“He (Muddy Waters) named Leroy Carr as his first real influence. I had always felt the same way about Leroy Carr, but had never met anyone who shared that.”
- Eric Clapton from his autobiography Clapton.
Each week Rev. Billy C. Wirtz tells us about artists, albums, and music that we need to know about.
July, 1979 -
Back in spring of that year, while touring Virginia, Sunnyland Slim had invited me to visit whenever I was near Chicago, so I took him up on the offer.
I originally planned to stay a week, but ended up on snoring on his couch for over a month.
Slim had a regular Sunday gig at a club called B.L.U.E.S. and filled in the week nights at various lounges and bars on the South Side.
Wherever he went, there were certain fans that were bound to show up.
- A college professor/harmonica enthusiast whose name escapes me, but I’ll never forget his enthusiasm.
At the time, Sunny land’s signature tune was “She Got a Thing (Thang) Going On,” featuring a call and response that went something like:
Sunnyland: “She Gotta Thang Goin’ On’ ”
Audience: “She Gotta Thang Goin’ On”
Normally, he would sing the chorus twice and most of the listeners would politely sing back.
However, this particular professor would not only sing, but pound on the table and evil eye anyone in the immediate vicinity, participating with less than evangelical passion.
Of course, he also made sure to have harmonicas handy, “just in case” he was asked to sit in.
Several thousand gigs, and a few hundred harmonica players later, he stands out in my memory because:
A) Rather than simply following along with a given tune, he actually had a particular song in mind, and…
B) He insisted on playing that song in F#, which, for you non-musicians, is about as common as hearing “Mustang Sally” played on the bassoon.
At this one particular gig, along with the professor and myself, there was another musician present.
A young piano player from Gainesville, Florida, had recently arrived in Chicago and was virtually shadowing Slim, following him from gig to gig. He would go on to become known as Barrelhouse Chuck, today’s foremost exponent of the traditional Chicago piano style, and the player to whom the torch was passed directly from Sunnyland and Little Brother Montgomery.
Forty plus years later, I still remember that particular night for three reasons:
-It was the night I met Chuck.
-I begged the professor/harmonica enthusiast to play in another key, but he was adamant and launched into the intro of some obscurity, forcing me to try and do my best to sound competent in a key I had played in maybe twice.
- Most important to today’s column however, the presence of another thirty-something member of the audience who bore an uncanny resemblance to a legendary blues artist.
I remember Chuck breathlessly asking him:
“Has anyone ever told you, that you look exactly like Leroy Carr?”
“No, Leroy Carr, one of the greatest blues singers of all time!!”
I could see that this was a first for the tall, light-skinned gentleman, who obviously had no idea whom Chuck was referring to, but from the enthusiasm, he figured it might not be such a bad thing.
Apparently, this fact was also pointed out to the professor/enthusiast, who loudly concurred, pounding on the table, while informing the young man:
“He was one of the greatest fucking musicians that ever lived, I can’t believe you’ve never heard of him.”
A short while later, I found myself seated next to Mr. Carr’s double at the bar, noticing that my Salvation Army Three Stooges watch had stopped, I asked:
“Do you know…?”
“That I look just like some guy ?”
“No, actually, do you know the correct time?”
Oh sorry, it’s just, never mind, it’s twelve midnight.”
I was tempted to tell him the correct time reminded me of an old song by a guy named Leroy Carr, but figured that might be pushing it.
Leroy Carr was indeed one of the most influential blues artists of all time.
In 1928, He recorded “The How Long, How Long Blues” on Vocalion Records.
Not only was “How Long” a bona fide hit, it is often credited as one of the first songs to change the public’s perception of blues.
Carr was accompanied by the legendary guitarist Scrapper Blackwell, and as result of this song, piano/guitar duets became all the rage, and Carr’s detached, lonesome approach to singing would be emulated by everyone from Nat King Cole to Ray Charles to The Grateful Dead.
Allmusic.com: “How Long Blues”+ Search
I began writing this article on Tuesday afternoon, but didn’t get back to it till several hours later.
