who don't agree on much, agree that Carr has
never been ambitious. When left with Walden, he withered; Carr has
always needed someone to manage more than his career. Jamison recalls
telling him when to wake up and when to go to sleep. Claunch remembers
driving to Jackson, Mississippi for a session after he was no longer
involved with Carr's career-the singer wouldn't sing unless he was
Despite his obvious talent, Carr never achieved the success his initial
hits promised. He recorded breifly in 1971 for Atlantic, then was
dropped. More people than Elliot Clark assumed he was dead. A new
record, "Take Me To The Limit," is one of Goldwax's first releases
(alongside a reunion album by Black Oak Arkansas and a good soul
collection, Echoes of Yesteryear). "In 1990," says Claunch, "I decided
to do a demonstration thing with him, see if he could still sing. Rather
than spend a lot of money, I figured I'd go to a little studio down in
Iuka, Mississippi. So I picked James up every Saturday morning for eight
weeks. If I'd known he was going to sound that good, I would have used
real musicians." "Take Me To The Limit" is not a great record; the
synthesized backing tracks often make it unlistenable. But it proves
that Carr still has a voice, and that, after twenty years, he can even
create feeling from a lifeless keyboard program.
Left to himself, Carr would just watch TV. "I think it's a physical
problem," says Claunch. "He's on medication and man he goes off
somewhere for three or four days and don't take his medicine, he starts
sliding back." "If he stays on his medicine, he's just A-1," says
"I really became conscious of his imbalance right after he started
working on the road," says Roosevelt Jamison. He remembers a trip to the
Apollo in Harlem, 1966. "He was touring with Otis Redding, Wilson
Pickett, James Brown, that kind of act. When we were in New York, James
told me he was going to sign with Phil Walden and Larry Utal. They had
promised to make him bigger than Otis Redding. Later, I went up to Phil
and Larry's office, and they gave me $3200 for James contract. I came
downstairs and gave James $1600 and told him he better hold onto it,
because I didn't know which way it was going from then on, I was going
"I didn't hear from James for a while. A couple months later, he seemed
to have lost his way. He had nobody out there with him. After they
pushed me out and James got super sick - he came to me. He always kept my
number in his mind, and he would call me from Atlanta or various places
or if he was lost at an airport, drifting around the streets, wandering
around, and he would call and ask me why wasn't I with him."
Jamison's voice becomes hushed as he finishes this story. "He managed
make it to my house one cold morning. There was somebody knocking on the
door, and my wife asked about it. When I went to the door, snow was
everywhere and he was sitting down on the steps. He said, 'Man, I kept
looking for you and looking for you, where you been so long?' "
Easley Recording occupies the first building in Memphis built to be a
recording studio. It was designed for hitmaker Chips Moman ("Suspicious
Minds," "Memphis Soul Stew," "Dusty In Memphis"), the man who co-wrote
"Dark End Of The Street" (with Dan Penn) and also engineered Carr's
version. The Bar-Kays, the funk band that sprang from the survivors of
Otis Redding's plane crash, owned the studio not long back; recently it
has been the site for albums by Lydia Lunch, Jon Spencer, Sonic Youth,
and other perverse underground characters. It carries a heavy vibe.
Easley's also keeps a somewhat obsolete 16-track tape machine in working
order, and Clark and Claunch have dug up 16-track masters from the 70s
and 80s, tapes they own from previous ventures. When I walk into the
studio, the equipment is being properly dusted off. James Carr is
sitting behind a cloud of tobacco smoke in the corner.
The oxides on the old tapes have deteriorated, and while the engineers
are threading the machine, Claunch launches into an explanation of how
he's baked the tapes with a lightbulb for 72 hours to make them
playable. The control room is not small, but between the number of
people in there and the frenetic explanation which nobody quite
understands, it's getting claustrophobic. The tape-baking is explained
again, and finally Clark and the rest of us accept it as truth, its
merits attested to by the playback.
While the first song plays, a soft hum wafts from a corner of the
control room. By the second verse, the hum has assumed more definite
characteristics and by the next chorus, James Carr is belting out the
words. In the half-hour of set-up time, he's been practically invisible,
but once the music begins, it's as if an empty stage has been filled.
