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Replay : A Memphis Mystery

July 12, 1987|DON SNOWDEN

This feature spotlights noteworthy compilations and reissues .

Artist: James Carr.

Album: "At the Dark End of the Street" (Blue Side).

History: James Carr is a mystery figure, revered by '60s soul buffs yet virtually unknown to the general pop audience. The Memphis native began his career in the early '60s singing in a local gospel group, the Harmony Echoes, alongside another under-appreciated soul giant, O.V. Wright. Carr followed Wright to the fledgling Goldwax label in 1964 and broke through on the R&B charts with his third single, "You've Got My Mind Messed Up," in 1966. His place in the soul annals was secured when his original, definitive version of Dan Penn and Chips Moman's much-recorded "(At the) Dark End of the Street" was released later that year. Carr continued recording for Goldwax until the label folded in 1969.

None of Carr's soul hits came close to cracking the pop Top 40 and severe personal problems effectively ended his career after Goldwax went under. Peter Guralnik's liner notes on this collection describe Carr as suffering from "a crippling paralysis of spirit, a graver and graver malaise" that made it more and more difficult to even finish a session. Occasional attempts at landing a new record deal were abortive, and a Japanese tour in the late '70s was disastrous. According to a spokesman at Blue Side Records, Carr lives in Memphis with his sister and is "unable to communicate." Carr's records had long been unavailable here until the new Blue Side label assembled this collection.

Sound: "The World's Greatest Soul Singer" tag on the album cover might be hype, but Carr clearly belongs in the top echelon of soul performers. The closest comparison is the late Otis Redding--Carr often mirrors Redding's technique of building a song from plaintive wailing to a frenzied climax punctuated by guttural, gospel-rooted exhortations, but his voice is more robust and full-bodied. Full-throttle burners like "Pouring Water (on a Drowning Man)" (which was revived by Elvis Costello on his last tour) demonstrate a flair for uptempo material, but Carr's forte is ballads. The title song lives up to its reputation as one of the ultimate deep soul ballads. Carr's restrained, resigned singing invests the guilt-laden tale of stolen love with an aura of doomed majesty.

The instrumental support by many of the musicians who went on to become top Nashville country session players faithfully follows the rhythm-and-horn-section model of Southern soul. The material sometimes doesn't measure up to Carr's vocal prowess, but the highlights make "At the Dark End of the Street" essential listening for fans of American music.

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