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Sunday, May 26, 1996

'God is so good, Man'

Big man's big voice beats life in the bad lane

The Commercial Appeal, May 26, 1996
By David Waters

Big Teddy Carr was big enough to have his way and bad enough to lose it.

Kids made fun of his size until he found out his size could put a stop to that. Teddy's bearlike stature was a source of shame. Then it became a source of income, mostly illegal.

Criminals hired him for protection. Then they had to find protection from him. Teddy the bodyguard turned into Teddy the drug dealer, armed robber and finally jailbird.

Teddy's 6 foot 7, 325-pound size got him into a lot of trouble. His voice carried him out.

No one ever made fun of his voice. It's a deep voice risen from a howl, strong as the black bars of a jail cell, plush as red velvet cushions on church pews.

Big Teddy sang in church, on the streets, in prison. He sang for cops and killers and bishops. For years, he sang for everyone else.

But Teddy's big bad life didn't change until he decided to sing for himself - and for God.

Let Teddy explain his redemption:

"God is so good, man. Look here. To be cold. To be out there so far, so hard until you don't care what happens to you. I didn't believe in God. There was no God. But God took me and changed me. Me. A guy who could be your worst nightmare. A guy with bullets in him."

Theodore Roosevelt Carr Jr. was born 36 years ago. He was named for a man who was named for a president. It was a big name, but not big enough to hide behind.

Teddy stood over 6 feet tall in junior high. He wore size 18 shoes. He weighed nearly 300 pounds. The clothes his mother and father could afford just didn't fit. There's no clothing allowance on welfare.

Teddy remembers: "I can laugh about it now, but I was so big it was embarrassing. I'd walk to school and walk home and smell like a horse. Kids in school were always asking me if I had failed. All the young boys were looking good. I just wanted to look good. I just couldn't look good."

Not without money, he couldn't.

When Teddy was 13 he went into a convenience store and grabbed some watches. But he was too big to hide. Someone saw him. Police found him. Teddy's father whupped him. The watches were returned.

He still wanted money. Now all he had to sell was his size.

One day in high school, a kid asked Teddy to hang around for protection. The kid was selling drugs. Teddy was his bodyguard. Easy money. Favors turned into jobs. After high school, those jobs became Teddy's career.

Teddy made more money in a week than his father made in a year. He guarded men and money - shoeboxes full of money, car trunks full of money. Teddy figured if he could guard the money, he could take it just as easily. Soon, Teddy was stealing from drug dealers and guarding his own life.

They called him nothing nice.

That's not just a description. That was his nickname. 'Nothing Nice' Teddy Carr. Didn't bother him. It was a title he relished. Put it on the front of his Mercedes, a criminal's self-promotion. He was a criminal and he was livin' large.

Teddy got his money the old-fashioned way. He stole it. Stole from rich drug dealers and gave to the poor in spirit - himself. Robin in the 'Hood. Teddy was no hero, though. He stole from stores. He sold drugs. He hurt people.

When he was on the run, he hid in graveyards. Sometimes his only moments of peace were nights spent among the dead.

"I just turned bad and then I lived it up," he said.

"But I was scared to do anything. Go anywhere. I'd be peeping out the windows all the time. Bought myself a house. Buried myself in that house. Had tinted windows in my car. Built a fence around my house. I was a prisoner in my own home."

'God talks to you'

There are gaps in Teddy's life. Gaps in his own memory. Gaps he won't talk about. Gaps that can't be filled by public documents.

This much is known for sure.

Teddy Carr was born Feb. 29, 1960. He was arrested for theft on April 26, 1973. He graduated from Treadwell High School in 1979. From 1984-1989, he worked for wages with legitimate companies making from $5 to $7 an hour.

"I tried to straighten out my life," Teddy said. "I just wanted too much too fast."

From June 1988 to October 1989, Teddy was arrested six times on charges such as criminal trespass, assault and battery, grand larceny and possession of controlled substances with intent to sell. He made bail or slept in jail.

On Oct. 26, 1989, a Shelby County court convicted Teddy for stealing and drug dealing. In a pre-sentencing report filed the following month, Teddy made this promise:

"I can assure the court that I have learned my lesson and I will not be back again. If I come back, the judge can throw away the key. There is so much involved that I can't make an adequate statement. All of these things have happened for a reason and have served to make me better."

Teddy was sentenced to two years' probation.

"Mr. Carr does not appear to be a violent threat to the community," the court concluded.

Thirty-three days later, Teddy was arrested again.

"He was observed by police with a pistol, which he shot several times," the police report stated.

Teddy and another man were charged with aggravated robbery, aggravated kidnapping and aggravated attempted murder in the first degree.

Teddy claimed the men who were chasing him and shooting really were chasing the man he was with. Teddy said he was shooting back in self-defense. No one was hurt.

