Crying Shame

Carl Gholson was a gifted sax player. He was also a paranoid schizophrenic. He became another victim of Phoenix’s scorching heat

Dwayne Gholson's obituary for his brother included these words:

"Before Carl was one year old, he was transported to live in Phoenix, Arizona, where he resided for most of his life. His grandmother, Maggie Woolridge, instilled into him all of the principles of his life and faith he carried with him all the days of his life.

Darlene Coon of The Other Room, a little bar in Glendale where Carl was beloved.
Peter Scanlon
Darlene Coon of The Other Room, a little bar in Glendale where Carl was beloved.

"He [went to] school at Paul Lawrence Dunbar in Phoenix, and then educated himself in music. His brilliance in music allowed him to travel all over the country."

Maggie Woolridge basically raised Carl and his six siblings after her daughter Dixie Mae's personal problems became too much to bear. The kids never really knew their father.

Woolridge lived at 12th Avenue and Buckeye Road, just a mile or so from where Carl died a few months ago.

"Grandma played the piano, and she wanted us to be involved in music," Dwayne Gholson says. "Musicians stopped by our house all the time -- famous and not famous. I had gifts for music, but they were only gifts. Carl, he had passion!"

Woolridge bought young Carl a used alto sax. Dwayne says his brother would blow on that horn endlessly, playing his scales and figuring out songs.

But in 1963, when Carl was 10, Maggie Woolridge died.

Authorities soon placed the siblings in various foster homes, which sent Carl and the others into a tailspin.

Carl quit school when he was about 14 and never returned. He got into trouble with the law, mostly for stealing, and wound up in his early teens at the Fort Grant juvenile reformatory in Safford.

His detention was a blessing of sorts, because a teacher at Fort Grant worked hard with the musically gifted young man. Carl returned to Phoenix eager to play music with anybody and everybody.

But as he got deeper into his music, he also got deeper into himself, which proved to be an increasingly challenging place to be.

Later, Carl told psychiatrists that he had started "hearing voices" as a teenager, a forerunner of the schizophrenia that later engulfed him. By then, he also was dabbling with serious drugs, including sniffing glue and taking LSD.

But even as the demons loomed, Carl began to win a reputation in local R&B circles as an up-and-comer.

Dwayne Gholson says Carl performed for awhile with Dyke and the Blazers. But in March 1971, Dyke -- whose real name was Arlester Christian -- was shot to death outside a bar on west Buckeye just down the block from Maggie Woolridge's old house.

That month, local singer/drummer Chuck Womack went into a Phoenix studio to record "Ham Hocks and Beans." His band included 17-year-old Carl Gholson.

Arizona musical historian Johnny Dixon calls the tune "a terrific piece of music that holds up amazingly well, and really deserved to be a national hit at the time."

Womack, now in his 70s and living in Tempe, says he first met Carl during a Sunday afternoon jam session at a downtown Phoenix Elks club.

"The kid asked me if he could sit in, and I said sure," Womack recalls. "He was blowin' real nice, and I was drumming, doin' my stuff. When it was time to go into the studio, I picked Carl. I could have picked other people, but he was trying to get ahead, and he had a lot of game even though he was so young."

The results of the one-take recording at the famed Audio Recorders studio were electrifying. It's Phoenix's version of "Memphis Soul Stew," the funky King Curtis hit of 1967 that also featured a spoken vocal with an instant groove.

Early in the song, Womack shouts, "Say, Carl, give me a little soul, baby!"

Carl Gholson shoots back a dirty riff reminiscent of Curtis or Junior Walker, the R&B sax kings of the era.

A bit later, the bandleader asks Carl to "cook me up a little onion to put in there," to which the young saxophonist obliges with a growl and a honk.

Chuck Womack says Carl toured the nation with him on and off in the early 1970s.

"He always called me his dad because I kept an eye out on him," Womack says. "He was like a little kid in a lot of ways."

But delusions, hallucinations and other hallmarks of Carl's incipient mental illness were emerging.

"We'd be on tour in Texas or wherever, and I started to notice he was having trouble concentrating, taking care of business," Womack says. "I'd tell him, 'Take it easy, Carl, save it for the stage.' He'd say he was all right, but I knew he wasn't.'

Court records show that Carl was hospitalized starting in the early '70s after mental breakdowns in Texas, Florida and Arizona. His blossoming musical career was over.

Womack says he lost touch with Carl, not encountering him again until a chance meeting at a Phoenix mall in the 1980s:

"Carl had really gotten way down by then. The man was sick, and he looked sick. His skin was bad. But he still was a gentleman, a sweet kid."

Just before Carl walked away, he said something that Womack says touched him deeply.

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