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Before there was hip-hop, there was LeRoy Carr

This forefather of the urban blues movement racked up a lot of records, but that didn’t stop his life from turning out like a blues song: tragic and over too soon.

By Mike Greenblatt

The saying goes that only the good die young. In Leroy Carr’s case, “young” was a just 30 years old; there are those who might debate the “good” part. But Carr left behind plenty for future generations to remember him by, including his musical plea to Santa called “Christmas In Jail (Ain’t That A Pain).”

Over the course of the song, Carr explains how he wants some turkey meat, because the food in jail isn’t fit to eat. He’d also like someone to come and post his bail. But even he knows that might be asking for a bit too much as he reveals, “I’ve gotta spend my Christmas locked up in jail again!”

Leroy Carr Christmas In Jail Vocalion 1432

Leroy Carr recorded roughly 200 sides before his death in the mid-1930s. Photo courtesy Blues Images.

Carr’s lonesome wail on “Christmas In Jail (Ain’t That A Pain)” is beautifully accompanied by his own piano playing and the brilliant guitar work of Scrapper Blackwell (1903-1962). In fact, according to John Tefteller of Tefteller’s World’s Rarest Records, the best Leroy Carr records are the ones with Blackwell.

“Leroy Carr records are not particularly rare,” Tefteller explains. “There are a few of them that are harder to find than others, of course. Basically, they’re formulated. They follow a standard formula, and they don’t veer much away from that. They were big sellers, which is why they became formulated. Once you find a formula that sells, the company will want to do more and more like that, so Carr just kind of continued to follow a pattern.”

Born March 27, 1905, in Nashville, Tenn., Carr lived mostly with his mother in Indianapolis. As a teen, Carr taught himself how to play piano, quit school and hit the road to perform at parties and dances. Carr had a variety of odd jobs to help pay the bills — working in a circus, serving with the U.S. Army, and briefly was a bootlegger.

In 1928, when Carr was 23 years old, he and Blackwell recorded “How Long How Long Blues” for Vocalion. It was a smash, and the two enjoyed the kind of popularity reserved for superstars. Other classics followed, including “Hurry Down Sunshine,” “Midnight Hour Blues” and “Blues Before Sunrise.” While the party lasted longer for Carr and Blackwell than many musicians — about seven years — it still ended. And the end wasn’t particularly pretty.

“He was a severe alcoholic in private, and so, eventually, it wasn’t too long before the blues killed him in the mid-1930s, and that was the end of it,” Tefteller said.

Still, Carr recorded roughly 200 sides and is generally considered one of the forefathers of “urban blues” movement in the pre-electric format. His vocals were lighter and more melodic than those of the rough country blues practitioners, and he bridged that gap between rural and urban, between ’20s and ’30s, between blues-folk intensity and blues-soul sweetness. In early 1935, Carr had had an intense argument with Scrapper that ended their successful collaboration. Two months later, Carr’s body succumbed to the beating it took from the bottle. He died April 29, 1935.

“Leroy Carr made a lot of records in a fairly short period of time,” explains Tefteller, “and sold a lot of records for the Vocalion record company. But he just kinda burned himself out and died. You can buy banged-up Leroy Carr records on eBay. Every week or two, one shows up, and they’ll run only $50 to $100. If one turns up that’s really super-clean, it might go up into the $500 to $1,000 range. There’s a couple of them that feature really good Scrapper Blackwell guitar solos and will even go for above that. Blackwell, who didn’t play on every single Leroy Carr record, was his partner for most, and wound up living much longer. He even lived long enough to make a pretty darn good album for Prestige/Bluesville in the late 1950s.”