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What Makes an Unknown Legend?

Andy Mussell explains why no one knows who blues master Leroy Carr is anymore.


Listening to this 2-disc release on Columbia’s continuing unearthing of old blues music under the Legacy (Roots & Blues) imprint, I get really pissed off.  Why have I never heard of Leroy Carr before?  The man was a genius whose music resonates in my soul in a way that few other’s do.

(Now, admittedly, I am not a blues musicologist, or even an accomplished aficionado.  I simply like it a lot.  This might lead you to believe I am unqualified to expound my opinions on the subject, and in some circles you may even find yourself justified on the matter; but should this be the case I might have a dirty little secret or two to share regarding the history of music criticism.  I’ll try to sneak it in somewhere and hope my editor doesn’t notice.)

Leroy Carr enjoyed a very popular (for a black musician who mostly played the blues) recording career from the late ‘20s to the mid ‘30s of what is now the last century – about 7 years, all told.  In 1935, he drank himself to death.  He was 30.  As I describe his style, it won’t be immediately apparent why it is that the music is so good, why Carr was as popular as he was.  He did not have a strong voice – sort of nasal, on the quiet side.  He played the piano, and the melodies are not intricate or complicated.  His accompanist, Scrapper Blackwell, who went on to a distinguished and much longer career after Carr’s death, plays sparse backup on the guitar almost incongruously.  And that’s it.


Yet from the first track on the first disc, the “How Long – How Long Blues,” you’re hooked.  (It was Carr’s first release, and a surprise instant hit.)  There’s a simplicity and intimacy that makes you feel like you’re listening to two guys who dropped by your place and decided to play a tune while they were there...that you went to a club to see some friends perform, and no one else showed up so they’re playing a set for you and the bartender and the regulars and don’t give a damn if they’re sounding good or not, they just want to have a good time...that some pals slipped you a copy of their new demo and you popped it in just ‘cause and it turned out to be good.


In fact, if this collection has a flaw, it’s that it’s too comprehensive.  Each of the two discs has 20 tracks and almost exactly an hour of total runtime, making it easy to enter into an old-time piano-and-guitar blues music overload if you listen to both back-to-back, something you’d probably only do if you were either in severe blues withdrawal or a very depressed state of mind. 


And it’s not all blues, as during his career Carr performed a wide variety of material, from vaudeville tunes to ballads to novelty records, most of which are represented here and some of which are pretty good.  (I like the ragtime-influenced novelty track “Papa’s on the House Top,” for example.)


But it was the blues that Carr and Blackwell truly made their mark on, and were most appreciated for.  There are too many excellent tracks to name them all, so I’ll give a brief sampling: on Disc 1, there’s the already-mentioned, “How Long – How Long Blues,” as well as “Straight Alky Blues” parts 1 and 2, “Blues Before Sunrise” (maybe the best song on the collection), and “Southbound Blues,” and Disc 2 has “Hustler’s Blues,” which contains the lyric that gave this collection its name, “Eleven Twenty-Nine Blues,” “Shinin’ Pistol,” and “Suicide Blues.” 


The titles say the rest.  I will simply add: God they’re good.


So why did Carr fall off the critical darling map?  He was popular, he was influential, he was great.  I blame critics.  Carr existed in an unusual time, when the blues was shifting from sharecroppers’ bars to city-dwellers’ taverns, and while he was a pioneer in this new way, the form was not yet recognized.  So, by the time blues became hip enough, time had passed for him to be unremembered.  Critics, you see, are often not very bright.  They like things that fall into easily identifiable categories, genres, et al. and Carr is just a little too outside the typical blues musician of his day to be much more than a footnote in the typical critic’s brainspan.


Fuck ‘em.  Carr is great, this album is great, if you like blues you’ll like it.  Grab it off the Internet, take a listen, pay for it if you want.  There’s some cool photos and stuff to look at in the liner notes.


This editor and music columnist is not offended.  Leroy Carr, Whiskey Is My Habit, Good Women Is All I Crave: The Best of Leroy Carr.  10/10.  Review by Andy Mussell.

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