Carr is handsome in his sports jacket, though he is a wisp of a man. He
has high cheekbones, thinning hair, and extremely long fingernails. In
his cap and sunglasses, he establishes an air of removal that would make
movie stars envious. A stranger entering the room might think Carr was
aloof, simply famous.
Claunch sends Carr out onto the studio floor. Except for a spotlight
over the one microphone, the room is dimmed. Carr puts on the headphones
and stands in place-there's no music yet, and it's hard to tell whether
it's Carr there or just his shadow. As the old master tape rolls with
the original vocal track turned off, The overdubs go quickly. Claunch
occasionally waves his arm through the studio glass before Carr begins,
revving him up, telling him to give it a punch. The only spoken
direction he gives is, "Put more James Carr in it," or "Give me some
more of that preacher." When the track is done, Claunch asks, "Think you
can do any better?" Carr knows if he says no, he won't have to sing it
Everyone is pleased with how the first song went down. Because, if
Carr's voice is legendary, so are his depressions. At the last of the
original Goldwax sessions in 1969, Claunch had him recording in Muscle
Shoals, Alabama. "We had four good songs lined up, including 'To Love
Somebody.' And that's the only damn song we got on the session. He just
sat up there and looked. Man, I wanted to take a bottle and knock him
off that stool. Time was going, we got all them high-priced musicians,
and we finally got that one song. I don't see how he ended up singing as
good as he did, but man, he sang the whole thing through, didn't have to
overdub or nothing. And we didn't get anything else, didn't get
While they are cuing up the next song, Carr intently smokes Kools in the
control room, pulling drags that leave half-inch coals glowing. So far,
the session's been a piece of cake. If the first track was not a hit, it
was suitable filler, which is all Claunch and Clark intend it for. They
are anticipating a James Carr series, fleshing it out with these old
masters. They've cut new tracks with a live band, tracks which achieve
the feeling that these songs lack. Their series will mix the good with
the not-as-good, keeping Carr visible for some time to come.
Trouble starts when the second song rolls. Carr can't remember the
words, and after several tries, Claunch is getting steamed. "I gave him
these two songs to learn a month ago," he says, "and I told him we
wouldn't go in 'til he was ready. He told me he knew 'em, but he don't
know this one."
Somewhere the session gets out of control. Carr sings words out of
order, repeats lines already sung, so that the song lacks not only
feeling, but sense. Take after take, the producer hears his artist
almost get it. After nearly an hour, I'm sent out to the floor to prompt
him, but the lyrics I've accumulated are from the jumbled mess Carr's
been singing. He misses the cue for the first line, one he'd previously
gotten every time. Communication between the control room and the floor
gets mangled, and we're not always sure what verse they're playing. For
two hours, Claunch plows ahead, line by line, and despite continuing
problems, the tape keeps rolling, a finished take finally pieced
together. Whatever merits the first song had, even as filler, this one
Out in the lobby, Carr is calm, though I may be projecting my own sense
of relief. The cloud of smoke which envelops him, the sunglasses, the
reticence, even his kidding about the role I've just played-somehow it
seems he knows everything that's happened, even orchestrated it. Claunch
and Clark shuttle him out the door, and the sudden silence which fills
the studio is broken by our nervous laughter.
After another difficult recording session, I arrive at the Goldwax
office with mixed feelings. I've been bothered by an impression of
small-time graft, of men in the know trying to squeeze one last hit from
someone out of the know. Something to retire on. Their conversation
doesn't clarify their intentions.
"I dare to say, if he got a hit record right now, he couldn't handle
it," says Claunch. "If he had a million dollars today, a month from now
he wouldn't have a nickel."
"So why are y'all trying to help him have a hit?" Clark answers.
"We thought that we could help him. Most of the reasons for people being
in a bad environment is because they don't have the finances to support
anything other than that. But if you got him in the right environment, I
really believe he could come back."
"I've been knowing him since he was 19 years old," says Claunch. "Thirty
years. And I just think where he could be, in [the wealthy suburb of]
Germantown in a mansion. Rather than skid row. He's got talent."
Clark: "But I just don't think he could handle it. Naw, naw."
For the past eighteen months, Claunch and Carr had been in almost daily
contact, culminating in last April with Carr's first New York engagement
in perhaps two decades. Returning home with a pocket full of money,
James Carr disappeared.
