Sunday, October 18, 2009

Reflections on Sam Carr

On September 19, I traveled to Media, Pennsylvania to attend a fund-raising party held by guitarist Lonnie Shields for Sam Carr, the famous Delta drummer.
Having written a magazine article about Shields, I knew how he felt about Carr. When Shields was a teen-ager in West Helena, Arkansas, Carr had introduced him to the blues and had schooled him in it by taking him to Delta juke joints.
This was the third party Shields had thrown to raise mony for the ailing 83-year-old drummer, and I could see his enthusiasm as he carted out steaming trays of chicken and ribs to serve the approximately 90 guests gathered in his backyard. He seemed even more enthusiastic when he stepped onto his back porch to join musicians who were entertaining those guests with blues music.
We should have known the festive atmosphere was too good to last. Two days later, Carr died of congestive heart failure. "God works his own magic," Shields concluded later. "You have no idea when he's going to call you in."
I had never met Sam Carr. I interviewed him briefly over the phone for the article on Shields. I also wrote an obituary on Carr for the same magazine. Through these experiences, I developed some idea as to who the man was. And he was different things to different people.
Carr was an influential musician who happened to be the son of another influential musician, guitarist Robert Nighthawk, who played with Joe Williams and Sonny Boy Williamson. Carr was also a bandleader and businessman, having organized and headed The Jelly Roll Kings with Big Jack Johnson and Frank Frost. He was also a mentor and teacher to musicians like Shields and guitarist singer Dave Riley, with whom he toured in his later years.
But to Maie Smith, Group Tour Manager of the Delta Blues Museum in Clarkesdale, Mississippi, Carr was “the fish man” who would come to her town of Rich, Mississippi to sell his catch of the day. Smith did not know he even played music--let alone was a major player of the blues--until she enrolled at Ol' Miss as a young woman and ran across his name in a book while working in the Blues Archives there.
“I was shocked,” she recalled. “It was amazing that I grew up around there and didn’t have no idea that he was so well known.”
Ora Young knew Carr as the uncle who livened up her summers.
“I was proud of him, we enjoyed it," recalled Young, who frequently made summer trips to Mississippi to visit her relatives while growing up in Chicago. "Through him we got a chance to meet a lot of people we wouldn’t have met, like Pinetop Perkins, Little Milton, Albert King, Bobby Rush, and Otis Clay."
Shields was fascinated with groups such as Earth, Wind and Fire and the Isley Brothers when he knew Carr as a teen-ager. Carr was the one who told him he needed to move past those groups to play the blues--then brought him to local juke joints so he could learn how.
"He was a teacher if you listen to him but most of the time I wouldn't listen," Shields recalled. "I would try to do it my way and not his way. That's when he'd say I didn't listen. But nowadays I wish I had listened to him."
During my interview with him, Carr recalled how he used to mentor younger musicians. “I don’t try to discourage them from playing what they want to play because that’s what they’re going to play anyhow," he said. "At least that’s what they’re going to try to play.”


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