When I did re-maximize Word 2003, I decided to see how many versions of “How Long” were still in print, and indeed, how many different styles and arrangements I could find.
“St Louis Blues” is generally considered the most popular and covered blues song of all time. “How Long” has got to run a close second. Under the category of “Songs,” Allmusic.com lists over four thousand entries for “How Long, How Long Blues.“
I have just spent the last two hours listening to around thirty of them.
Under the heading of “Blues”:
Classic Blues, Delta Blues, Chicago Blues, West Coast Blues, Modern Blues, Spanish Blues and Big Band Blues versions.
Virtually every major (and lesser) blues artist in the past fifty years has recorded it at least once, and some several times.
My personal favorites:
Sunnyland Slim (of course) and John Lee Hooker.
Step outside the blues comfort zone, and it gets really interesting:
Del McCoury: He changes a few of the words, and combines Carr’s despairing lyrics with mountain harmonies for a truly haunting Bluegrass/Old-Timey arrangement.
Johnnie Ray: The original teen idol of the Fifties, famous for, twenty years before Jimmy Swaggert, breaking down in tears on stage. Leroy Carr meets Tennessee Williams. According to Ava Garner, Mr. Ray gave new meaning to the phrase: “How long?”
Lonnie Donnegan: Huge influence on a group called the Quarrymen that changed their name to The Beatles. Famous for a genre of music popular in the U.K. known as “skiffle.”
Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti: You like Gypsy Jazz?
Check out this version.
Ray Charles: It’s Ray Charles.
Andy Griffith: It’s Andy Griffith.
Scatman Crothers: Remember the older black gentleman that Jack Nicholson hallucinated in The Shining? Him.
Also starred in episode of The Twilight Zone Movie called “Kick the Can,” my favorite T. Zone episode ever.
Jimmy Witherspoon with Ben Webster and Gerry Mulligan: Oh My God, yes. Are you kidding?
Betty Hutton: Vocalist and film star of the Fifties. Rogers and Hammerstein sing the blues.
Kid Sheik Cola: Described by Allmusic as “A slashing aggressive, trumpeter. You got that right. He sounds like Louis Armstrong with a testosterone patch.
Teroria Del Taburete: Very cool. I have discovered a new blues trio. Apparently, they are real famous around Barcelona, Spain. Interesting phrasing and translation. Think Saffire meets Hot Tuna in Espanol.
BTW – Hot Tuna does the definitive modern version.
Milt Jackson: I mention Milt Jackson owing to the fact that some folks might not be familiar with him. Milt Jackson plays the vibraphone, better known as the vibes. This version ties Jimmy Witherspoon’s for the classiest version. Leroy Carr in a tuxedo.
And on and on.
Truly amazing, if nothing else, for sheer variety alone.
We’ve all heard about the power of the blues, blues as the universal language, etc. “How Long, How Long” may be the single best example of such sentiments, crossing all musical and geographical borders, with one exception.
Unlike “St. Louis Blues,” “Stormy Monday,” and even “Got My Mojo Workin’,” there is still no version of “How Long, How Long” available for Karaoke.
Maybe that’s not such a bad thing.
Postscript: In a perfect world, Leroy Carr would be as well known as other blues legends, he certainly deserves it. There are practical considerations as well. Along with B.B. King calendars and Robert Johnson T-shirts, “Tater Red’s” on Beale Street might possibly do a brisk business in Leroy Carr bobble-head dolls, and having a striking resemblance to the composer of the “How Long, How Long Blues” might be good for at least a couple of phone numbers to a guy in Chicago.
For Further Reading:
If you’d like to know more about Carr, his place in history, and the development of blues in general, I highly, highly recommend Escaping The Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues by Elijah Wald. Wald both challenges conventional wisdom and adds fascinating insights of his own about the blues. Don’t miss it.
Rev. Billy C. Wirtz is a weekly columnist at BluesWax. Each week he finds artists, albums, and music that you should know about. He also plays piano. His radio show, Rev. Billy’s Rhythm Revival, is available in podcast. To hear the latest, go to Rev. Billy C. Wirtz’ page on Facebook and look for the link.
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