OK, so I plead guilty to missing out on a bunch of really really cool music that came out when I was a l real little kid. It’s not really my fault and I beg forgiveness that I was a victim of circumstance, the times and, ultimately, peer pressure.
You see, the radio stations I listened to as a six-year-old white suburban kid growing up in the NY metropolitan area tended to be the ones playing the big hits of the day in mostly pop and rock genres with a sprinkling of soul (mostly groovy Motown stuff like the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, the Miracles and Marvin Gaye).
I largely listened to WABC-AM and in retrospect it was a pretty cool station. Once in a while I moved the tuning dial of my little blue Lloyd’s transistor radio around but inevitably I came back to the comforting guidance of Cousin Brucie and the gang on that legendary New York radio station….
Come on, those of you from the NY area who remember the WABC jingle, sing along: “Seventy seven… Double-Uuuu… Ayyy…Beee… Ceeee!”
WABC was home base on radio for so many of us, and therein lies the rub as I’ve subsequently realized there was still a lot of musical segregation going on over the airwaves back then. Or payola. Or simply it was just the luck of the draw and I didn’t hear “everything” that got played.
Music like these great records by James Carr (which I will get to in a bit, stick with me).
I also acknowledge that I had not yet fully developed my insatiable curiosity to discover new music and sounds. I liked that while listening to WABC I was in on the same station all my friends were tuned into.
I’m sure WABC liked that and fostered that notion among young listeners getting exposed to their advertising between songs (today we call this target marketing).
I so really wish more of my friends were listening to the deeper soul stations that I only skimmed over when flipping the dial on my little blue radio. They might have steered my ears in some fun directions. But they didn’t, and at that time I was admittedly a sheep, a pack member.
True story: In 1970, my uncle took me to a store for my birthday to pick out an album. I ended up choosing the first Partridge Family album (over John Lennon’s Life With the Lions!) because I wanted to be a part of what all the other kids were listening to. That record was fine for what it was (I still have a few Partridge Family records in my collection!) but a year later I discovered Frank Zappa’s music and began to learn what it meant to be individual and not be swayed by public opinion. I began to learn to listen with my own ears.
Anyhow, so it wasn’t until a number of years later that I got turned on to the writing of great rhythm and blues writers like Dan Penn and singers like Solomon Burke, Bettye LaVette and of course the focus of this review, James Carr.
Giving credit where credit is due, I offer a gracious hat tip to Mr. Elvis Costello for turning so many of us onto this music live in concert and via his albums and singles. Elvis (whose real name is Declan MacManus) was fortunate to grow up amidst a very music family, as his Dad (Ross MacManus) was a recording artist and performer with the Joe Loss Orchestra. I’ve read (or heard) interviews with Elvis where he recounted having lots of cool promo records and a wide music variety around the house while he was growing up — songs sent to his Dad to consider or learn for playing in the band — so young Elvis soaked all these fine sounds up like a sponge.
Plus, England in the 1960s was arguably far more on top of what was going on here in American than most of us here in the States! Thus there was the British blues boom that happened (spurring artists like John Mayall, Eric Clapton, Eric Burdon, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck). And you had artists like the Beatles championing the writing of Smokey Robinson (“You Really Got a Hold On Me”) and the Isley Brothers (“Twist and Should”) and the Marvalettes (“Please Mr. Postman”) and the Rolling Stones covering the likes of Solomon Burke (“Everybody Needs Somebody to Love”).
I first heard Elvis covering Dan Penn songs in the mid-1980s, doing live renditions of songs first recorded by James Carr such as “Pouring Water on a Drowning Man” and “The Dark End of the Street.”
James Carr recorded for a small — but ultimately highly respected — label called Goldwax Records. I am still learning about the label (I’ll let you search the web and read the brief Wiki entry yourself) but I know its output has been revered by R&B enthusiasts and DJs around the world. So much so it is really, really, really hard to find those records in stores (and yeah, there are singles up on eBay but I generally like to see used singles and records first before buying them).
James Carr was the Goldwax’s premier artist and based on what I’ve read he apparently had a difficult life due to personal health issues. He fortunately left behind a strong (albeit small) body of work that is wonderful and worth your exploration. Now you can begin your exploration in a manner that most of us never got to do back in the day: by listening to his music on quite nice and very reasonably priced vinyl LP reissues.
These two albums, A Man Needs a Woman, and You Got My Mind Messed Up, quite honestly, could have been one record as there are several overlapping tracks on each album. But they each have different cover art and more importantly a different feel flow based on the song sequence.
Now I have absolutely no idea where these LPs have been sourced from — I would not be surprised if these were pressed off a CD or other digital safety file. They sound OK, clean and dry, a bit boxy probably because they used a safety copy of a master tape (which probably had lots of compression on it because compression was part of the sound of music played on radio back in the day).
That’s cool. These are but two of a group of fairly obscure records I’ve been discovering recently only because of these reissues that have been appearing and most sound pretty decent.
Are these audiophile holy grails? Heck no! These are records which to begin with were likely made on low budgets at small studios and put out in limited runs back in the day. Thus they are pretty hard to find even in collectors’ circles.
To give you an idea of how revered this stuff is (at least to one collector out there anyhow) consider the photo I took (shown at right to illustrate this point) at an estate sale recently where I found TWO copies of the same James Carr single. One was in pretty good shape (and I bought it) but the other was cracked and had been TAPED back together (which I photographed for posterity). I can only surmise that the owner did this so they could play the record until they got another copy.
Funny, yes, but it does point to the obscurity we’re talking about here. These weren’t super common records to find, especially in the pre-Internet days.
Now, sound-wise, all you audiophiles out there with big fancy sound systems, don’t go into this expecting sonics à la Jazz at the Pawn Shop. However, DO go into this expecting to hear music played with heartfelt passion that the fine players in the pawn shop could only dream about.
If you like to do your listening on vinyl, these reissues are a good place to start, offering quiet, clean, thick vinyl pressings that are well centered as well as featuring (as far as I know) period-accurate labels (which is a cool thing).
Plus they are selling “for cheap!” I got my copies for $10 each, sealed, new, at a store here in San Francisco, Green Apple Books & Records. You can find them up on eBay and Amazon for about $12. So, before you spring for that high-priced rare-as-hens’-teeth mint original copy selling for $200 on eBay, I suggest you explore one of these nice entry-level reissues. If you fall in love with the music, as I have been, then you can start digging around through the crates and garage sales looking for an original pressing.
And you all know you’ll be finding me digging through the album crates looking for vintage copies, for sure.
So I’ll see y’all at the next record swap meet!