Renowned guitarist Larry Carlton is one of the most acclaimed instrumentalists of his generation, as well as one of the most-recorded. His career as an LA-based session player in the 1970s and early 1980s saw Carlton perform on recordings by a wide array of artists including Joni Mitchell, Steely Dan, Michael Jackson, Billy Joel and hundreds more. He has also released a diverse body of work as a solo jazz instrumentalist and with groups including The Crusaders and Fourplay, winning four Grammys and garnering 19 nominations.
In 2010 Carlton released Take Your Pick with Tak Matsumoto, which won a Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Album. In February 2011 he released Plays the Sound of Philadelphia.
A longtime Nashville resident, Larry Carlton will perform a special hometown show at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center on Friday, September 30. Carlton spoke to knotmove.com about the upcoming show, his long career, playing with Michael Jackson and Dolly Parton, his continuing passion for music and more in the following interview.
Special thanks to Larry Carlton, and to Laurie Davis of the Nashville Symphony for arranging this interview.
You’re playing at the Schermerhorn on Friday. Is this in conjunction with the Larry Carlton Plays the Sound of Philadelphia project?
That will be part of the show. The show I’m putting together is . . . I don’t know if you’d call it the landscape of my career, but I’m going to do some things that I haven’t done before, and the people are gonna be excited. They’re gonna go, “Wow, I didn’t know he played on that,” or “Really? He was involved in that?”
I want to do a special show that night. It won’t be just me and a sax player. (Laughs).
How did this come about? Did they approach you, or were you looking around for an appropriate venue for a particular type of show?
I was approached. I guess they finally got around to me. (Laughs). No, I was excited when I got the call. It’s hometown for me, and the venue, if you will. I’m really excited.
I saw on your web site that you’re going to be appearing with Steely Dan in New York City. Did you see them when they were in town?
No, I was actually out of town. Last year, or a year and a half ago they invited me to do seven shows with them. So I did a couple of nights in New York, one in Chicago, a couple of nights in LA. It was the first time . . . well, I’d never played live with them, and it was the first time in 35 years, since we cut The Royal Scam, that I went back and learned my solo from “Kid Charlemagne.”
What’s it like going back and re-visiting a part of your own career like that? Is it strange for you?
They’re great memories. The weirdest thing for me is, I’ve never learned one of my own solos. (Laughs). I knew I had to play it note-for-note, and when I did, I got a standing ovation. People wanted to hear Larry play that solo.
After the long career you’ve had and all the various things you’ve done, what is it that keeps you active and excited about music?
That’s a difficult question in that, at four years old I was fascinated with the guitar. At six years old I started taking lessons. I was passionate about it through the next fifty years, and that passion still exists.
Do you still keep an active practice regimen? Do you have the guitar in your hand every day?
No, normally I do about 125-150 a year touring around the world. So when I come home – and this is not new to me, I did this way back in the seventies – it’s not unusual for me to not touch the guitar for a month, and just live my life; go horseback riding, go fishing.
I find that’s good for my soul, good for my mind, and then when I come back to the guitar it’s time to go again. It’s a balance, I think.
You came up in an era where everything about the business was different. With all the changes in recording and distribution, do you think it’s easier or harder for an artist in your position than it used to be?
Well, I have a unique situation, so I’m going to say it’s easier. I have my own label now, and for the last four-and-a-half years. It was the first time in 17 years that I wasn’t on a major label, and it was by choice. With the Internet I can talk to, play for, make music for the whole world, not just the US. When I was on a major they were very focused on the US.
Of course my albums were distributed overseas, and I have a great career in Japan and Europe. But now, I get an idea for a project . . . maybe it’ll come from someone on Facebook saying, “Larry, have you ever thought of something with strings?” It could happen like that. So I’m enjoying the freedom of getting to make those choices.
What about the downside of the Internet, which is illegal downloading. Has that impacted you in the same way that it has rock and pop acts?
Well, of course. My numbers are down, like most artists, because everybody’s exchanging files back and forth. That affects not only your record royalties, but your publishing and writing royalties. But it’s just a new day, and I’m going with it. On my web site I’m sharing how I learned the guitar, how I play it . . . I want to be part of this new scene, and not avoid it and resent it.
You’ve obviously done a ton of recording, but two names jumped out at me from all that you’ve done that I wanted to ask you about, one of which is Michael Jackson. What did you do with Michael Jackson?
Quincy [Jones] called and said, “Larry, I have a special song, and it’s got to be you.” Because I wasn’t doing a lot of dates, I’d already discontinued doing a lot of dates back then. So I went in and recorded what became a single, “She’s Out of My Life.”
In fact I’m looking at a three-foot plaque in my office right now that says, “Michael Jackson Off The Wall, over five million albums sold. We got all the marbles on this one, thanks for your help, Quincy.” And there’s four marbles in the bottom of it. It has a picture of Michael and the album cover. So yeah, I played on one cut on that album as a favor to Quincy.
