Leroy Carr “How Long-How Long Blues” – Overview
The song of a life done wrong, a train long gone—and it’s one of the most covered blues traditionals.
Leroy Carr released “How Long, How Long” in 1928 and with it influenced countless musicians to come. His song’s been tenderized and jazzified by Ray Charles, jammed on by the Dead, and was a fixture in the Lomax Sessions that brought together the legendary trio Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee and Leadbelly:
Leroy’s understated style would shape everyone from Robert Johnson and Count Basie to Nat King Cole and Memphis Slim.
Leroy Carr lived fast, died young and wore sharp suits. He met his guitar-picking partner Scrapper Blackwell through a love of bootleg liquor. How Long was their first recording, and it was an instant hit.
So here they are with that long lost train–Leroy Carr with Scrapper Blackwell, How Long Blues:
Leroy Carr was born March 27, 1905 in Nashville, Tennessee. His lilting piano swing coupled with the melodic background guitar of longtime partner Scrapper Blackwell, helped him achieve popularity on the Indianapolis club circuit–and gain notoriety as a pioneer of the urban blues. From 1930-1935 he was the most famous blues man in America. And as Sam Charters has written, Carr was perhaps the single most influential musician when it comes to the shift from rural blues of the 20s to the urban blues of the 30s. With a lyrical combination of wry humor and tragic poetry, Leroy was a gifted songwriter and a talented pianist, but his vocal delivery is most innovative. He developed a understated vocal style that would influence the development of Nat King Cole, Ray Charles and T-Bone Walker, among many others. He died in April, 1935 from complications related to alcoholism. Despite his short recording career, Leroy left a legacy in wax.
Leroy’s place in the folk-blues revival highlights some of the ironies inherent in the ’60s popularization of blues music. Though Leroy’s songs were sung by the titans of the ’60s blues revival, like Lead Belly, Muddy Waters and Brownie McGhee, young folkies were not interested in his smooth delivery and sense of refinement–they wanted rural purity. White audiences rejected Carr’s music as too sophisticated. So even though a Leroy Carr compilation was released shortly after Columbia’s best-selling Robert Johnson album–it didn’t sell.