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Locals remember ‘Pops’

Profile image for By Lucinda Breeding / Features Editor
By Lucinda Breeding / Features Editor

Bluesman Carter dies in Houston hospital at 92

Locals in Denton remembered Tom “Pops” Carter as a man who dressed to the nines, flirted without apology and sang for the rafters. When news of the Denton blues legend’s death broke late Sunday, local Facebook pages thanked the 92-year-old musician for years of soulful songs and bid him to “rest in peace.”

Family members could not be reached for comment Tuesday about funeral or memorial plans, but a longtime caretaker said the first weekend in May was being discussed. Carter died over the weekend in a Houston hospital, and family friends said the bluesman was transported back to Denton, where People’s Funeral Home will handle arrangements.

Carter was born on June 6, 1919, in Louisiana. He came to Texas for work, though he said in a 2001 interview that he left Houston as a teenager because he didn’t much care for the city.

Calvin Littrell, a longtime Denton resident, started taking care of Pops in 1999. It was a volunteer post that Littrell kept for about 10 years. Carter was a widower living in Southeast Denton, and Littrell said the singer would don a fancy shirt, slacks, suit jacket and a hat — often a cherry red ivy cap or a black pork pie — and head out to a Denton watering hole. Carter wore chunky rings on nearly every finger — and a smile that had gaps when he didn’t have his partials in.

Littrell said Carter was a singular man with charisma that put women at ease and men in a mood to buy the artist a round.

“I’ve been in Denton for — wow, how long now? — about 40 years. I used to work with a lot of musicians,” Littrell said. “Bill Cornish. Texas Slim. I was in this big circle that included Pops, and over time that circle got smaller. Pops was always in it, though.”

Being a caretaker for Carter meant taking calls from strangers who couldn’t outlast Carter’s colorful stories at a bar, booking shows and keeping the dandy’s schedule. Carter put his car keys away more than 20 years ago, Littrell said, so the job of caretaker meant picking him up from local taverns and, occasionally, a University of North Texas fraternity house where he’d earned a standing invitation.

“It’s funny,” Littrell said. “He never was much for spending time with people his own age. He loved to be with young people. He loved them. And they loved having him around, too.”

Littrell helped move Pops from his Southeast Denton home into Denton retirement community Heritage Oaks. The caretaker worked a full-time job at night, and often checked in on Carter and his cat, Miss Kitty, who was as reserved with strangers as Carter was open.

“Sometimes, I’d come in and find him asleep in his chair. I’d put on a pot of coffee and I’d hear his feet shuffling and he’d come around looking and going like this,” Littrell said, scratching his head. “He’d holler at me, ‘You got any coffee, Calvin?’ I’d show him my cup and say ‘me and Miss Kitty have already had two pots, Pops.’”

Littrell said Carter earned the nickname Pops from college students who admired him and danced to his songs at Fry Street Fair, an event where he once shared the stage with Reverend Horton Heat. The nickname was both honorific and a term of endearment for the singer.

Denton guitarist Christopher Tracey performed and toured with Carter for 22 years. The final show Tracey played with Pops was June 6 at what is now the Abbey Underground. The occasion: Pops’ birthday. The next month, Carter moved to Houston to be near his son, Tommy.

“He had a lot of charisma,” Tracey said. “He was a very good singer, but he had a really unique style. People who played music understood his unique style and respected him for it. And people who didn’t play music knew he had a very powerful voice.”

Carter never needed to use a wheelchair, Littrell said. He moved under his own steam, with the help of a cane. During the Denton Blues Festival last year, Pops performed while seated, but photographs from the performance show the crowd dancing with abandon.

Tracey said Carter was known as a master storyteller who never met a stranger.

“Pops played in the ’70s, ’60s and the ’50s. He’d tell us, ‘Yeah, I know B.B. King,’ or ‘Yeah, I played with Gatemouth Brown.’ And we were like, ‘Yeah, yeah, Pops. OK.’ Then, we were playing a show on the road one night, and this guy who had played with Gatemouth came up to Pops after the show and said, ‘Mr. Carter, I just wanted to say hello.’ The guy had remembered playing with Pops one night 30 years earlier. You didn’t forget Pops.”

Though the bluesman loved jazz and old country music, the blues was his first love. He especially liked slow, soulful ballads that he’d style with an original mix of exuberance and a little sorrow. Tracey said he could get funky, too. Tracey said he enjoyed hearing Carter cut loose on Albert King’s “As the Years Go Passing By.”

Littrell recalled a man who loved to cook with gusto — and eat with just as much enthusiasm. In spite of his doctor’s admonition, Pops fried up salt jowl from Ken’s Meat Market, greens, bacon and sopped the grease with bread. Carter loved the company of women, too, and that habit was rumored to have rubbed his wives — there were three, Littrell said — the wrong way.

Former City Council member Charlye Heggins verified that she and some supporters talked about honoring the bluesman with a statue or bust, but expense stymied the plans.

“It’s too bad,” she said. “He really deserved it.”

In fact, a thin wallet plagued Carter as he became a nonagenarian, Littrell said.

“Money’s a problem even now, I’m sorry to say,” he said.

Tracey said he’ll release recordings from Pops’ last Denton birthday bash to defray funeral costs. The family plans to lay Carter to rest next to his wife in Oakwood Cemetery.

Tracey urged Carter’s friends and fans to watch for news on the musician’s Facebook page, “Pops Carter and the funkmonsters.”

LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877. Her e-mail address is .