Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Carlton, Larry (Eugene)

Guitarist Larry Carlton bluesy, effects-driven sound helped lay the framework for West Coast jazz-rock in the 1970s. He first made his mark on jazz as a member of keyboardist Joe Sample's Crusaders band, but as a veteran studio musician, his solos can be heard on thousands of recordings in many genres, including ones by L.A. Express, Steely Dan, Joni Mitchell and Quincy Jones.

Larry Eugene Carlton was born on March 2nd, 1948 in Torance, California, a city located in the South Bay area of Los Angeles. Carlton started playing guitar when he was six years old and credits the Gerald Wilson album Moment of Truth as the turning point which turned him onto jazz in junior high school. Carlton learned through the playing of guitarist Joe Pass, who was featured on the album, as well as through his studies with local guitarist Slim Edwards, which lasted for eight and a half years.

In the mid-1960s, Carlton played with the California surf band the Challengers and by 1968, he had recorded his first solo album With a Little Help from My Friends. This album brought Carlton to the attention of the Going Thing, an L.A. based group of jingle singers. Soon thereafter, Carlton was playing in Ford motor commercials and had secured a spot as the musical director an a television show for children, Mrs. Alphabet. As his reputation grew on the L.A. music scene, Carlton was soon doing studio work with some of the biggest names in the music business.

Between mid-1970 and 1977, Carlton himself has estimated that he played some 3,000 studio sessions. He has said, "Somebody asked me one time years ago, "How many three-hour sessions do you think you did?" So I went back over my old calendarsódate booksóand I averaged during that period close to, and sometimes more than, 500 sessions a year. So that's how we came up with probably over 3,000 sessions recorded."

Some of Carlton's dates during this time included sessions with vocalists Peggy Lee, T-Bone Walker and trumpeter Don Ellis. He had also joined keyboardist Joe Sample's jazz-funk outfit The Crusaders in 1971 and played with the group extensively through 1977. Carlton is heard on the Crusaders 1974 album Southern Comfort on the track "Greasy Spoon">while some of his strongest blues and funk playing is heard on the group's 1975 album Chain Reaction.

On "Creole," Carlton opens the song with a little slide, blues riff that ushers in the Headhunters-ish groove of the song and on "Rainbow Visions," Carlton's solo is angular but focused, as he blends complex melodic ideas with fluctuating rhythms. On "Soul Caravan" Carlton starts off the beginning of the song with some tasty opening lines and as the song moves towards the shuffle-gospel section, he mixes pentatonic blues lines in his solo, creating "the sound" that is unmistakeably Larry Carlton.

Aside from his extended work with the Crusaders, he also contributed greatly to the catalog of jazz-rock group Steely Dan. Beginning with 1975's Katy Lied, Carlton is heard on all of the band's releases through 1980's Gaucho. On the 1976 Steely Dan album The Royal Scam, Carlton played some of the most memorable rock n' roll solos in recorded history. His solo on "Kid Charlemagne" has been listed by Rolling Stone magazine as the third best guitar solo on record and his spiraling solo on "Don't Take Me Alive" is quintessential in defining Carlton's 1970s sound. His contributions to Steely Dan's Aja album also showcased his harmonic versatility, as this album was the group's jazziest album to date.

Carlton is heard on saxophonist John Klemmer's 1975 song "Touch" and in 1976, Carlton played on a series of Blue Note albums by vocalist Carmen McRae.By the late 1970s, Carlton had begun to curtail his studio sessions drastically. In 1977, he signed with Warner Brothers and released a series of albums between 1978 and 1984. Yet in a sign of his continued versatility, he composed the music for the hit television show Hill Street Blues and won a Grammy for this work in 1981.

In 1985, Carlton recorded the album Alone, But Never Alone. Although considered by some to be jazz, it falls more in line with what became known as smooth jazz with synthesized and ambient keyboards and straight ahead drum beats. A song of note from this album is "Perfect Peace," which displays Carlton's sensitive touch and strong command of the acoustic guitar. In 1988, while recording his Solid Ground album, Carlton was struck in the throat by a stray bullet outside of his 335 studio. The bullet damaged his vocal chords and caused considerable nerve damage, but Carlton made a full recovery and completed Solid Ground by the end of that year.

During the 1990s Carlton released an album with fellow L.A. guitarist Lee Ritenour called Larry and Lee and it featured the song "Closed Door Jam." In 1997, Carlton replaced Ritenour in the smooth jazz outfit Fourplay, which features pianist Bob James,bassist Nathan East and drummer Harvey Mason. Carlton still plays with the group and has been featured on their five releases since 1999, which have focused primarily on smooth jazz but Carlton embraces a much more subdued and relaxed sound on these releases than he did during the 1970s.

Carlton lives in Tennessee with his wife, gospel singer Michelle Pillar. His son is also a musician and Carlton's niece is singer-songwriter Vanessa Carlton.

Select Discography

As Larry Carlton

With a Little Help from My Friends (Uni, 1968)

Singing/Playing (Blue Thumb, 1973)

Mr. 335-Live in Japan (Warner Bros, 1979)

Strikes Twice (Warner Bros, 1980)

Sleepwalk (Warner Bros, 1982)

Friends (Warner Bros, 1983)

Alone, But Never Alone (MCA, 1987)

Solid Ground (1989)

With the Crusaders

Hollywood (Blue Thumb, 1972)

Unsung Heroes (Blue Thumb, 1973)

Southern Comfort (Blue Thumb, 1974)

Chain Reaction (Blue Thumb, 1975)

Those Southern Knights (Blue Thumb, 1976)

With Steely Dan

Katy Lied (ABC, 1975)

The Royal Scam (ABC, 1976)

Aja (ABC, 1977)

Gaucho (ABC, 1980)

With Fourplay

Snowbound (Warner Bros, 1999)

Yes, Please (Warner Bros, 2000)

Heartfelt (Bluebird, 2002)

Journey (Bluebird, 2004)

X (Bluebird, 2006)

Energy (Heads Up International, 2008)

Contributor: Jared Pauley