Born: August 23, 1923
Died: May 11, 1976
Wynona Carr was born and raised in Cleveland, where she grew up singing in church. She began singing on the radio at the age of thirteen, and performed with and directed several gospel groups in the region, including the Turner Singers, the Carr Singers, and the Wings Over Jordan Choir. At twenty-one, she led a Detroit-based Baptist chorus that included Aretha Franklin and Della Reese. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, she received increasing recognition as a solo singer and was billed as “Sister Wynona Carr.”
Carr was also a songwriter, and she expressed a desire to record as much of her own material as possible. Several of her singles were her own compositions, and she wrote for other gospel performers as well. She collaborated on songwriting efforts with J. W. Alexander, best known for his work with the Pilgrim Travelers and for his role in launching Sam Cooke’s career. Alexander in turn helped her to secure a recording contract with Art Rupe’s Specialty Records. “The Ball Game,” which makes an analogy between avoiding sin and playing baseball, gained some national attention in 1953.
In 1956, Carr expanded her career prospects by shifting her artistic focus from gospel to secular rhythm & blues. Like other gospel singers who made this move, she received criticism for abandoning her principles. She reported feeling conflicted, but that it was difficult for her to ignore the potential difference in income. “Let’s face it, I made the change because of the money in it. But it was most difficult leaving my church work and friends to whom I am still very closely attached. I would eventually like to break into the pop field. But for now, I’m having a thrilling time singing rhythm and blues.” She told Cleveland’s Call and Post newspaper that C. L. Franklin, Aretha Franklin’s father and a prominent Baptist minister who Carr worked with in Detroit, encouraged her decision to record secular music.
Carr’s R&B releases received positive reviews in the trade press. Billboard called her 1956 single “Please Mr. Jailer” “unusually impressive blues chanting.” “Should I Ever Love Again” (1957) a slow-tempo torch song, appeared on national R&B charts and sparked covers by white artists including Teddi King. “The Things You Do to Me” (1958) was favorably compared to Sam Cooke. Yet, while Carr’s style and talent were comparable to any of the major rock and rollers of the mid-fifties, her career in the secular field didn’t take off in the way that she had hoped. She made one last effort with an album entitled Wild, Wonderful, Wynona, released on Reprise Records—then a brand-new label founded by Frank Sinatra—in 1962. Billboard called her performance “strong, exciting, and individual,” but the record failed to gain commercial traction.
Until her death in 1976, Carr could regularly be heard playing clubs, lounges, and hotels in her hometown of Cleveland—and occasionally in more far-flung locations including Puerto Rico. A posthumous collection, Dragnet for Jesus (Specialty, 1992), made some of her previously unreleased recordings and demos available.
“Please, Mr. Jailer” / “Nursery Rhyme Rock.” Specialty SP-575-45, 1956.
“Jump Jack, Jump!” / “Hurt Me.” Specialty SP-580-45, 1956.
“Should I Ever Love Again?” / “Till the Well Runs Dry.” Specialty 589, 1957.
“What Do You Know About Love?” / “Heartbreak Melody.” Specialty 600, 1957.
“Church Frowns on Wynona Carr’s Desertion of Gospels for Blues,” Cleveland Call and Post, 21 December 1957.
Art Sears, Jr., “Tells of Switch from Gospel Songs to Blues,” Cleveland Call and Post, 2 August 1958.
Glenn C. Pullen, “Blues Singers Started Careers in Choir Loft,” Plain Dealer, 8 November 1968.