"It doesn't take long, if you read about soul music, to find out that James Carr was considered one of the most gifted soul singers ever," says Steve Suskie, 58, a retired school counselor from Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Carr sang "Dark End of the Street" for Memphis-based Goldwax Records back in 1967. Many fans and critics consider it the pinnacle of soul music. Carr suffered from mental illness, though, and enjoyed no enduring financial success from his artistic triumphs. He lived out his last years jumping from one housing project to another with a sister and succumbed to lung cancer on January 7, 2001.
"I came to Memphis to find musicians' gravesites, including James Carr's," Suskie says.
Suskie visited New Park Cemetery to pay Carr his respects, but the manager told Suskie that Carr had no gravestone. "That hit me hard," Suskie says. "It just seemed like a real injustice that a guy this great didn't have a headstone and probably wouldn't be remembered."
Suskie decided to take up a collection for a gravestone. Research led him to former Stax trumpeter Wayne Jackson, who played on the signature songs of Otis Redding and Sam & Dave. Jackson also toured with Carr, whom he described as the best vocalist he's heard. "Wayne not only knew James but loved him and couldn't believe he didn't have a headstone," Suskie says.
Spooner Oldham, the Muscle Shoals session musician and songwriter, contacted Suskie and donated money. MusiCares — a subsidiary of the Grammy Foundation — chipped in, and the group paid for a stone with funds to spare.
To visit Carr's resting place, take Third Street, head west on Raines Road, and turn right on Sewanee. New Park Cemetery is about three miles down on the right at 3900 Sewanee. To find Carr's grave, follow the driveway around to the right as you enter New Park. Carr's marker is on the right, three rows back from the "Fleming" marker, visible beside the driveway.
"I was 15 or 16 when Memphis soul was at its peak. It was a huge part of my life," Suskie reflects. "It's been so rewarding to do something for James."
Like Suskie, 34-year-old Arlo Leach, a Chicago teacher and jug-band enthusiast, traveled south searching for graves of his favorite musicians. "I found out where Will Shade was buried and saw that it was just an empty field of unmarked graves," Leach recalls. "Most of the other musicians [I visited] have modest gravestones, and fans leave flowers or harmonicas behind. For Will Shade, there was nothing. It didn't seem fair."
Shade's Memphis Jug Band celebrated the Bluff City in recordings beginning in 1927 with "Fourth Street Mess Around" and continuing with "Going Back to Memphis," "Memphis Shakedown," and others until the band's recording career concluded in 1934. Shade died a penniless widower on September 18, 1966, at age 68 and was interred in the potter's field known as the Shelby County Cemetery, located on Ellis Road off North Germantown Road.
Though largely forgotten at home, Shade's ragged tunes are a favorite of old-time music fans, and Leach's project has attracted global support. More than 400 packed the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago on January 27, 2008, for a Will Shade benefit headlined by Memphis-reared bluesman Charlie Musselwhite. The event, organized by Leach, raised more than enough money to buy a headstone for Shade's unmarked grave.
A dedication ceremony is scheduled for May 3rd. "We'll have a few people say a few words," Leach explains. "Then we'll retire to the Center for Southern Folklore for a jam session. People can come and play or listen."