The 1st of December is a day we will long remember in bluegrass music. It’s the date in 1966 when Carter Stanley passed away at only 41 years of age, at a time when he and his partner, brother Ralph Stanley, were beginning to see some success in the music business.
As you might expect, Carter’s lengthy illness, spurts of recovery, and eventual death are covered extensively in Ralph Stanley’s autobiography, Man Of Constant Sorrow: The Life & Times Of A Music Legend.
Here are a few excerpts:
Around Christmas Time in 1965, Dr. Mongle came down to Florida to visit us for the holidays. Carter wasn’t feeling well and he asked Dr. Mongle to stop by the house and give him a full check up. So Dr. Mongle examined him and it didn’t take long before he’d seen enough. “Carter,” he said, “If you don’t lay that bottle down, you won’t see another Christmas.”
In October, we attended the Disc Jockey’s convention in Nashville and his condition got worse. I’d seen it coming, and there was nothing I could do. He was getting sicker all the time. He would get tired and be sleeping in the car and onstage his voice was failing him. This bothered him more than anything, that he couldn’t sing like he used to. Couldn’t hit the notes like he once could. He was always such a perfectionist, and especially hard on himself. He knew it was coming, but just couldn’t face it. And we had got so used to him bouncing back from the sick bed that we came to believe he would always make it somehow. Even me, I didn’t think it was that bad until about six weeks before he died.
Carter never talked about dying at all. Right on to the last, he stayed optimistic. He talked about getting a new bus he’d always wanted, when he was well enough and we got back on the road. He seemed to be getting better, or at least, not getting any worse. We were with him since he got there [hospital in Bristol, TN] at 3 in the morning all the way past dawn. Along about 9 a.m., we got hungry and decided to go to a diner around the corner and get some breakfast and let Carter get some rest.
We had breakfast and got back to the hospital about a half-hour later, and George [Shuffler] stopped down the hall to have a cigarette. I told him to go ahead and finish his smoke and I’d go in and see how Carter was doing. I walked into the room and I saw death on him. He was dying right then and there. It’s something you just know when you see it. So I called the nurse and she came running and told me to please step out of the room. I saw George coming down the hall and I told him right out that Carter was a-dying. And it wasn’t maybe ten minutes more and Carter was gone.
Here’s The Stanley Brothers in a happier time…http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nr0Meuug0IA
The clip features Chick Stripling on bass, Don Miller on fiddle and George Shuffler on guitar. Gary Reid tells us that it was shot when The Stanley Brothers were touring Europe in March 1966. This performance was in Baden-Baden.
You can hear the strain in Carter’s voice, just as Ralph had described.
We published a lovely tribute to Carter Stanley in 2006 on the 40th anniversary of his death, written by Richard Thompson. It contains a number of remembrances of Carter from those who knew him and his music well.