Larry Carlton: Just Another Daddy in This World

by: Bob Doerschuk, Nashville Arts Magazine
photography: Anthony Scarlati

Larry CarltonLarry Carlton’s guitar Steely Dan track “Kid Charlemagne” is often cited as evidence of his musical mastery. It is, of course, a masterpiece, certified by Rolling Stone, no less, as among the greatest rock guitar solos of all time. Objective listening reveals it as a synthesis of passion and intelligence, beginning over a prickly funk beat and winding through unorthodox chord sequences like a stream unstopped by vexing terrain.

The note selections are perfect and perfectly timed, sketching a motif at the top with deliberate, unhurried phrasing, sweetened by a dash of sly vibrato, and then accelerating, the notes still silvery smooth yet coming faster, elaborating on those opening notes, and then suddenly clanging into what sounds at first like a clinker, a mistake, only to stand revealed as a perfect pivot for transition into a B section. And then Carlton ties it
together with a bluesy coda—a ribbon on the package.

Unarguably, this is the definitive Steely Dan guitar solo, released in 1976 on their The Royal Scam album. But it only hints at the reach of Carlton’s work over these past forty-plus years, which includes a prolific session career in Los Angeles, encompasses long runs as a member of two iconicinstrumental groups, the Crusaders and Fourplay, and embraces a catalog of albums recorded under his own name, beginning in 1968 and growing still.

Larry CarltonWhether in the studio with Steely Dan (who Carlton recently joined on the road for eight live shows after a thirty-year separation), Joni Mitchell, Quincy Jones, Sammy Davis Jr., or any one of dozens of other idiosyncratic artists on more than one hundred Gold-certified albums, or fronting his own band, Carlton always opted for substance over razzle-dazzle, with a tone that teetered artfully between the bel canto phrase and a rough cutting edge.

The lessons of those days linger, but Carlton shook off the Hollywood glitz when he and his wife, Contemporary Christian singer and three-time Grammy nominee Michelle Pillar, moved from the West Coast to the Nashville area. Today, they live near Leiper’s Fork. Settled in a clearing that overlooks fields and forest, the structures and spaces they’ve built complement the maturity and taste that infuse Carlton’s work. Their house is symmetrically complex but harmonious in its parts, not unlike the best Steely Dan material, its core harvested from a two hundred-year old cabin and its high-ceilinged interior an airy celebration of natural light and Tennessee folk furnishings, rugged and rare.

Larry Carlton“Larry wants a quarter horse, so we’re looking for a real quiet one,” Pillar says. He’s enjoyed riding since childhood in California. (“I cowboy around,” he admits with a smile.) But when he’s not on the road, he focuses mainly on his music, writing and recording in a studio positioned as the third corner of this triangle of buildings on their hilltop. It’s an intimate retreat, though soaring ceilings and high windows make it feel roomier, with rough log walls reprising his connection to Tennessee history. “I’d only been here once, in downtown Nashville, before Michelle and I moved here fifteen years ago,” Carlton recalls. “But both my parents are Okies that moved to California, so many of my vacations as a young kid growing up in Torrance were on a farm in Southeastern Oklahoma, where I’d ride horses, fish, and go squirrel hunting. I’ve always been attracted to the rural lifestyle, so there’s something about the vibe of older, simple things that connects with me. I knew someday I would move to the country.”

His family’s roots, the sense of possibility that comes from growing up in the Golden State, and the timing of Carlton’s birth in 1948 all contributed to the influences that guided him into making music at age six. He gravitated toward guitar simply because his grandmother had one in her house. As he got to know it in childhood through private lessons and performing in talent shows, Carlton studied appearances by Jimmy Bryant, Larry Collins, Joe Maphis, and Speedy West on television, where their sound echoed the Country and Western swing that his family had brought with them from Oklahoma and prepped him for the impact of Elvis Presley. From here he expanded his range in his early teens through listening to the great jazz guitarists.

None of these illuminations felt like struggling from one genre to the next. To the young Carlton, music wasn’t about barriers. “I started so young,” he explained. “When I would become interested in a certain style of music, I had the good sense to develop and listen to it, even when I was only nine years old. Then I’d listen to something else. With jazz, for instance, I learned the standard songs simply because I liked them. I liked the harmonies. When I would learn a riff or part of a solo from Joe Pass, something in me wanted to know not just that he played those notes and that I could play them too. I also wanted to know why those notes were right there in his solo. I came to my own conclusions about how or why he could do that, and that really helped me grow, to the point that the Larry Carlton sound was a combination of all those styles.”

The final piece of the puzzle came through playing sessions, which boils down to bringing the visions of other artists to life as fully and efficiently as possible. Many focus on that specialty throughout their lives as players; relatively few incorporate it as a stimulus to their own creativity. Carlton absorbed a lot in this world, but he also points to one conversation with a fellow guitarist that helped put it all into perspective.

“I’d been doing sessions for maybe two years,” he says. “I was very busy. But on a lot of the songs I was playing on, my guitar was just part of the background. And every time I turned on the radio, I’d hear Louie Shelton’s guitar mixed right up front; I could hear everything he was playing. So one day Louie and I were walking down Sunset Boulevard, and I asked him about this. This is the statement that changed my life: He said, ‘I try to think like an arranger.’ He wasn’t thinking like a guitar player. He homed in on finding the part that works perfectly against the vocal and the background. From then on, I became a better musician because I started thinking like an arranger.”

This process differs in significant ways from what drives many young guitarists today. “I was motivated by the music,” he says. “I played because I was looking for emotional fulfillment. Once a person has experienced a special moment, you want to experience it again if you can. Once you become consequent enough in the instrument to start feeling what chord you want to play on a certain song, then you strive for that because it feels so good. That was my process.

“I get a sense that over the last twenty years many of the young guitar players want to be stars. That’s different from wanting to be a guitar player or a musician for the passion of the music. And if the motivation isn’t pure, then the truth isn’t spoken through your music.”

Larry Carlton

Carlton’s most serious challenge in life wasn’t musical but personal, when he was shot in the throat outside of his L.A. studio in a random act of violence more than twenty years ago. As he recuperated, in place of anger or a thirst for revenge, he felt sadness if not compassion for those driven to commit such acts. And he emerged with a perspective that he insists gives him greater equilibrium and a sounder artistic foundation.

“My son, who was six years old at the time of the shooting, said to me, in his innocence, during my recovery, ‘Dad, why did they have to shoot you?’” Carlton says. “What came to me was, ‘Why not me? I’m just another daddy in this world.’ You can have an over-inflated ego about your talent, but none of us is special, in my opinion. The reality is that when I’m not playing the guitar I’m just the same as everyone else, trying to get it done correctly… just another daddy in this world.”

by: Bob Doerschuk, Nashville Arts Magazine
photography: Anthony Scarlati

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