Perhaps the most popular “race” artist of his time, smooth city-slicker Leroy Carr played the blues in a more sophisticated style than his more country counterparts. Beginning with his “How Long – How Long Blues”, Carr’s music steered the blues away from its rural roots toward a new and more urbane direction, followed by countless budding artists in his wake.
Leroy Carr was born on March 27, 1905 in Nashville, Tennessee, but not long after wound up in Indianapolis to stay. Carr taught himself to play piano and left to join a traveling circus—then the Army—in his young adulthood, but by 1922, he came back to Indianapolis and settled down with a wife and child. There, he teamed up with guitarist Francis “Scrapper” Blackwell and gained a reputation for playing the blues at rent parties and nightclubs. Carr also became a part time bootlegger and a full time alcoholic. In the summer of 1928, the Vocalion record company traveled to Indianapolis in search of new marketable talent, presenting Carr with the opportunity to make his first record. Scrapper Blackwell did so first, recording “Kokomo Blues” and “Penal Farm Blues” on June 16, and Carr joined him in the studio three days later to cut “How Long – How Long Blues” and “My Own Lonesome Blues”. That record turned out to be a smash success, covered even by down home country blues hit maker Blind Lemon Jefferson, and soon Carr was in high demand. He traveled with Blackwell to Chicago two months later to make more records for his return to the Vocalion studio, with whom he continued to record through 1934. As one of the best-selling “race” artists, he recorded prolifically, and had another big hit with “Blues Before Sunrise” in 1934, and he also toured successfully with Blackwell. At the beginning of 1935, Carr switched to Bluebird Records, starting out with the successful “When the Sun Goes Down”, which fast became a blues standard. Unfortunately, Carr’s alcoholism took its toll on his health, and his habitual drunkenness caused a rift between him and Blackwell, who parted with him acrimoniously in the middle of his first Bluebird session. That session also turned out to be his last, for Carr soon after fell ill with nephritis and died on April 29, 1935, a little more than a month after his thirtieth birthday. His legacy was carried on by artists like Bumble Bee Slim and Peetie Wheatstraw, who modeled their careers after his influential piano and guitar style, and in later years by Nat King Cole and Ray Charles, who drew inspiration from his smooth and laid back blues.
Vocalion 1191 was recorded on June 19, 1928 in Indianapolis, Indiana by Leroy Carr, singing and piano, backed by Scrapper Blackwell on guitar. It was Carr and Blackwell’s first record, together or separately. This copy was pressed in 1935 or ’36, as indicated by the black and gold “scroll” style label. It was also reissued on Banner 32557, Oriole 8166, and Romeo 5166. That it was still for sale nearly a decade after it was originally made—combined with its well-worn condition—present a testament to just how popular this record was.
First, Leroy Carr sings his big hit, the immortal “How Long – How Long Blues”, later covered many times over by countless artists, even breaking out of the blues genre and into jazz, and others. Though known as a Carr original, the song has its roots in earlier songs, such as Ida Cox and Papa Charlie Jackson’s “How Long, Daddy, How Long?”, and shares a common melody with “Sitting On Top of the World” and its many offshoots. It’s success was so that Carr followed up with “How Long How Long Blues-Part 2” and “Part 3”, “The New How Long How Long Blues” and “Part 2”, and “How Long Has That Evening Train Been Gone “.
On the reverse, Carr sings “My Own Lonesome Blues”. As you can probably tell, Sadie must’ve enjoyed it quite a bit—at least until she decided to sell it for ten cents!