The New York show had been a success. Claunch drove him up, got him to
the rehearsal on time, kept him away from the bar before the gig, and
didn't let him get sidetracked with women during the evening. According
to people in the audience, his performance at Tramps was a personal and
professional triumph. Having heard the power in his voice at the studio,
I can only imagine how much deeper the feeling must have been when he
was singing songs he knew, backed by a live band, and to an appreciative
Returning to Memphis, Claunch sat in Carr's kitchen and paid him, heard
Carr say he was going to help his sister cover some bills. Then he
vanished. Three weeks later when he called, he was broke: "He didn't
even have no money to buy no cigarettes," Claunch says. "From now on,
we're giving the money to his sister."
"He's been through some changes," says Clark, "but we've got him
notoriety. They're calling from all over the world. Here's a man who
could make a half a million dollars a year right now. What's so
frustrating is, when we've got him set to come back, all it takes is a
good record and the man is set for life. We maybe can get another good
song, but he can't make that transition back to reality."
If half a million a year seems unreal, some sort of comeback does not;
"Take Me To The Limit" made it to stores, and there's no lack of old
recordings on which they can overdub. "We put James in all the major
magazines, bought ads, journalists wrote good articles on him, gave him
good reviews. Before 1990, he was gone, nobody knew about James," he
says. "When you're playing with the big boys, you can't screw around.
When I was a kid growing up in the country, they'd shoot you for going
in the watermelon patch."
Claunch: "One of my neighbors caught a couple guys in the watermelon
patch, he brought the double barrel out there, made them eat two
watermelons, rind and all."
Clark: "So, if you didn't plant it, don't pick it.
Claunch: "'There's the watermelons, just have at it. When you done
eatin' that one, you're gonna get that 'un too.'"
Clark: "That's business. A lot of people don't understand
that. This is the music business, and the ones that's making it, they do
business. It's not so much talent as it was back then. It's hype. Like
those Billboard charts. Half of those records are hyped to number 30
anyway. Ninety [per cent] of 'em. You get above there, then you got a
record. All those 40s-" Elliot Clark laughs hard. "When you start
getting up in those 20s-" again, laughter.
"Why do you think Crest sells so much toothpaste," asks Claunch. "Ain't
no better than Pepsodent."
"Look at Coca Cola," says Clark. "Got to promote, got to promote."
"I really feel sorry for him," says Claunch. "What he could have done.
He can't hardly write his name, but he done it."
James Carr is waiting for me outside his apartment, ready for our lunch
appointment at a nearby greasy spoon. His eyes are focused. I can
imagine what he was like appearing at Claunch's home in the middle of
the night. You might just think he was quiet.
Over lunch at a CK's Kitchen, he discusses his New York gig, and it
becomes clear that the reports I've heard were not exaggerations. This
man here could have indeed thrilled audiences. He tells me that he and
Claunch recently wrote a song together; he can't remember what it's
about, but, "I know Quinton can think of it, he'll never forget." And he
"I've been learning songs and recording them," he continues. "I really
like sentimental songs, I can really feel sentimental songs. But I've
been recording all types, country-western, blues, rock and roll.
Sometimes the band puts the tracks down when I'm not there. I like for
the band to be there. You can get together more of it, knowing what
everybody is gonna do and knowing what you gonna do too. But if it's
already done, you just have to catch ahold to it and go on and do
"Dark End Of The Street," he says, was cut live with a band. I wonder
aloud what makes that song so good. "It's really simple," he says. "It's
really a simple song. Just sing it the way you talk." And then James
Carr sings the whole first verse and chorus of his biggest hit, with
plates clattering in the background, silverware falling on the floor,
and conversations at nearby tables uninterrupted. With each line, he
makes our presence in the diner more ridiculous. When I think he's
through, he continues, carrying us away, out of CK's Kitchen and out of
this world, and when he's done, I imagine that the whole diner will be
suddenly still, then burst into applause. I'll look at the newspaper on
the counter and the headline will read, JAMES CARR IS BACK. People will
When he finishes singing, he waits a beat, and then continues his
explanation. "It's just easy, and I arranged it by the way I read it,
the way I read the words. Didn't really have the music to it then, I
arranged it by the way the words were." Our food is slapped on the
table. Carr makes eyes at a girl seated in a booth across from us, and
also at our waitress. "If I had a hit and made a lot of money," he says,
"I'd put it in the bank. I don't know if I need a house, but I know I
need a place of my own. Can't have no privacy living with my sister.
