Blues drummer dies at age 83

Published 1:48 pm Thursday, September 24, 2009

Sam Carr had a reputation as one of the best blues drummers in the country, but he made his living in the Mississippi Delta where he was raised.

Carr, who died Monday at a Clarksdale nursing home, was considered an anchor in the blues scene that continues to draw fans to the poverty-stricken Delta region where the music form was born. He was 83.

“The Delta is largely famous in the last half century as somewhere people came from. Sam was among those people who stayed behind and labored without a whole lot of national recognition,” said Scott Barretta, a blues professor at the University of Mississippi.

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Carr died of congestive heart failure, said John Andrews, director of Century Funeral Home in Clarksdale.

At one time or another, Carr had backed big names like Sonny Boy Williamson II and Buddy Guy.

Carr had received multiple honors, including the Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts in 2007. He also received several awards from Living Blues magazine.

Carr’s father was 1930s blues guitarist and vocalist Robert Nighthawk who made famous the song, “Sweet Black Angel.” Early in his career Carr often played with father.

Carr was born Samuel Lee McCollum in 1926 near Marvell, Ark. His name was changed after he was adopted as a toddler by a Mississippi family with a farm near Dundee, according to a biography written by Barretta.

He moved back to Arkansas at age 16 and collected money at door of clubs where his father performed.

He worked as a sharecropper before turning his full attention to blues music, moving to St. Louis and playing bass with harmonica player Tree Top Slim.

He returned to Mississippi in the early 1960s and formed the Jellyroll Kings.

“They were the blues band of the Delta in the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s and early ’80s. Sam was the real anchor of the whole thing,” said Brett Bonner, editor of Living Blues Magazine.

The three-piece band featured Big Jack Johnson on guitar and Frank Frost on harmonica and keyboard. Before then, Carr and Frost backed Williamson in the late 1950s, according to Barretta.

Carr’s style was simple.

“His drum kit was about three or four pieces. He’d come out with a bass, a snare and a high hat, and he’d blow everybody else away,” Bonner said.

“His playing was rock solid. He would literally go into a trance while they were playing a song. Jack came up to him and shook his shoulder to get him to stop drumming,” Bonner said, recalling one of Carr’s performances.

Carr was on the cover of Living Blues in 2004, one of only two drummers to ever make the cover in 40 years, Bonner said.

Carr married his wife, Doris, in 1946. The two remained together until her death about a year ago, Bonner said. The couple didn’t have children, Andrews said.