Samuel Lee McCollum was born in 1926 near Marvell, Arkansas, but was soon adopted and raised by the Carr family on a farm near Dundee, Mississippi. Carr’s biological father was a highly influential and innovative electric slide guitarist, Robert Lee McCollum (1909–1967), known more widely on the blues performance circuit as Robert Nighthawk. Although Carr was not raised by Nighthawk, Nighthawk’s musical notoriety and landmark recordings for the Decca, Bluebird, and Chess labels had a profound impact on Carr, as they did for many other Delta musicians.
Around 1942, when Carr was sixteen years old, he moved to the bustling river town of Helena, Arkansas, to work as a doorman during his father’s nightclub performances. Carr had already become an adept musician, having mastered the blues harmonica and the Jew’s harp, an ancient pastoral instrument that was popular throughout rural America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Carr married his wife, Doris, in 1946, and after a brief and unpleasant stint in sharecropping, the young couple boarded a ferry across the Mississippi River and caught a northbound train to St. Louis, where Carr’s mother lived. While there, Carr found work playing drums with various blues acts, including harmonica player Tree Top Slim, the great Sonny Boy Williamson II, and most notably Frank Frost, a guitarist, harmonica player, and singer with whom Carr developed a long-standing musical collaboration, beginning in 1956. The Carrs moved to Mississippi in the early 1960s, as did Frost, and the two bluesmen teamed up with Clarksdale’s Big Jack Johnson and recorded a full-length album for legendary producer Sam Phillips’s record label, Phillips International, in 1962. This effort, titled Hey Boss Man, now stands as a highly sought after and collectable Delta blues classic, and their recording of the song “Jelly Roll King” soon earned the trio the name the Jelly Roll Kings. They released several singles under Frost’s name on the Nashville-based Jewel label in 1966, including “My Back Scratcher,” which became a short-lived jukebox hit.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s Carr made his living driving a tractor in addition to steadily playing regional club gigs with Frost, Johnson, T-Model Ford, and many others in the Greenville and Clarksdale areas. In 1978 blues enthusiast Michael Frank recorded the Jelly Roll Kings’ debut LP, Rockin’ the Juke Joint Down, for his Earwig record label, which also later released Frost’s LP Midnight Prowler (1988) as well as Johnson’s Daddy, When’s Mama Comin’ Home (1991), both of which featured Carr’s fine drumming. In 1996 the Jelly Roll Kings released Off Yonder Wall on Fat Possum Records, and Carr was regularly brought in as session drummer for several other Fat Possum releases, including those of Asie Payton, T-Model Ford, and Paul “Wine” Jones. Carr also played on Buddy Guy’s award-winning album Sweet Tea. Carr went on to form his own band, the Delta Jukes, with guitarist Dave Riley and harmonica player John Weston, and the trio recorded several albums, including Working for the Blues (2002), Down in the Delta (2004), and Let the Good Times Roll (2007). Carr earned several Living Blues awards and in 2007 received Mississippi’s Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts. Following a long series of health complications, Carr died on 21 September 2009.
- Living Blues (January–February 2004)