One of the most influential blues artists of the twentieth century,
Leroy Carr was born in Nashville around 1905. Like many blues players of his era, Carr died a young man, but his imprint on American music is visible through his lasting impact on musicians from Robert Johnson and B. B. King to Ray Charles and Eric Clapton.
As a child, Carr left Nashville for Indianapolis to live with his
mother, a period punctuated by stints in a traveling circus, the U.S. Army, and jail. An important migratory stop for African Americans leaving the South, Indianapolis quickly developed segregated communities after World War I. This separation also led to distinctive African American enclaves that fostered blues music. Piano blues in particular found a home in Indy’s “Naptown” African American clubs, and players such as “Slick” Jimmy Collins and Tom and Phil Harding paved the way for later stars like Leroy Carr. In this environment, Carr developed proficient piano and vocal skills as a teen, displaying a sophisticated, urban-influenced style. He gained valuable training playing at local rent parties, which provided opportunities to develop his musical dexterity. Carr also ran a modest bootlegging operation, revealing his close association with the alcohol that likely took his life in 1935.
In the 1920s, Leroy Carr met guitarist Scrapper Blackwell, whose
single-string acoustic leads complimented Carr’s delivery and prefigured solo techniques employed by later electric guitar players. Their work conveyed the refinement and drive associated with a modern urban environment. Carr’s vocal phrasing resonated with expressive ease while his understated piano served as an anchor to Blackwell’s dramatic guitar runs. In 1928, Carr and Blackwell recorded “How Long, How Long Blues” for the Vocalion label, catapulting the duo to national stardom and commercial success. This song, along with compositions like “Shady Lane Blues” and “Blues Before Sunrise,” helped to popularize the piano-guitar format while establishing models for an enduring blues canon. Carr’s adherence to clear and emotive vocal phrasing and highly developed lyricism also secured his place among the most influential musicians of the first half of the twentieth century.
Much has been written about the impact of rural blues players on subsequent generations. Robert Johnson, for example, continues to receive extensive scholarly and popular acclaim for his brand of 1930s Delta blues. Johnson owed a great debt, however, to the style, substance, and image of a citified Leroy Carr, who exemplified a level of professionalism and success sought by scores of rural and urban acolytes. It was thus Carr’s and Blackwell’s developed musicianship, apparent sophistication, and commercial achievement that served as a template for later musicians.
Leroy Carr died in 1935, likely from complications related to
alcoholism. In response, Scrapper Blackwell penned “My Old Pal Blues (Dedicated to the Memory of Leroy Carr).” Others wrote similar songs lamenting Carr’s passing, revealing his wide impact and enduring legacy.
Elijah Wald, Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues (2004); Paul Oliver, Blues Fell This Morning (1960); Paul Oliver, Liner Notes to “Leroy Carr 1928: Complete Recordings in Chronological Order,” Matchbox Bluesmaster Series, 1983