Obituary: Sam Carr / Noted minimalist blues drummer

April 17, 1926 - Sept. 21, 2009

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Sam Carr, a widely acclaimed drummer who worked with blues singers Sonny Boy Williamson and Buddy Guy and led the Delta blues trio the Jelly Roll Kings, died Sept. 21 at a nursing home in Clarksdale, Miss. He had congestive heart failure. He was 83.

Mr. Carr and the Jelly Roll Kings were regarded as among the last exponents of the music played in Mississippi and Arkansas juke joints -- rural taverns that played host to unlicensed gambling as well as music.

Mr. Carr used a three-piece drum kit with a snare, bass drum and high hat cymbal, a minimalist approach that fascinated musicologists. He won the Living Blues magazine critics' award for most outstanding drummer for 12 consecutive years and was featured in film and television documentaries on Mississippi blues, including Martin Scorsese's "The Blues: Feel Like Going Home" (2003).

Music critic Mike Joyce wrote in The Washington Post that during a local 1987 performance Mr. Carr, guitarist Big Jack Johnson and harmonica and keyboard player Frank Frost "dug out a deep, old-fashioned groove on nearly every tune."

Mr. Joyce added: "Frost's laconic vocals and pungent harmonica tributes to Sonny Boy Williamson combined with Carr's rhythms to create a marvelously relaxed and compelling sound. Even Carr, who continued to play after a couple songs were completed, seemed to fall under the spell of his own rhythms."

Samuel Lee McCollum was born April 17, 1926, near Marvell, Ark. His father, Robert Lee McCollum, was a blues guitarist who performed and recorded under the name Robert Nighthawk. Mr. Carr's name was changed from McCollum after he was adopted by a farming family in Dundee, Miss.

Mr. Carr did not recall meeting his father until he was 7. He went to work for his father in his teens, often collecting the cover charge for Nighthawk and learned to play bass lines behind him on the guitar.

He also sharecropped while in Arkansas, leaving for St. Louis in 1946 after the plantation owner threatened to kill him because of a dispute over a borrowed mule team.

While in St. Louis, Mr. Carr formed Little Sam Carr and the Blue Kings, initially playing guitar. He was largely self-taught on the drums and took "the back seat" as he put it because he could not retain drummers with good timing.

In 1956, Mr. Carr teamed up with Frank Frost, a blues singer who played harmonica, piano and guitar. They traveled to Helena, Ark., where they backed up harmonica player Rice Miller, who performed as Sonny Boy Williamson on "King Biscuit Time," a live radio show. Mr. Carr and Mr. Frost also performed as a duo, with Mr. Frost on guitar and rack-mounted harmonica.

In 1960, Mr. Frost and Mr. Carr moved to Mississippi, thinking they would find more work there. Mr. Carr went back to sharecropping, but he also continued performing with Mr. Frost and guitarist Big Jack Johnson. Mr. Johnson's boss, the owner of a local heating oil company, became the trio's booking agent. He bought them tuxedos and secured bookings at college fraternities, where they acquired a reputation for showmanship.

"I had a lot of stuff up my sleeve then," Mr. Carr told Living Blues magazine. "I could be playing my snare drums. I'd start running my sticks to the top of the house, let the sticks fly up in the air and catch them. I'd take the snare drum off the drums, go out and play the tables, play the glass, whatever they were drinking out of, beer bottles. Play on back, sit down and play all around the front of the drums."

An audition with Sam Phillips, the owner of Memphis-based Sun Records, resulted in the Frank Frost album "Hey Boss Man!" (1962). A song from the album, "Jelly Roll King," gave the trio its name. The record is often cited as a classic of electric juke joint blues.

The group later had a national rhythm-and-blues hit, "My Back Scratcher" (1966), also released under Mr. Frost's name. The band did not record again until they made the album "Rockin' the Juke Joint Down" (1979), released under the name the Jelly Roll Kings.

Mr. Frost and Mr. Carr were also featured with guitarist Ry Cooder on the soundtrack of the movie "Crossroads" (1986).

After Mr. Frost's death in 1999, Mr. Carr formed the Delta Jukes with guitarist Dave Riley and harmonica player John Weston. He was also featured behind Chicago guitarist Buddy Guy on the album "Sweet Tea (2001)."


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