Guitarist Larry Carlton has left his signature across the decades. His sweet-toned Gibson ES-335 wail first made its presence felt in the early 70s with The Crusaders on a string of successful crossover albums, including Those Southern Knights, Scratch, and Chain Reaction. That same sleek, instantly recognizable voice - down-home and bluesy yet remarkably fluid and vocal over changes -- also cropped up on a bevy of pop releases through the '70s.
Carlton's solo recording career dates back to an out-of-print 1968 album called With A Little Help From My Friends. The towering influence of Wes Montgomery hovers over that debut. As he says now, "I sound very young on that album. I was so impressed by Wes' sound at the time that I went a little overboard with it. I think eight out of the ten tunes are in octaves."
Following that Wes phase, Carlton fell into the lucrative Los Angeles session scene and by the early '70s was one of its most in-demand guitarists. In a flurry of activity over a period of five years, he played on innumerable sessions, including hit records by everyone from Herb Alpert and Quincy Jones to Sammy Davis Jr., Michael Jackson, Paul Anka, John Lennon, Neil Diamond, Kenny Rogers, Joni Mitchell, Barbra Streisand, and Dolly Parton. Carlton's catalog of work includes film soundtracks (Against All Odds, Vanishing Point), television themes (Hill Street Blues, Who's The Boss) and performances on more than 100 gold albums. At the same time he remained relentlessly busy in the studio, he was also performing more than 50 dates a year with The Crusaders." I was doing 15 to 18 sessions a week," he recalls. "It just all got to be a bit too much."
By 1976, Carlton was burned out on the studio scene. At the same time, his association with The Crusaders began to draw to a close. He signed with Warner Bros. as a solo artist in 1977 and began focusing on his own career in earnest, releasing six albums for the label between '78 and '84. It was toward the end of his association with the label that Carlton struck up his musical relationship with Steely Dan, making key contributions to Royal Scam and Aja. His solo on "Kid Charlemagne" from the former was cited by Rolling Stone as one of the three best guitar licks in rock music history.
In the mid '80s, Carlton shifted away from his signature sound and concentrated on acoustic guitar, making a huge splash in the newly established WAVE radio format with his instrumental version of the Doobie Brothers' hit "Minute By Minute" from the album, Alone, But Never Alone. By the end of the decade, just as he was riding the peak of a second phase in his career, tragedy struck. A would-be burglar brutally shot the guitarist in the neck outside his home studio in North Hollywood. Nerve trauma from his brush with death left him unable to play the guitar for several months but he rebounded heroically and resumed his solo career with all-electric project On Solid Ground, which was nominated for a Grammy in 1989.
Carlton jumped right back to his game in the first half of the '90s with a consecutive string of strong offerings -- Kid Gloves (1992), Renegade Gentlemen (1993), Stanley Clarke & Friends: Live At The Greek (1994), and his Grammy-nominated collaboration with fellow guitarist Lee Ritenour, the aptly-named Larry & Lee (1995).
By 1996, the Los Angeles native relocated to a farm just outside of Nashville. Aside from cooling out in Tennessee, where fishing and tending horses occupy his time between touring and recording -- his career has experienced yet another surge. Just two years ago, Carlton joined one of the premier groups in smooth jazz, Fourplay, replacing fellow California native Lee Ritenour. He closed out the '90s by appearing on two wildly successful Fourplay albums -- 4 (1998) and Snowbound (1999). A third is scheduled for an August release.
Meanwhile, there is Fingerprints, Carltons 20th album as a solo artist. Recorded near his home in Nashville, it features some rich musical moments alongside fellow artists Matt Rollings on piano, Abraham Laboriel on bass, Kirk Whalum on tenor saxohone, percussionists Lenny Castro and Luis Conte and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta. Special guests include country star Vince Gill, who picks alongside Larry on the instrumental "Gracias", and pop singing star (and Tennessee neighbor) Michael McDonald, who appears on the power ballad "Til I Hurt You". Carlton's playing is typically melodic and masterful throughout, reflecting all the seasoning and soulful phrasing of a guitarists guitarist, a phrase that he's been associated with for 30 years.
Guitar.com: Your new music is still linked to "Put It Where You Want It", that signature song you played with The Crusaders in the early 70s.
Larry Carlton: Very much so, especially the title track. I just composed it on the spot in the studio but when I first listened back to it I thought, "Man, I know that's one of my licks from the Crusaders...but at least its mine." It wasn't a Crusader tune, it was one of my parts off Chain Reaction or something.
Guitar.com: Well, that's been the continuum of your playing throughout all these years. That same feeling is there.
Carlton: Yeah, man. The arrangements may be more contemporary but you can still hear a strong B.B. King and Wes influence there, I think.
Guitar.com: What was your attitude going into this project?
Carlton: When I was composing the tunes for this album the only thing that came to me that I thought I was going to try to be aware of was to keep the melodies shorter. As funny as that sounds, I reflect back on compositions that I've done in the last six, eight years and I thought maybe I had written too much song for today's market. And that's an easy thing to change, if you decide that needs to be changed. So I think these tunes get to the point quicker than I have in the past. And that's the only thing that I was kind of aware of as I was writing -- just editing my compositions.
Guitar.com: What tunes do you think worked particularly well in that regard?
Carlton: "Lazy Susan". That's one of the first compositions I did for the album. And just the two chords on the verse are so unique, going from the minor chord to that major ninth chord on the IV. I don't know, my ear is not used to hearing that tonality and I thought that was very cool.
Guitar.com: It seems like the tempos are mellower than what you were doing in the '70s. What's that a reflection of?
Carlton: I think it's a reflection of the market today, an awareness of the smooth jazz market as well as a reflection of how peaceful I am as a person. But still, in my shows, man...I go for it.
Guitar.com: You've arrived at this place now where you're a venerable player, probably like Chet Atkins and B.B. King were regarded 30 years ago.
Carlton: Well, that's nice to hear. I don't think of myself in those terms but it's always nice when someone recognizes me in that kind of a group. It's humbling. Twenty recordings is some kind of landmark, I guess. That's a lot of recordings. But Chet probably has something like 1,000 and B.B. has 2,000. So they're in a whole different league. But yeah, things are good for me right now.
Guitar.com: You've developed this great body of work and, again, there's a quality that's consistent through all of it that can only happen when bare flesh squeezes metal strings in a particular way.
Carlton: (laughs)...That's so cool! But it's true. The individual sound is in your hands. It doesn't come from a box or an amp. It's in your fingers.
Guitar.com: Do you have any plans to go out on tour with your own band?
Carlton: Definitely. Fourplay will be going out in September but before that, through the summer, I'll be going out with a group I put together. At this point, I can only tell you who my A team is. I can't get them all the time -- they're all in such demand -- but it's usually Billy Kilson on drums, Chris Potter on saxophones, Rick Jackson on keyboards who has been with me for almost five years when he's not out playing with Kirk Whalum -- and Mike Manson on bass. Mike also plays with George Duke and Kirk. We did a week in February at the Blue Note in New York and it was one of the best weeks musically I've enjoyed in a long time. It's amazing to have those guys on stage with me. So that would be the dream band for me this summer, if I can keep them all together. So there's a lot of live playing going on this year. Yeah, life is good.