Wednesday, May 18, 2011

May 18: James Carr, "The Dark End of the Street"

Artist: James Carr
Song: "The Dark End Of The Street"
Album: You Got My Mind Messed Up
Year: 1967

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One of the great tragedies of recorded music is the number of phenomenal artists that have become somewhat lost as time has progressed.  While it is not to say that they are any more or less deserving of accolades for their talents, it is often within these lesser known artists where the truly spectacular moments of music reside.  Perhaps due to the fact that they do not receive as much pressure or "guidance" from their labels as the "superstars," there is a sense of purity and authenticity that can be heard in these artists, and this is exactly what one finds in the soulful, often dark sounds of one of the greatest voices in history: James Carr.  Without question easily able to be mentioned in the same sentence as greats like Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett, Carr's voice was nothing short of spectacular, and in nearly every song he recorded, one sense that he had a personal understanding of the pain within the words he sang.  It is the fact that his performances were often darker in nature than his peers that set him apart from the others, and yet regardless of what he was singing, the power and presence within his voice was often nothing short of completely mesmerizing.  One need look no further than his 1967 album, You Got My Mind Messed Up, to understand just why he was such an amazing artist, and it is James Carr's single from that album, "The Dark End Of The Street," that stands as not only his finest moment, but one of the greatest in all of music history.

Almost from the instant that the song begins, there is a groove within "The Dark End of the Street" that is completely unique.  It is led by the echoing, yet perfectly toned guitar of Chips Moman.  It is the way in which the guitar seems to slide effortlessly across the track that makes it so fantastic, and the deep, soulful sounds it puts forth easily rank among the greatest of all time.  Yet the guitar work is highlighted by the rest of the session players, and it is the potent, yet restrained horn section that seems to push the song along.  The way in which the horns blend into the track helps "The Dark End of the Street" ring of a slightly earlier time in history, as one could easily imagine a "doo wop" group performing the same song.  The light piano that seems to find its place as a "second vocal" role to Carr remains one of the few truly flawless performances in history, and it is clear that the player perfectly understands their role in the overall musical arrangement.  It is the fact that none of the musicians on the track seem to push beyond "their place" that enables the overall sound to become so fantastic, as the blending of instruments leads to one of the most potent moods ever captured on tape.  Yet when one steps back, the arrangement is rather simple, and it is songs like "The Dark End of the Street" that prove that one need not be overly complex to have a massive amount of musical and emotional impact.

Yet as brilliantly crafted as the music is on "The Dark End of the Street," there is not a moment where the focus is not on James Carr, and within moments of his first lines, it is clear that he is one of the most talented performers in all of music history.  The power and presences that can immediately be felt by his voice is truly unparalleled, and it seems there is not a note anywhere on the musical scale that is out of his reach.  It is the way in which he has clearly "given in" to the music that helps to elevate "The Dark End of the Street" above nearly every other soul song in history, as it is in this element where one can clearly sense how "close"" he is to the words he sings.  The clear understanding that he displays of exactly where to push his voice and were to "let it glide" reinforces this sense, and it is the emotion that he puts forth which completely captivates the listener.  Yet it is also within the words where he separates himself from his peers due to the darker, almost more realistic nature of the lyrics.  On "The Dark End of the Street," Carr spins a tale of two adulteress lovers, and while this is nothing new to music, it is the tone one can sense that makes the song so different.  While most other songs paint the situation as one to be regretted, within "The Dark End of the Street," the characters do not seem in any way set to "stop" their actions.  It is the way in which Carr sings each line where one can sense the love and pain, and after hearing his performance, his voice can never be forgotten.

Though his name, and perhaps the song, have been slightly forgotten by history, one can gain a full understanding of the true power of "The Dark End of the Street" by looking and the massive amount of cover versions that have been released over the years.  Everyone from Aretha Franklin to Bruce Springsteen to Adam Duritz have recorded their own takes on the song, and this not only proves its timeless quality, but just how much it influenced so many other styles of music.  After hearing James Carr's original, this is not as surprising, as it quickly establishes itself as a one-of-a-kind vocal performance, with an emotional connection that remains unrivaled.  This, in many ways, is the essence of soul music, and the fact that Carr is able to connect so deeply with every listener makes it almost impossible to comprehend the fact that he did not become a "household name" along with the other great soul singers of his era.  Furthermore, when one listens closely to his songs, there are a number of other genres at play in his sound, and one can detect influences from r&b and country within his singing and vocal approach.  It is this combination that many cite as the "Muscle Shoals" sound, and few deployed it as perfectly as James Carr.  Backed by one of the most potent and deep musical arrangements ever recorded, there are few vocal performances in history that can even remotely compare to the power and emotion that can be experienced within James Carr's magnificent 1967 song, "The Dark End of the Street."

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