I’m a soul survivor, baby, you just can’t keep a good man down!” - James Carr “Soul Survivor” – 1993
Whatever the vintage of his recordings, the late James Carr was never anything less than “A Man Worth Knowing”. Having reissued all of James’ original 1960s Goldwax masters; a collection that gathered up all of James’ non-Goldwax sides from the 1970s and a selection of rarer recordings from the last years of his career, we’ve decided to give a well-deserved makeover and a sonic upgrade to the two albums that brought James back from a recording and personal wilderness in the early 1990s. A MAN WORTH KNOWING pairs the Ace CDs “Take Me To The Limit” and “Soul Survivor” and features a bonus track, James’ 2000 version of You’re Pouring Water On A Drowning Man. This CD’s issue means that every song and performance that James ever committed to tape, with the exception of the ‘lost’ Atlantic master ‘Sweet Black Angel’ and a couple of almost identical alternate takes of original Goldwax sides, is now available on either Ace or Kent.
When the first of these albums hit the racks, nobody knew what to expect. James had not been heard on wax in nearly 15 years, and indeed he had not sung for most of those 15, due to his mental health problems. Most fans were at least slightly reassured by the news that James had been working again with his mentor, friend and record company boss, Quinton Claunch. We were also aestehtically pleased by the fact that “Take Me To The Limit” appeared in the USA on a revitalised Goldwax logo, the imprint for whom James recorded classic after classic between 1966-1970. However, nobody knew what kind of voice would be left after almost a decade and a half of virtual inactivity.
In fact James’ tribulations had barely left a mark on that magnificent baritone. Yes, he sounded a little older, but he could still sing his kind of material better than just about any other singer of his generation, although James was never 100% happy with his ‘comeback’ performances, as he developed a heavy cold just a day before the sessions commenced.
Soul fans whinged about the accompaniment of drum machines and sythesiser keyboards, but Quinton Claunch was only following the lead of other producers of vintage soul artists and trying to give his artist a contempoary bluesoul edge. And anyway, the “Take Me To The Limit” sessions also featured plenty of real horns, guitar and bass playing throughout, so what Messrs Carr and Claunch accomplished was both a look back and a look forward. Not to mention some singing that was as good as anything James had committed to tape in his heyday.
“Soul Survivor” appeared a couple of years later, this time on Claunch’s own Soul Trax label. By this time James had gott even further back in the groove, and even though those drum machines and keyboard strings were used again, he was singing even better and the songs were even stronger. The title track and others such as ‘Memphis After Midnight’ carry a strong personal, almost autobiographical, feel. James also sings some hillbilly, via Quinton Claunch and Bill Cantrell’s composition ‘Day Dreamin’, not that you would ever have been able to tell from James souped-up and soulful rendition.
Like its predecessor, “Soul Survivor” has been somewhat unfairly overlooked down the years. As a fan of both these and his 60s Goldwax recordings, I urge those who haven’t heard these albums since they were new releases to give them another listen. Collectively they show a man in his vocal prime, one who could put the turmoil of a troubled existence to one side and deliver some extraordinarily soulful music.
By Tony Rounce