Born Wynona Merceris Carr, 23 August 1923, Cleveland, Ohio
Recently I acquired a copy of Wynona Carr's gospel CD "Dragnet For Jesus" (1992), which for many years I had mistakenly assumed to be out of print. I'm not a particular fan of gospel music, but this is a remarkable release in many respects and makes me want to take another look at this hugely underrated singer. Wynona Carr seemed to have it all : heaps of talent, both as a singer and a songwriter, a powerful, sultry, soulful voice (contralto), good looks, ambition and a sympathetic record label (Specialty) that kept faith in her for a full decade, in spite of commercial underappreciation. Yet the story of her musical career, both in the gospel and pop field, reads as one long tale of disappointment and frustration.
Encouraged by her mother and stepfather, Wynona began private piano lessons at age 8 and, at 13, entered the Cleveland Music College where she studied voice, harmony and arranging. Soon she was playing for Baptist churches in Cleveland and, at 20, began travelling to Detroit to direct a choir there. Around 1945, she formed her own five-member gospel group, the Carr Singers, to tour the Midwest and South. While touring with the Wilson Jubilee Singers, she caught the attention of J.W. Alexander, leader of the Pilgrim Travelers, who recorded for Art Rupe's Specialty label in Hollywood. Alexander funded her first demo recording and sent it to Rupe, who was sufficiently impressed to invite her to L.A. for a recording session on February 11, 1949, backed by a jump combo led by pianist Austin McCoy. Wynona's versatility was immediately apparent on her debut 78, which coupled the swinging "Each Day" with the slow, reverent gospel ballad "Lord Jesus" (Specialty 324). Stylistically, the session was much in the tradition of Sister Rosetta Tharpe's Decca recordings. In an attempt to cash in on the similarity, Rupe affixed "Sister" to Carr's name on the label of her first release. She was initially upset by her new title. "I hate it", she wrote to Rupe. "That sounds like I'm 90 years old." Rupe quickly calmed her and the "Sister" tag stuck for the remainder of her gospel career.
Her next session, six months later, showed Carr's ability to transform blues into gospel. "St. James' Infirmary" became the haunting "I'm A Pilgrim Traveler", while "I Heard the News (Jesus Is Coming Again)" was a Christian take on "Good Rockin' Tonight". Several sessions were held in March-April 1950, including some duets with Brother Joe May, Specialty's new gospel star. In April 1952, she recorded her only gospel hit, "The Ball Game" (Specialty 855). A remarkable song by any standard. Carr was an innovator, who not only incorporated elements of blues and jazz into gospel, but also aspects of popular culture, especially sport. The lyrics of "The Ball Game" are here http://www.baseball-almanac.com/poetry/LifeIsABallgame.shtml The sports theme was continued with "15 Rounds For Jesus" (1954), where the contest shifted to a boxing ring. From the same session came the delightful gospel sendup of "Dragnet", called "Dragnet For Jesus", complete with an opening scene at a detective office, a la Stan Freberg. Neither was issued by Rupe, who released 10 singles during Wynona's gospel career, but held at least an equal number of recordings in the can. Besides her singing ability, Carr was also a creative songwriter (all of her gospel recordings are her own compositions) and pianist. The Dragnet CD includes a fast, thunderous piano piece, first released on that album as "Untitled Instrumental" (recorded at the same session as "The Ball Game", April 8, 1952). For me, this track alone is worth the price of the CD. Gospel piano at its wildest and even Alex Bradford can take a leaf out of Wynona's book.
Despite all this, her records were not big sellers and she found rocky conditions out on the gospel highway as she and her pianist traveled from program to program in her '48 Kaiser. Sometimes she didn't even get paid. Carr spent part of 1954 touring with a trio led by two more famous gospel singers, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Marie Knight, each of whom had long been walking the thin line between spiritual and secular music. The trio often appeared in white nightclubs, and Carr quickly realized what kind of money could be made on that side of the fence. In a letter to Art Rupe dated January 27, 1955, she expressed her wish to sing and record secular material. "I want to do and can do pops, jumps, ballads and semi-blues... I would like to be in the position where I could play all the clubs and not be limited to my own people." Rupe obliged, but warned Wynona to "be awfully patient ... It may take a while to establish you in this new field." The first session of her new career took place on June 10, 1955, but did not produce anything that Rupe considered worth releasing. From the next session (August 17), only "Heartbreak Melody" would be released during Wynona's lifetime, though "Ding Dong Daddy" (unreleased until 1985) deserved a better fate. However, a session on March 14, 1956 produced two excellent rockers, "Nursery Rhyme Rock" and "Jump Jack Jump", which became the A-sides of her next two singles (Specialty 575, 580). As he did on her gospel recordings, Rupe tried a little bit of everything to come up with a hit, but the closest Carr came to a hit was "Should I Ever Love Again" (# 15 R&B in 1957), which was covered by Gene Vincent for his third LP. Soon after this she contracted tuberculosis. In the two years she spent recovering, her career lost whatever momentum it had. She did a few more sessions in 1958-59, but by that time Rupe had lost interest in the music business and these later recordings, produced by Sonny Bono, are not up to the standard of her earlier Specialty output. As Specialty was winding down operations, Wynona left, playing club dates and the occasional important gig, such as the Dunes Hotel in Las Vegas. In 1961, she was signed by Frank Sinatra's then-fledgling Reprise label, for which she made one album, "Wild Wonderful Wynona Carr" (Reprise 6023), arranged and conducted by Neal Hefti. The single drawn from the album, "I Gotta Stand Tall" (Reprise 20033), was also released in the UK and that is when I first heard the name Wynona Carr, as none of her Specialty recordings had been released in Europe. Not until 1985 would we get to hear this music, after the release of the "Jump Jack Jump" LP (Specialty SP 2157).
Carr's material found a new audience after this reissue. Unfortunately, she would not be around to witness the belated appreciation. After years of depression and declining health, Wynona Carr died in Cleveland in 1976, aged only 51. She was gifted, but didn't get lucky. Perhaps she was too far ahead of her time. What remains is her glorious music.
More info: http://www.rockabillyhall.com/WynonaCarr1.html
Acknowledgements : All Music Guide, Wikipedia, Billy Vera, and especially : Lee Hildebrand and Opal Nations, Liner notes for the CD "Dragnet For Jesus - Sister Wynona Carr" (Specialty SPCD 7016 / Ace 411). The CD has 26 tracks, many previously unissued.
CD : Jump Jack Jump (Specialty SPCD 7048 / Ace 513). Released in 1993 (extended version of the 1985 LP). 24 tracks.
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