Following notes by Duncan P. Schiedt are based upon interviews with Scrapper, Carr's sister and other acquaintances. In the liner notes the song titles are in bold typeface which has got lost here ![BH]
Blues Before Sunrise CBS BPG 62206 (1962)
Leroy Carr has long been considered one of the foremost artists in the urban blues idiom. Some critics have called him the greatest. Certainly he was among the most wildly successful of all blues singes. His popularity with his race must be ranked alongside that of Bessie and Mamie Smith of the earlier generation of recording artists.
He was born in Nashville, Tennessee, on March 27, 1905. His parents, John and Katie Dozier Carr, separated when Leroy was about six years old the mother going to visit relatives in Indianapolis. The following year Leroy and his older sister Eva Mae were brought to Indianapolis to stay, their father remaining in Nashville until his death in 1936.
The two children were enrolled in September at Public School 24, which they attended through the seventh grade. Their mother took a day job to support them. A player piano graced the parlour, and Eva was given piano lessons. These proved to no avail, the girl preferring to pump the rolls along instead. As the piano was locked during Mama's absence, Leroy had to hunt out the key to, the lid each day and flail away at the keys until it was time for his mother to return, when he would carefully lock up the instrument and replace the key. This went on for many months, until he began to develop a rudimentary piano style of his own, no doubt influenced by the barrelhouse pianists whom he heard in the lively sections of Indianapolis' "West Side," as the Negro section has been termed for many years.
Restlessness seems to have set in quite early in life for Leroy. He ran away with a circus (possibly the Hagenbeck-Wallace outfit based in Peru, Indiana) for some weeks, and eventually returned home bedraggled and disillusioned with life under the tent. He complained of having been given only the most menial of jobs. This experience was later immortalised in the recording, "Carried Water for the Elephant." In another attempt to find out what life was all about, he served an underage hitch in the Army, being stationed at the traditional post for coloured troops, Fort Huachuca near Nogales, Arizona. A photo of an obviously proud Carr exists posing for the camera in full uniform, holding his discharge papers in his hand.
Marriage at seventeen, followed by the birth of a daughter, Marrice, in 1923, were only temporary periods of normal living for the immature youth, whose headlong rush to "be a man" was gaining momentum. He was beginning to drift around with the young bloods of the city, picking up their salty language and their even saltier habits. Drinking was the order of the day, and Leroy began to indulge his taste for the raw stuff with gusto. Before long he became involved in a bootlegging operation, until the law caught up with him. He was given a term on the State Farm for this violation and the experience was duly recorded on an early recording "Prison Bound Blues." Carr was seldom bashful about telling his troubles to the world at large through his music.
Carr had early worked as a labourer in a large meat-packing house in the city, but soon gave that up for the more enjoyable life of the party singer. The income was rather spotty, but there was plenty of liquor flowing and good company at all times. Meanwhile his piano playing was developing rapidly and, with his new experiences as inspiration, original songs began to come forth.
He had several things working for him. His period of greatest success would come at a time when the great depression of the 1930s was at its wont. Carr in his wry way struck a sympathetic chord in the hearts of the mass of his people who, at the low end of the economic scale, could shake their heads in appreciation of his oft-told tales of unrequited love, infidelity and hangovers Secondly, an inherent sadness runs through most of his vocals whether or not they deal with sadness. It is this thread of heartbreak that marks the great singer of the blues, in contrast to contrived blues vocals of the sort tossed off by Fats Waller and Hot Lips Page on occasion.
Another asset of inestimable value to Carr was his association with the great his guitarist Scrapper Blackwell, who provided the perfect foil for Leroy. Paul Oliver, writing in Jazz (edited by Hentoff and MeCarthy) calls attention to the "bite" given Carr's warm piano style by the astringent guitar of his friend Scrapper. This delicate contrast served to heighten the underlying mood of the performance. For the whole of their joint careers, with the exception of a few records made independently, they worked together making both performance and composition of the blues a team effort.