Teddy spent the next 18 months in the Shelby County Jail waiting for the judicial system to sort it all out.

In jail, Teddy found his way again - and his voice.

"I had been to church as a kid and served the Lord and ran off from it. I couldn't feel the fire. Everybody else was dancing and praying and feeling good and I was wondering if this fire was ever gonna hit me. Is a lightning bolt gonna come down? Was God gonna say something to me? I didn't hear nothing. But God does talk to you. You have to listen for it. I wasn't a good listener."

'Forgiven much'

Teddy remembers sitting in his cell looking at a Bible someone had given him. Some church lady. He opened it and found Hosea 10:12. When he listened, this is what he heard:

"Sow for yourselves righteousness; reap the fruit of steadfast love; break up your fallow ground, for it is time to seek the Lord."

The verse seemed to begin, Dear Teddy. Teddy was tired of the life. Tired of running and dealing and ducking. Tired of jail. He decided to give it up. He had met two women from the prison ministry at Calvary Episcopal Church. Teddy became their bodyguard.

"I was a little nervous the first time we went into the men's jail," Carol Gardner said. "Teddy looked down and said, 'Little Carol, you don't have a thing to worry about. Big Teddy is here."'

Teddy was made the chaplain's trusty. He helped lead worship services. That's when he started to sing for God.

"What a fabulous voice," said Novella Smith Arnold, leader of Calvary's prison outreach. "When he sang, grown men cried."

Teddy spent 18 months in the Shelby County Jail. Prosecutors found the charges against Teddy didn't add up. On July 15, 1991, Judge Joseph B. McCartie ordered Teddy released and placed him on five years' probation.

"It appeared to the satisfaction of this court that the defendant is not likely again to engage in a criminal course of conduct," McCartie wrote.

Smith Arnold helped Teddy get a job at Calvary. Gardner hired Teddy's wife, Estella, as a housekeeper. Then they hooked him up with Father Colenzo Hubbard, executive director of the Emmanuel Episcopal Center.

Emmanuel Center sits in Cleaborn Homes public housing development. It's a safe haven for the children in the projects. Teddy began working with the children. He visited their parents. He spoke their language. They loved to hear him sing.

"I knew that God could change anyone's life," Hubbard said. "What I saw in Teddy was God at work. He is a witness. The Bible talks about those who have been forgiven little will love little, but those who have been forgiven much will love much.

"I think Teddy's love for the Lord has a direct relationship to the fact that he has been forgiven much."

'I thank God'

By all accounts, Teddy hasn't returned to his past life. There have been no more arrests. Even bishops vouch for him. Not long ago, Teddy sang at a church event. Episcopal Bishop Edmond Browning jumped up and kissed him on the cheek.

"The Lord keeps putting these people on my path," Teddy said.

People like Michael 'Busta' Jones and Lona McCallister.

Jones, a local music producer who died late last year, heard the soul music of his day in Teddy's voice. He asked Teddy to sing on "Forbidden Love," a compact disc released last year.

That encouraged Teddy to work on his own songs and maybe make his own record. Once again, Teddy found himself needing money. This time, he didn't use his size to get it.

Teddy works for St. Peter Villa nursing home. Residents stop him in the hall and ask him to sing. Resident Linda Greer was his biggest fan. When she died in 1994, the family asked Teddy to sing at her funeral. He sang Amazing Grace.

Lona McCallister, Greer's sister-in-law, was there.

"He had such a beautiful voice," Lona said. "The Lord just said, 'Lona, this is what I want you to do."'

After the funeral, Lona asked Teddy if he sang professionally. He told her of his dream to cut a record. She asked him if he needed any money. She gave him $10,000.

Jones and McCallister helped Teddy produce "In His Hands," a gospel CD that is getting some local airplay.

Last Sunday, Teddy performed in a talent showcase sponsored by WLOK-AM 1340. General manager Art Gilliam Jr. said the station is looking at Teddy for its record label.

Teddy hopes his music brings financial success. That's not why he sings.

His voice was a gift from God. His voice is his gift to others. It's all he had to give his mother and father. Turns out, that's all they wanted.

"When I had money I couldn't never give my father nothing," Teddy said. "He wouldn't take it. He said he knew where it came from. He even stopped calling me his son."

Theodore Roosevelt Sr. died Nov. 7, 1994. He was 91. Teddy's mother died three months later. Ida Mae Carr was 66.

The night before Teddy's father died, he asked Teddy to sing. "He looked at me and said, 'Teddy, son, sing me my favorite song. Sing Swing Low Sweet Chariot.' He called me son again. I thank God for that.

"Whatever else happens to me, I thank God for that."

---
Edition: Final; Section: News; Page: A1
Copyright (c) 1996 The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, TN

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