Leroy Carr

Influential pianist of the 1920s, plied a bittersweet, poetic interpretation of the blues.

b. March 27, 1905 in Nashville, TN, d. April 29, 1935 in Indianapolis, IN. A self-taught pianist, Carr grew up in Kentucky and Indiana but was on the road working with a travelling circus when still in his teens. In the early 20s he was playing piano, often as an accompanist to singers, mostly in and around Covington, Kentucky. In the mid-20s he partnered Scrapper Blackwell, touring and recording with him. Carr’s singing style, a bittersweet, poetic interpretation of the blues, brought a patina of urban refinement to the earthy, rough-cut intensity of the earlier country blues singers. Even though he rarely worked far afield, his recordings of his own compositions, which included ‘Midnight Hour Blues’, ‘Hurry Down Sunshine’, ‘Blues Before Sunrise’ and, especially, ‘How Long, How Long Blues’, proved enormously influential. Although he died young, Carr’s work substantially altered approaches to blues singing, and powerful echoes of his innovatory methods can be heard in the work of artists such as Champion Jack Dupree, Cecil Gant, Jimmy Rushing, Otis Spann, Eddie ‘Cleanhead’ Vinson and T-Bone Walker, who, in their turn, influenced countless R&B and rock ‘n’ roll singers of later generations. An acute alcoholic, Carr died in April 1935.

Leroy Carr Biography by Jim O'Neal

The term "urban blues" is usually applied to post-World War II blues band music, but one of the forefathers of the genre in its pre-electric format was pianist Leroy Carr. Teamed with the exemplary guitarist Scrapper Blackwell in Indianapolis, Carr became one of the top blues stars of his day, composing and recording almost 200 sides during his short lifetime, including such classics as "How Long, How Long," "Prison Bound Blues," "When the Sun Goes Down," and "Blues Before Sunrise." His blues were expressive and evocative, recorded only with piano and guitar, yet as author Sam Charters has noted, Carr was "a city man" whose singing was never as rough or intense as that of the country bluesmen, and as reissue producer Francis Smith put it, "He, perhaps more than any other single artist, was responsible for transforming the rural blues patterns of the '20s into the more city-oriented blues of the '30s."

Born in Nashville, Leroy Carr moved to Indianapolis as a child. While he was still in his teens, he taught himself how to play piano. Carr quit school in his mid-teens, heading out for a life on the road. For the next few years, he would play piano at various parties and dances in the Midwest and South. During this time, he held a number of odd jobs -- he joined a circus, he was in the Army for a while, and he was briefly a bootlegger. In addition to his string of jobs, he was married for a short time.

Carr wandered back toward Indianapolis, where he met guitarist Scrapper Blackwell in 1928. The duo began performing and shortly afterward they were recording for Vocalion, releasing "How Long How Long Blues" before the year was finished. The song was an instant, surprise hit. For the next seven years, Carr and Blackwell would record a number of classic songs for Vocalion, including "Midnight Hour Blues," "Blues Before Sunrise," "Hurry Down Sunshine," "Shady Lane Blues," and many others.

Throughout the early '30s, Carr was one of the most popular bluesmen in America. While his professional career was successful, his personal life was spinning out of control, as he sunk deeper and deeper into alcoholism. His addiction eventually cut his life short -- he died in April 1935. Carr left behind a enormous catalog of blues and his influence could be heard throughout successive generation of blues musicians, as evidenced by artists like T-Bone Walker, Otis Spann, and Champion Jack Dupree.