Scrapper and Leroy probably met at one of the many little joints about town and undoubtedly were drawn together by a mutual need for each other's talents. They were a contrasting pair in personality — the tall, gregarious and imaginative pianist and the somewhat withdrawn, sometimes morose master of the guitar. Certainly their drinking habits were similar. Scrapper has recalled that Leroy was known to consume three quarts of whiskey in a day. But no one who knew him would say that he was mean when drunk "Friendly," "happy," "reasonable" are the terms that keep cropping up.
In the mid-1920s Leroy was singing his famous "How Long Blues" all over town. It had become his trademark long before it was finally recorded in June, 1928. Its origins may be rather mixed, for though it is generally credited to Carr, Paul Oliver has pointed out its strong similarity to Ida Cox's recording of "How Long Daddy How Long," (Paramount 12325), a composition credited to one William Henry Jackson. This blues, Leroy's first session, was recorded by Scrapper and himself at a radio station in Indianapolis. The disc hit the market at about the same time as Jimmy Noone's "Four or Five Times," King Oliver's "Dead Man Blues" and Jim Jackson's extremely popular "Kansas City Blues" (Parts 1, 2, 3 and 4!). Heavily promoted by the recording company, the Carr-Blackwell offering is said to have sold a million copies, and, its masters worn out, the astonished manufacturer hastened to sit them down for "How Long Blues No. 2," then "No. 3," all moving fast. Eventually there were a couple of "New How Long, How Long Blues," before the tune was milked dry.
Leroy and Scrapper were now managed by a Mr. Guernsey who from his office in an Indianapolis music store, arranged for them to make appearances farther a field. The team began to be a familiar sight in Louisville, where Leroy became acquainted with singer and radio store owner Bill Gaither, as well as Peetie Wheatstraw; Nashville, where Leroy made frequent visits to his father's home Cincinnati, where Scrapper has a vivid memory of Leroy and himself sitting in the show window of a music store faking a performance of one of their latest hits, mouthing the lyrics, while a loudspeaker blared the recording to all who passed by or stood gaping through the glass.
By the end of the Twenties, . Leroy's pace had become too fast for his family, and he and Margaret, his wife, separated. She recalls the days when he would sing to her his song "You Got to Reap What You Sow." "He meant that for me, sure enough," she says today. Leroy would not know the irony of the lines, for himself, for he was still on the way up.
Recording dates were plentiful in those days. They used up much of the basic repertoire, and composing sessions were needed to fulfil their obligations to the recording company. Scrapper's sister Minnie would have them up to her place, and the three of them would work jointly on new lyrics, bringing in bits of personal trivia which would fit a line here or there. Typical of this is Leroy's reference in Bobo Stomp to Smith Street, where he and Scrapper picked up their beer or whiskey; or, on the same side he suggests that they go to Tenth Street, where all the good-looking gals were to be found. Shady Lane Blues was written about a treelined part of Northwestern Avenue which they admired. In Corn Likker Blues Leroy finally admits his weakness for the stuff. The constant references to "goin' south," "goin' to where the eagle makes his nest" and the like attest to his old restlessness.
The sessions were generally recorded in Chicago. One of the famous blues singers of the 1930s, with a penchant for stealing songs, used to haunt the studio when they were recording and would make every effort to glance at their lead sheets when they weren't looking. He became known as the "studio ghost." But aside from the minor annoyance, the sessions went well and were, of course, the essence of informality. Leroy remarks at the outset of I Believe I'll Make a Change that the "whiskey sure is good around here." And on the opening of Hustler's Blues he states "I got to talk a little bit…tell these folks a thing or two," obviously reacting to a prior bit of wheedling by the studio representative. Carried away by Scrapper's opening guitar statements, he continues, "Knock it on out, boy. I know what you're talking about. Lord…it's a killer."
Each of these sessions would net them about three to five hundred dollars each. They would head for Indianapolis to start spending it, which wasn't much of a task.
