John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

The Sad Soulful Sound of James Carr

“The Dark End Of The Street” is a classic by a troubled, talented artist.

By - Sep 8th, 2016 01:42 pm
Sign-up for the Urban Milwaukee daily email
James Carr

James Carr

Finding the seam between country music and the blues has never been hard for certain artists. The blues, which used to be somewhat noticeable in country, has all but vanished. Today it has truly become what critic Jon Pareles once called “the soundtrack of white flight.” But there was a time.

Ray Charles and Chuck Berry adored country. Charlie Rich and more than a few other Memphis cats were smitten with black music. We know which side was cashing the big checks and which one was left holding the bag. But on an artistic level passports were granted more easily. A little of the dialog between the two cultures was evident in the late 60’s when James Carr sang “The Dark End Of The Street.”

This song, written by the blue-eyed soul genius of Muscle Shoals, Dan Penn, and his writing partner in Memphis, Chips Moman, is a classic. Don’t bow down yet, though. Listen to it first and, and see if you, too, are swept up in its sad beauty. I actually came upon the song in a much different version, the more-than-agreeable Everly-ish take by The Flying Burrito Brothers. To hear it with a steel guitar and Gram Parsons’ Virginia twang is to understand just how silly borders are in music. Compared to that version, Carr’s was a haunting surprise.

James Carr was a troubled man who could have done so much more. He suffered from bipolar disorder and it made a shambles of his career. He was in and out of mental hospitals and once stood frozen in place on a stage in Japan. He was a hard man to reach, which is ironic, since his voice touched so many. It’s not an uncommon story in music — people who experience little joy, but give so much. The trail that leads from the darker parts of an artist’s mind to a work of transcendence like this song is hard a hard one to follow. Biopics like Ray and Ring Of Fire bring us a little closer to understanding how a hard life is transformed into music. Still, there’s something strange about sad songs and the people who make these profound monuments to pain. We live vicariously through them and that makes us an odd species indeed.

Penn and his other partner, Spooner Oldham, wrote many classic soul songs. Dan is a superb singer himself, which probably made his demos easy to sell. He once described the overwhelming joy of sitting in a control room in New York listening for the first time to Aretha Franklin’s version of “Do Right Woman – Do Right Man.” Imagine that.

One of the reasons artists liked their songs were Penn’s deceptively simple lyrics:

At the dark end of the street
That’s where we always meet
Hiding in shadows where we don’t belong
Living in darkness to hide our wrong
You and me, at the dark end of the street
Just you and me

I know that time is gonna take its toll
We’re gonna pay for the love that we stole
Ah it’s a sin and we know that it’s wrong
Ah but our love keeps coming on strong
You and me, at the dark end of the street
Just you and me

They’re gonna find us
They’re gonna find us
They’re gonna find us someday
We’ll steal away to the dark end of the street
Just you and me

If you take a walk downtown
And you find some time to look around
If you should see me and I walk on by
Oh darling please don’t cry
Tonight we’ll meet
At the dark end of the street
Just you and me
Oh you and me

© Chips Moman / Dan Penn

These lyrics are from Dan Penn’s site — I found some garbled and probably poorly transcribed ones for both James Carr and Percy Sledge (who also covered the song). Maybe a fan across the sea somewhere? No matter, when you listen you get the message, shame, frustration and a hopeless situation. The dark end of the street leads to a dead end. What fun!

Penn once summarized the atmosphere of the three musical cities he worked in. Memphis, low and close to the river, produced an earthy sound. Muscle Shoals, in the hills of northern Alabama, had a lighter and airier sound. Nashville split the difference. That doesn’t explain someone like Brooks and Dunn, but he probably didn’t have them in mind. James Carr was a Memphis artist all the way. Of the earth, solid and real, and bound to his trouble by gravity. A more authentic voice may exist, but I have yet to hear it.

4 thoughts on “Sieger on Songs: The Sad Soulful Sound of James Carr”

  1. Jim Sieger says:

    Mr. Sieger,

    Such a great song and it’s wonderful to hear the original cut I am more familiar with the Ry Cooder/Chicken Skin Revue version from 1977. I suppose that it’s more of an extended version but it’s the one I know and love with three fine singers taking turns on the vocals. Good article! Do you have any relatives in Kenosha?

  2. Rosemarie says:

    Love, Love ,Love this song! Thanks for this version!!! I have it on my i-pod by June Tabor and the Oysterband.

  3. John Casper says:

    Thank you, John. Had the same reaction as Jim and Rosemarie. You’re always such a must read.

    I caught Linda Ronstadt’s ’74 cover, but never knew about James Carr.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Us0zopFrnc

    Per https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Dark_End_of_the_Street , Van Morrison revealed Penn’s influence in his “Bright Side of the Road.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pvS2OtG2SHc

  4. Christina Zawadiwsky says:

    So James Caar suffered from catatonia? (Imagine having to endure that, you suddenly freeze in place and don’t know when it will end – and to have this happen onstage, too!) Very plaintive lyrics, those of an Outsider, as we now learn from your article that he actually was (and of course I’m sure he never wanted to have bi-polar disorder!).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *