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Born: August 23, 1924 in Cleveland, OH
Died: May 12, 1976 in Cleveland, OH


    In its decade plus of operation, Specialty Records never had a big female star anywhere near as big as their supernova of Little Richard, Larry Williams, Lloyd Price, Percy Mayfield and Roy Milton. Comille Howard came through with a couple of R&B hits and Dorothy Love Coates of the Original Gospel Harmonettes did well in the spiritual field, but owner Art Rupe never clicked with a Ruth Brown a LaVern Baker or a Dinah Washington.

    The closet he came was in 1949, when he signed, as a gospel artist, the pretty, 25-year-old Wynona Carr. Art had always admired the records of Lucky Millinder. So it was only natural that Wynona's first Specialty release had her listed as Sister Wynona Carr, Rupe's nod to Millinder's one-time female vocalist, Sister Rosetta Thorpe.

    Between 1949 and 1954 the label released only ten records by Carr, one of the last being "The Ball Game," her only hit in the spiritual market. Art tried every trick in his book, recording duets with Specialty's biggest gospel star, Brother Joe May, and even ... shades of Aretha Franklin's late sixties formula ... having her accompanying herself with her own gospel piano alongside a group of top R&B sidemen. As an example: "Weather Man," which, like Kay Starr's "The Man Upstairs," crossed categories.

    A bit of trivia: Wynona was recorded in 1954 ... by the same Joe Von Battle who cut Aretha's first sides ... with Aretha's father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin with his New Bethel Baptist Church Choir.

    That year she was traveling with Thorpe and Marie Knight, both of whom had recorded religious and secular material. Wynona could not help but notice the difference in income between what the trio earned at gospel and secular venues.

    On December 19, 1954, from her parents' home in Cleveland, she writes to Rupe, "After asking you for the $150 last week for Xmas and not hearing from you, I was lucky enough to get it from Sister Thorpe Thorpe as an advance on my salary." She tells of having her purse snatched at a Richmond, Virginia train station. "I had exactly $.86 (left)." In her postscript she adds that "Sister Rosetta Thorpe wants to record "Operator" and "Dragnet" (two of Carr's songs).

    On January 27, 1955, she thanks Rupe "...for coming to my rescue..." She then pitches Art to let her record pop material now that she had "...finally gotten the consent of my parents to change. Look what Epic did behind Roy Hamilton's 'Walk Alone'..." Her ambition was unquenchable: "...I could play all the clubs and not be limited to my own people ... I have an appearance on Arthur Godfrey and I'll let you know the exact date so you can watch."

    A good songwriter, her ambition was not limited to singing. "Give those (songs) to the other artists ... Maybe Kay Starr would like that "Operator."

    On February 4th, she informs Rupe. "I've got some crazy gowns. Now I have to get some sexy (smile) pictures taken..."

    Two days later, the atheist Rupe replies that "...it's just a matter of God's will, hard work and some luck - and you should make it Wynona." He also suggests she give herself "a new stage name .. someday you may want to return to the gospel field as Sister Wynona Carr."

    With his encouragement, she can hardly contain her excitement. In subsequent letters, she tells of all of her plans, send demonstration types of songs she'd like to record - with full descriptions, assurances that her family is "...100% behind me now..." And ideas for her new stage name "...do you like Kitty Karr or Denise Carr - Mama likes Kitty." She keeps pushing Rupe to record her, with flattery and unbridled enthusiasm.

    Wynona's moods seem to swing wildly from enthusiastic highs to depressive lows when signing her letters to Rupe, "Miss Kitty Karr." Art wasn't the only recipient of her epistles. On April 28, she dashes off a note to Rev. Franklin to get him to give the tape of Wynona singing her song, "Our Father," with his choir to Specialty to release.

    As he did on her gospel recordings, Art tries a little bit of everything to come up with a hit. As he tells Wynona, "...be awfully patient ... it may take a while to establish you in this new field, or, if we find a hit tune, it could happen overnight.

    On at least one session, she was backed by the local Los Angeles vocal group, The Turks. The guys can be heard on the Platters-like "Hurt Me." Wynona's uptempo sides range from the Ruth Brown/LaVern Baker-ish Atlantic-styled "Jump Jack Jump" and "'Till the Well Runs Dry" to the novelty-rocker "Nursery Rhyme Rock." Her own material shows a remarkable range - she wrote "Nursery" - and her ballads reveal a very good structural sense, both lyrically and melody-wise, from the gospel-ish "mow That I'm Free" to the minor-toned "Please Mr. Jailer." Had she even one healthy-sized it, Rupe's publishing arm, Venice Music, would have been raking it in with cover versions.

    The closest she came to that was the 1957 "Should I Ever Love Again," soon after which she contracted tuberculosis. In the two years she spent recovering, her career lost whatever momentum it had. Her last Specialty sides in 1959 were corny Sonny Bono productions like the Bono-penned "I'm Mad at You."

    By that time Rupe had lost interest in the music business; at his peak, he never would have allowed the release of many of those later Specialty records. In fairness, even a cursory listening to Atlantic records of the late fifties shows that even Wexler/Ertgun et al. were cutting watered-down R&B for the masses. No matter, Wynona left as Specialty was winding down operations, playing club dates and the occasional important gig, such as the Dunes in Las Vegas, until 1961, when she signed with Reprise.

    The Sinatra-owned label was hot in the pop field, releasing records by black non-rockers like Sammy Davis Jr., Al Hibbler, and former Platters lead singer Tony Williams. Sinatra always went first class and Wynona's album was no exception, with Neal Hefti arrangements, Nat Hentoff liner notes, etc., but the thing just didn't sell.

    Wynona moved back to Cleveland, retreated into her shell and faded from sight as, by all accounts, her depressive periods outnumbered her manic ones more and more. By the time of her death in 1976, she was forgotten.

    It's like the man says, "you gotta have the looks and the talent; you gotta do all the right stuff - then you still have to get lucky." Wynona had the looks; she was as talented as the Ruth Browns and LaVern Bakers; she was ambitious; she had a record company that gave her good material and good production values; she made records that were in the commercial pocket of the time. She just didn't get lucky.

    --Billy Vera, 1993

    Another Look at Wynona's Career
    While growing up in Cleveland she learned piano, voice, harmony, and arranging, and sharpened these skills while attending the Cleveland Musical College. Two years later she used her musical skills as a member of the famous Wings Over Jordan Choir. While a member of this group she took part in a gospel music appearance with the group The Pilgrim Travelers. They were so impressed by Carr that they relayed their words of support and praise to Art Rupe, president of Specialty Records. He soon recorded her and in 1949 her first record was released for Specialty. It was "Each Day" and "Lord Jesus" with the Austin McCoy's Combo on Specialty #324. Rupe had her listed with the company as Sister Wynona Carr. Her second side for the label was "I Want To Go To Heaven And Rest" and "I Know That He Knows" on #333. Wynona Carr joins Brother Joe May and the Sally Martin Singers are starred in a big gospel music show at the Elks Hall in Los Angeles on Thanksgiving weekend.

    Sister Wynona recorded a gospel duet with Brother Joe may for her third outing for Specialty on #348 - "I'll Serve You Lord Til My Dying Day" and "What Do You Know About Jesus". The two songs "I Heard Mother Pray One Day" and "Don't Miss That Train" feature Sister Wynona with Prof. Donald E. Thomas on #364. In early 1951 Sister Wynona Carr again recorded a duet with Brother Joe May - "I See Jesus" and "It's All Right" on #377. "I Know Someday God's Gonna Call Me" and "What Are You Gonna Do When You Get To Heaven" are released on Specialty #383. The next record was the gospel pairing "The Good Old Way" and "See His Blessed Face" on #395.

    In mid-1953 Sister Wynona Carr recorded a unique gospel song called "The Ball Game" which related the gospel experience in baseball terms that became one of the top selling gospel records of the day. The flip side was called "I Know By Faith". Later on that year Wynona spent some time away from the performing circuit and became organist and choir director for the Rev. L.C. Franklin. In 1954 she did a lot of club dates as part of a triumvirate of gospel singers on the edge of R & B when she teamed with Rosetta Tharpe and Marie Knight. Perhaps because of the experience with these two like minded performers, sometime in late 1955, Sister Wynona Carr became just Wynona and was now a true rhythm singer. The first Specialty record under her new sound was #575 - "Nursery Rhyme Rock" and "Please Mister Jailer". in April of 1956. Two months later #580 - "Jump Jack Jump" and "Hurt Me". This record does well, especially "Hurt Me" which hits number one in Kansas City, the best showing of any R & B side by Carr. In November Specialty #589 is issued - "Should I Ever Love Again?" and "Till The Well Runs Dry". Surprisingly the record does well, with "Should I Ever" even getting play on many pop music stations in parts of the country.

    In 1957 Wynona's first record of the year is #600 - "What Do You Know About Love" and "Heartbreak Mel". Two months later #628 is released - "The Things You Do To Me" and "Touch And Go", and soon after Specialty #650 - "If I Pray" / "I'm Mad At You". There were two more releases on Specialty that year for Wynona - #678 - "Give Me Your Hand To Hold" and "How Many Times" and #683 - "An Old fashioned Love" and "Someday, Somewhere, Somehow". In late 1957 Carr was diagnosed with TB and she withdrew from performing or recording. When she had recovered enough in 1959 she left Specialty after a decade and signed with Frank Sinatra's new label Reprise Records. However nothing much became of that association, and Wynona Carr returned to her hometown of Cleveland. She was contented to remain in and around her home town and played club dates sparingly over the next few years. By 1970 Wynona had decided to retire from all performing. In the early seventies she suffered from deteriorating health and until she passed away in Cleveland in 1976.

    Wynona Carr is the third member of our trio of gospel singers who evolved into R & B performers, and it was interesting to find out that they did spend some time performing together, and must have proven to be a unique attraction. Wynona passed from the gospel singing Sister Wynona to the R & B performer of the mid fifties. She proved to be a talented cross over between the two styles that have become so intertwined, and deserves to be remembered.

    Courtesy: The World of Marion-Net E-zines

    "The Ball Game"
    Sister Wynona Carr
    Specialty 855 1952
    (also issued on Specialty LP SPS 2144 and CD SPCD7016-2)

    Like her contemporary Rosetta Tharpe, Wynona Carr could move easily between sacred and popular music. "The Ball Game," a recording she wrote and subsequently waxed at Universal Recorders on April 8, 1952, blends gospel and pop in a humorous, instructive way. "The Ball Game" is a delightful combination of Bible and Baseball as characters from the Old and New Testaments play basemen, umpires, batters in the Great Ball Game of Life. From Charles Brown's organ flourish of "Take Me Out To The Ball Game" at the beginning, through Sister Carr's commentary on life as a game we must play fair, to Brown's final flourish of "Take Me Out...," this is a fun record, one you want to play over and over to pick up the many analogies woven within. Wynona Carr proved that gospel music doesn't always have to be serious to get its point across.

    One of Wynona's CDs

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