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I had been a fan of James Carr - often called the world's greatest soul singer - since I first heard Willie Murphy play one of his songs on his old KFAI radio show. We had not heard of any recent live performances or new material being released so James was on our "dead or what" list.

Marc Norberg portrait of James CarrIn 1987 I was pleased when I could replace my old battered cassette tapes culled from friends record collections with a Blue Side compilation on vinyl of some of James' best work. The back cover of the record tells of James becoming "spellbound" and it seemed unlikely we would ever hear from him again. In 1991 I picked up a new recording, Take Me to The Limit, released by Ace/England. It was a rather uneven effort but I wrote to Ace in London to see if they could put me in touch with anyone who could arrange to get James to Minnesota. I never received a reply. In 1994 I saw another new release- Soul Survivor. In addition to being much better than Take Me to the Limit it had what I needed most: a telephone number to call for bookings! It didn't take long for manager/label owner/caretaker Quinton Claunch and I to reach a tentative deal. He started out telling me James had a few problems but would be fine. Later he alluded to physical problems and when pressed, he confessed what most of us had assumed: that James had a mental illness. I quickly shepherded a deal through the Blues Saloon, glossing over the mental health issue, and soon James was arriving for rehearsal.

Curtis Obeda and James CarrJames was reluctant to get up on the stage, wanting us to play his material without him while he sat alone at a table listening. We ran through about half of the songlist without James singing and the Blues Saloon management began to get a little nervous. We took a break and I sat with James to tell him we needed him to do a little singing on mic to complete a sound check for tomorrow night. He stepped up to the mic and spoke into it quite softly. I could see the sound engineer twisting knobs just to get any volume out of the mic. James nodded that he was ready, the band brought the volume way down and when James opened his mouth to sing I could see the engineer frantically trying to bring the gain down as James' voice ripped through the speakers. James apparently believed in the maxim- speak softly and carry a big voice. Time and illness had taken some of his magnificent voice away but his timing and phrasing remained intact. To hear James Carr sing the songs that I loved sent chills up my spine. After rehearsal the management said we had "too many slow songs" and we had to come up with more uptempo tunes on the fly. I grabbed a James Carr tape out of my car and we quickly learned "I'm Gonna Send You Back to Georgia" and "You Didn't Know It But You Had Me" and promised to learn more when time permitted.

On Friday we arrived to find the sold out club in the palm of James' hand. The crowd enjoyed the uptempo songs we had added but they really came to see James plead the 12/8 ballads. Saturday afternoon James came over to my house for fried chicken and a game of spades. Although hardly talkative we laughed a lot and listened to records. Unlike most of the artists that I know James actually wanted to hear his own music, almost to make sure it was still there. The music that thrilled him most however was Sam Cooke with the Soul Stirrers and he broke into accapella versions of those spirituals for us (as well as "Drowning in a Sea of Love" and a very memorable "Let it Be Me") on many different occasions. We played with James a handful of times after that first show but ultimately his health declined to a point where Quinton and I both thought the gigs were hurting his well being. James Carr died January 7th, 2001. We were never asked to learn any more uptempo songs.

Links to other James Carr related pages:
http://www.wfmu.org/LCD/20/carr.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Carr_(musician)

http://www.cascadeblues.org/History/James%20Carr.htm


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