The other one that popped out at me was Dolly Parton. I didn’t know you’d done anything with her.
I don’t remember the date, to tell you the truth. Whoever was producing her in LA in probably the early-to-mid seventies called me as the guitar player. So I know that I played on some stuff for Dolly, but I don’t know what it was. (Laughs).
When you’re doing that many different dates in so many different styles as you used to, is there any rational way to prepare for that, or do you just walk in and do it?
You walk in cold.
Versatility has served me well, and I think one of the reasons that I’m so versatile as a musician is because of the era and time that I was brought up. You figure, I was born in 1948, so by the time 1958 came around I’m ten, and I’m listening to doo-wop music on the radio. And that transitioned into the sixties, and rock and roll became very big.
So I’m part of that whole history, and I was playing the guitar the whole time. Every time something new came out in a style, I was aware of it. It was part of my hunger to learn how they did that. I wanted to learn the solo on an Elvis Presley record, and then The Beatles came along. So I lived through that transition, and the one thing that really made me a little bit different is that I fell in love with jazz when I was 14, but I didn’t neglect pop music.
Back then every genre lived side by side, whereas now it’s become divided and everything is micro-marketed to a very narrowly defined target demographic. How has that impacted you?
Obviously because I’m an instrumentalist, I was very happy in the mid-eighties when that format came along called the quiet storm, which transitioned into smooth jazz. All of a sudden there was a place on the radio for those of us that don’t sing.
But I think it’s run its course, I think it’s boring now, and most of the stuff on those stations all sounds the same. You can’t tell one sax player from another. But it was a neat thing that happened, and it exposed a lot of us to people that otherwise wouldn’t have known us.
Are you finding that there’s any good that’s coming to you from any of the various alternatives, like satellite radio?
Yeah, I think so. You know, my songs are on those stations, and I’m sure there are people at home that keep those on sometimes, and listen to them while they’re living their lives in their house or car, so it’s just a nice place where someone might discover an artist.
You’re offering interactive lessons on your web site. What gave you the idea to do that?
I was doing a guitar seminar in New York, and a producer was there who produces teaching DVDs. He has the largest Internet site, called True Fire. Anyway, he was impressed with my seminar and the way I communicate, so he approached me and said, “I’d like to produce a teaching video with you. It’s been twenty years since you’ve done one.” So that’s how it started, and it still continues. I’m flying out tomorrow to speak to him about another project. So having a great producer helps me expose what I want to give to the guys out there.
What do you think is the most important thing to know for a kid who wants to play guitar?
I think what you just said: if a kid wants to play. I think motive is really important. What’s your motive to play the guitar? Mine was always to make music. I can say this honestly: I never thought about being a star. It never entered my mind. I wanted to play the guitar. My dream as a teen was to be like my jazz heroes and play jazz in smoky clubs my whole life. I didn’t know I was gonna become a session guy or any of that stuff.
So it’s motive. Are you doing this because you want to be a star, or do you want to be a musician? If you’re doing it because you want to be a star, then you’ll go that direction, and that’s okay. Both avenues are fine, but I think you’ve got to be honest, because I think truthfulness comes out of you when you’re playing your music.
I read this online; is it correct or incorrect that your niece is Vanessa Carlton?
Nope. Incorrect! (Laughs).
I suspected that.
I have no idea where Wikipedia got that information. I’ve never met her.
Your son Travis is a bass player. Is it something that gives you pause, to see him go into the business? Because you have a decades-long bird’s eye view of how difficult it can be.
All I can tell you is that he’s gifted with music, and then he worked very, very hard as soon as he got out of high school. He went to GIT, graduated top of the class, Best Performer . . . he’s a gifted, gifted musician who’s worked very hard, and now he’s reaping the rewards of that.
When he was a little boy sitting on my lap, and I’d be mixing a song in my studio, his body was always in time with the song. As a little kid. The stuff you can’t teach, Travis got. I’m very proud of him. He plays in my band, he plays in Robben Ford’s band, and he plays in Scott Henderson’s band. People like grooving to Travis. It’s a beautiful thing.
I wanted to ask you about Christianity and the music business. Do you ever find that being a Christian and being in the music business are at fundamentally cross purposes?
Personally, I have never had a struggle. When I became a reborn Christian in 1983, the Holy Spirit never told me, “Change what you’re doing, Larry. Don’t do that anymore.” I mean musically. I was never called to that, “All right, now you only play religious songs.” So I’m very comfortable with my relationship with God, and I just make my music, and my testimony is my music, and how I live my life.
I know some other Christian musicians that have been called to do it a different way, a more aggressive way, a more out-front way. I haven’t been called to that, so I’m just growing where I was planted.
Is there anything else you want to say about the Schermerhorn show or whatever else is coming up?
I’m just excited to play at the Schermerhorn in my hometown, and I plan on bringing the best show I can.