The Vinyl Say 013: James Carr

In every collection there are records that get played all the time, many of them for years, decades even. Then there are those that, while no less treasured, somehow fall by the wayside to lie in wait, ripe for rediscovery. This occasional series chronicles some of those nuggets as they resurface from my own back pages. So, put the needle on the record, put the needle on the record, put the needle on the record and it sounds like this…

James Carr – You’ve Got My Mind Messed Up / That’s What I Want To Know (Goldwax, 1966)

The son of a (Baptist) preacher man James Carr wasn’t the only southern soul man whose struggles to balance the sacred and the secular are laid bare in his voice, but his battles with his own demons – he was bipolar – add a dark intensity that few could equal. His vocals ooze power and strength, each poised performance a testimony both to the singer’s instinctive powers of control as well as the torments that lay deep within.

His first recordings appeared in 1964 but it wasn’t until this, his third single, came out in April 1966 that he scored a top ten R&B hit. (In terms of chart placing it was his most successful release, even though today he is far better known for providing the definitive take on Dan Penn and Chips Moman’s The Dark End of the Street.) Written by OB McClinton, then a student but who would go on to find some kind of fame as the Chocolate Cowboy, You’ve Got My Mind Messed Up channels Otis Redding’s That’s How Strong My Love Is, as producer Moman puts his nascent house band The Memphis Boys (Tommy Cogbill, Gene Chisman, Bobby Emmons et al backing Reggie Young’s country-raised guitar) through the gears with decorations from the Memphis Horns, moonlighting from Stax.

The flip, That’s What I Want to Know, is a fine 4:4 dancer driven by a southern fried translation of a classic mid-60s Motown bassline. It’s co-written by Carr with Roosevelt Jamison, the Memphis songwriter best known for the aforementioned That’s How Strong My Love Is, first recorded by OV Wright in 1964 but also by Otis, the Stones, Percy Sledge, Humble Pie, Bryan Ferry and, perish the thought, Mick Hucknall. Jamison is another unsung hero of soul music having discovered both Wright and Carr singing with the Harmony Echoes gospel group. After a contract dispute separated him from Wright he concentrated his time and energy on mentoring Carr, a shy fellow with a massive voice that should be far better known than it is outside of soul circles. Jamison put his skills as a songwriter, manager, publicist (had Carr’s voice been trained he said it would have been “like gold being polished”!) and confidante to use in guiding Carr’s career for much of the singer’s life, steering him through the Goldwax years and beyond, even mortgaging his house to finance a late 1970s comeback that met with some success until Carr froze in front of an audience on tour in Japan after overdosing on antidepressants.

James Carr went on to release two more than credible albums in the 1990s before being diagnosed with the lung cancer that finally took him in 2001 at the age of just 58.

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