Indianapolis in those days evoked mixed feelings among musicians "Naptown" was the point of origin for many of the well-known names in jazz music. From in or near the town have come Noble Sissle, the famed rag composer and pianist Russell Smith, Hoagy Carmichael, the brothers De Paris, the original Ink Spots, Tiny Crump, Nina Reeves the blues singer, Danny Polo and, more recently J. J. Johnson, the Montgomery brothers Wes, Buddy and Monk Slide Hampton and Dave Baker.
To its debit, the Hoosier capital had gained the reputation of being a place where bands broke up—perhaps an unjust reputation, but certainly the bands of Alphonso Trent, Bernie Young and Speed Webb, among others, came to disaster either by raids on their personnel by rival outfits or simply by just going broke. It was, however, an important theatre and dance hall stop on the various circuits, with a good share of places where music could be heard up and down Indiana Avenue, the coloured Main Stem, the black and tan spots flourished. The Golden West, an upstairs club was the most famous of all, and featured the team of Crump and Reeves and pianist Montana Taylor at various times. Other places were the Paradise, run by Raymond "Dee" Davis where Leroy worked for a time, waiting on tables during a lean period, and the Blackstone, which was such a rough joint that one story has it, it actually terrified the fugitive bank robber John Dillinger, secretly taken there by some local friends for an evening out. Neighbourhood taverns such as Bolton's at 17th and Northwestern and Ran Butler's place at 15th and Northwestern were more likely the haunts of the blues men in town. Every Monday night was "Blue Monday and you could find all the barrelhouse, boogie and blues pianists you would want at one place or the other. For the big bands from out of town there was the esteemed Walker Ballroom, adjacent to the theatre of the same name, the Sunset Ballroom, the Trianon Ballroom and the Cotton Club, the latter three places run by the brothers Denver and Sea Ferguson, kingpins of the local coloured booking business. The Cotton Club is particularly well remembered by musicians who played there.
During the 1930s, Leroy Carr and Francis "Scrapper" Blackwell lived and worked in this atmosphere. During the very worst depression days, they did no recording for a period of about two years. At this time Leroy was out of town, principally in St. Louis, where he worked at the Booker T. Washington Theatre and at Jazzland, among other places. When the pair finally resumed recording, most of the selections on this album were waxed. They provide some interesting contrasts in listening.
Standouts in this group include I Believe I'll Make a Change, which features some excellent guitar accompaniment, Blues Before Sunrise with probably the most integrated and imaginative set of lyrics of the lot; Take a Walk Around the Corner with its relentless boogie rhythm, featuring good Carr piano; the three records featuring the two guitars of Scrapper and Josh White—Big Four Blues Shining Pistol and It's Too Short, and the outstanding work all around on Hustler's Blues. Now and then Scrapper leaves the high string notes and teases us with a couple of bars of boogie rhythm on the deep-toned string, Y on Midnight Hour Blues, but like a good showman he leaves us wanting more. Throughout all the records Leroy's voice is at its peak, without a trace of the internal havoc being wrought by the years of drinking. He was now drinking not for enjoyment alone: his liver was becoming badly affected, and partly to allay the pain he increased his intake. Jobs became harder to make in this condition, and perhaps Leroy felt the end coming. It did come, suddenly—and devastatingly. Following an all-night party at a friend's house, Leroy went back to the place he was sharing with his girl of the moment and suffered an attack. The girl immediately called his sister Eva Mae, who summoned a doctor. Before he could arrive, Leroy was dead. It was Monday morning April 29, 1935.
Scrapper, too, had returned to his flat, carrying his ever-present guitar. A call aroused him —"Come on over to Leroy's?" Scrapper made for his pants and the guitar, in that order. "Does Leroy want me to come play?" he inquired, just before bein' told the sad news. He laid down the guitar slowly.
The autopsy told the tale—"nephritis, brought on by acute alcoholism.