Whenever I get ready to do something, I have to go to a hotel. So I
might get me an apartment, but I think I'd rather stay at the hotel
where them women's be at."
In the course of our conversation, and because he seems so clear, I ask
him about a notorious 1979 Japanese tour, a comeback event that, despite
several good performances, is remembered for the one gig where he stood
on stage catatonic, unable to perform. "I really wasn't ready," he
answers, and his tone is definite. "We didn't have nothing really right,
me and the band. We just thought about some songs we could do, but I
don't think it was what they were playing. I sung my heart out, but it
wasn't that good."
Roosevelt Jamison remembers the Japan tour differently. "I've got the
tape and it's not as bad as they said. I got James and the band in shape
to go over there. One of the shows, he couldn't finish, but he finished
the others. He was sick as a dog over there, mentally and physically. He
had a fever and was stopped up in his chest, his throat was sore." When
he continues, he is hushed, reverential, slowly building back up to a
fatherly bluster. "I saw James on that stage being whupped, but he was
too much of a champion to give up. I could feel his agony and pain out
there. I knew his temperature was sky high, sweating like mad, I knew he
couldn't hardly open his mouth, his throat was sore, his chest was
clogged up. That was when he took too much medicine. But he stayed there
and he took the beating, and I was proud of him. It made him a champion,
made him realize that all the good that the stage had been to him, he
also owed the stage something."
Jamison's story reminds me of an earlier conversation, from the day
after I first met Carr. I'd expressed concern about his condition and
Jamison told me that Carr was fine, he'd just been doing a little
drinking earlier that night and was quiet. This deflection yields an
insight into Jamison: He needs Carr perhaps more than the singer needs
his longtime friend. Jamison has invested his life in Carr, is largely
responsible for his career. Reconciling himself to James Carr would mean
admitting a defeat a champion's coach can't face.
Quinton Claunch also knows Carr is a champion. What looks from a
distance like graft is really the fundamental nature of the record
business. Carr quit his job on an assembly line making tables when he
started performing in clubs 30 years ago; music is all he knows and he's
made his best music with Claunch. They are a team. Claunch may threaten
to wash his hands of Carr, but it's like running away from home: You may
put a lot of distance between you and your front door, but your heart
never knows the miles.
In the car after lunch, I show Carr a twenty year old picture of
himself. He looks at it and is silent. "All I am is a voice," he says.
He is right: On his records, unlike those of Otis Redding or Sam & Dave,
we are not sung to. The performance is not one we witness from the
audience but one we feel through him. Redding made a gift of his
passion, something we could admire from a distance. Carr's passion is
Carr today doesn't see himself as the man who made the Japanese tour, or
the man who sung the early hits. He looks in the mirror often, as if
confirming his presence. Coming back from his years of emptiness-which,
despite his good days now, are probably not over-has made him a
different person. "Lost in a dream," he says about the past twenty
years. "Way out on a voyage."
Carr tells me a story after lunch. His voice
retains the conviction it has held all day.
"After I was born I went to sleep and I woke up other people," says
"What do you mean you woke up other people?"
"Some of them was parading, some of them was performing, some of them
was doing actions in movies, stuff like that. So I woke up with them,
and carried on their duty, their performing. For that short period of
time, when I was first born.
"They put me to sleep, and I woke up then, woke up in mid air, in rain,
woke up the rain, the rain was hurting, hurting me, yeah it was hurting
me, it was hurting, I could feel it. Snow. Stuff like that."
"What did the rain feel like?"
"It was hurting. I was hurting too. I could feel the rain hurting, but
it wasn't really me. I was there, in sight and soul and everything, but
my body wasn't there. My body was at home. I can't forget it."
Carr hits me up for some cash before I leave him at the apartment he
shares with his sister. He asks for a ride to the corner store, where he
buys a quart of beer. As he exits the store, he pauses and asks me, "Do
you want a beer?" I don't, and I drive him back home. I can't forget
° ° °
- Robert Gordon wrote the invaluable It Came From Memphis. He
currently resides there.