Leroy Carr – A Father of Urban Blues
Leroy Carr is one of the early, essential stars of blues music. Born in Nashville, TN in 1905, Leroy Carr moved you Indianapolis around the age of seven. While growing up in Indy, he taught himself how to play the piano and, once he developed his playing style, started a life as an itinerant musician in his teens. After returning to Indy in his early twenties he met guitarist Scrapper Blackwell, the beginning of a very successful musical partnership.
Carr and Blackwell began recording in 1928, quickly becoming stars in the relatively new blues record business. Leroy Carr’s sparse, melodic piano playing and his quiet crooning voice, along with Scrapper Blackwell’s polished guitar style were, a stark contrast to the rougher vocals and playing styles typical of the country blues of the day, yet their work was a much straighter brand of blues than the jazzier, vaudeville derived blues you’d hear from Ma Rainey or Bessie Smith. The impact this new, urban blues sound had was immediate and enduring.
Leroy Carr’s impact is undeniable:
As a singer, he created blues crooning, leading to the blues and R&B singing styles prevalent for a couple decades around World War II. Singers like Robert Johnson, T-Bone Walker, Elmore James, Nat “King” Cole, Charles Brown, and Bobby Bland can trace their stylistic roots to Leroy Carr. The smooth, relaxed singing styles of vocal groups like The Ink Spots (another Indianapolis group), who were progenitors of Doo-Wop and who influenced the singing styles of the gospel quartets like the Soul Stirrers (of Sam Cooke fame), can be traced to Carr’s influence. In other words, Carr’s effect on singing in blues, R&B, soul, pop – on American music in general – can still be felt today.
As a piano player, his sparse yet melodic and rhythmic style can be heard in the playing of Count Basie, Nat “King” Cole, Charles Brown, Ray Charles, and Otis Spann. Again, his piano legacy still reaches us today.
As a songwriter, his lyrics were well thought out, engaging stories, and his songs are still covered to this day.
As a “band”, the Carr/Blackwell duo spawned countless imitators in their own era, and led to the piano/guitar/bass R&B combos common in the 40’s like The Nat “King” Cole Trio, Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers (which included pianist/crooner Charles Brown), Charles Brown’s own early solo output, Ray Charles’ early output, and even the early Oscar Peterson Trio, whose format was directly inspired by the Cole Trio.
Leroy Carr’s most famous song and his first hit, 1928’s How Long, How Long Blues (which, in the spirit of one of the oldest of blues traditions, is largely appropriated from earlier, existing songs), and the other hundred plus songs he recorded in the remaining seven years of his life are documents witnessing beginning of one of the seismic shifts in American music. “How Long” has been covered more times and by more artists than one could easily count, including artists as varied as Count Basie, Andy Griffith, and Eric Clapton. “How Long” is a quintessential example of Indianapolis blues by two of the fathers of urban blues.