LARRY CARLTON is without a doubt one of the absolute greatest guitarists on planet earth. If you think this is an exaggeration, maybe you have never seen him in concert. This interview with Mr. Carlton was recorded prior to one of his concerts in Atlanta, Georgia. He was performing a pair of shows on the same night at the Sambuca restaurant in Buckhead.
The resulting conversation became one of the interviews which received the most feedback. This is a testament to Larry Carlton’s incredible following around the world.
We’d like to welcome the legendary Larry Carlton. We’re here at the wonderful Sambucca restaurant in Atlanta, Georgia. Mr. Carlton, thank you so much for making the time to talk to us today.
My pleasure. It’s been a while since I’ve been in Atlanta so, uh, good to be back.
Well, welcome back. You started the guitar from a very early age, at six years old, and I was wondering, from the very beginning did you know that being a guitarist and a musician was God’s plan for you?
Well, I don’t think anybody knows that for certain at six years old (laughs) but, uh, the, uh, path that I took through life kept reinforcing the fact that I was a guitar player and a musician. I’ve been so fortunate. I’ve never had any other kind of job or work. My whole life has been making music.
You obviously loved music from a very young age. Was there any guitarist in particular that made you want to pick up the instrument?
Uh, at six years old there was an acoustic guitar just laying around my grandmother’s house and, uh, I was told by my parents I was just fascinated with the guitar but, obviously, quite small to hold it. So that was the, uh, the input from my mom. She said ‘When you’re big enough to hold a guitar, then you can start taking guitar lessons.’ So once I was about six, six-and-a-half years, I could hold the guitar, physically, and I started taking guitar lessons. So it wasn’t really a player at that point, it was just being around the instrument.
So how did you get involved in recording session work?
Because I started playing so young, I was a pretty good guitar player by the time I was 15, 16 years old so I was playing in clubs – supper clubs, talent shows, jam sessions – all around Southern California area and the word started to spread is what happened. People started talking about this young guitar player from Torrance, California and from there, you start meeting other musicians, and those musicians have their network of things going on. And pretty soon, I was invited to play on demo sessions and from there, I became the arranger of the demo sessions and then, finally, big-time recording.
So do you have a preference as to performing in a studio or live?
Well, I’ve had the great fortune of experiencing both at a very high level so I, I really enjoy doing both but if I had to pick, it would be live performance. The freedom of being onstage with an audience – sharing the music – is very special to me.
Mr. Carlton, throughout your career as a session player, you’ve appeared on thousands of recordings from John Lennon to Steely Dan, Quincy Jones, The Partridge Family, Billy Joel and many more. Out of all these sessions, are there any that are particularly memorable for you?
All of them that you just mentioned are very memorable because of their success. As a studio musician, when I would go into the recording session for an artist like a Joni Mitchell, we didn’t know if the record was going to be a hit or not. We were just in there making the best music we could. It was unique with Joni Mitchell because she had never recorded with a rhythm section. It had always been just her guitar playing folk music. So that was an exciting time, to see what kind of music would come out for Joni with a rhythm section. And, obviously, the Steely Dan albums were highlights, or one of the highlights, of my career because the world embraced my guitar playing at another level because they were exposed to it through those great records.
After spending so much time as a session player, what were the events that led up to you joining the Crusaders?
I was doing some recording sessions starting in 1970 – not as busy as I became later. But anyway, one evening I was on a recording session and Joe Sample was the hired studio pianist for that night, and that was the first night we met. And Joe started playing the acoustic piano before the session started, and I picked up my guitar and joined in with him. And that was on a Friday night, and Monday morning my phone rang and it was the Crusaders’ office saying ‘Could you record for the next two weeks with the Crusaders? They’re already in the studio.’ So that’s how that came about.
One of your most famous covers is the, uh, Santo/Farina cover of, you did of Sleep Walk, uh, which was released in 1982. What drew you to that song?
You know, it’s interesting. I would love to take credit for that because it was very successful for me and actually, as you said, it became a career song for me. But I was producing another artist at that time and that artist’s manager suggested to me that I record Sleep Walk. And it seemed like a good match with the “sweet” sound that I can get out of the guitar, so I took his advice and recorded Sleep Walk and it became a hit.
And in 1985 you released your first acoustic jazz album called Alone but Never Alone and it included a beautiful rendition of the Lord’s Prayer. And it appears you approach the acoustic guitar with the same style as the electric guitar. Which feels more at home in your hands?
I’m an electric guitar player first. I enjoy the acoustic but I find that I can express myself in a broader, wider musical sense on the electric guitar.
Of all the guitarists that are performing today, who do you feel has something original to offer the instrument?
You know, I won’t have an answer for that. I’m so busy – I’ve just started my own record label, 335 Records, I tour over 100 days a year all around the world – that I don’t get a chance, and I don’t take the chance, to listen very much because I’m so busy living my life.
Having performed all over the world, how would you compare the music fans overseas in places like Japan with those here in the United States?
Definitely the Asian audiences and the European audiences, in my opinion, are more appreciative and more loyal fans. Uh, I started going to Japan in 1974, and I was in Japan four times last year playing concerts. And many of the people who came to my concerts in 1980, 1982 now bring their children to my shows with them. So they’re very, very loyal. And the European audiences definitely listen differently than the U.S. audiences. The U.S. audiences are a little more fickle. If you’re on the radio, they like you and if you’re not on the radio, they forget about you, here in the U.S., often. And in Europe they base their whole relationship, especially with me – I’ll speak just for me – on what I play and how good I play it, not upon what some hit record that happens. So they’re really more interested in the artist than the songs on the radio.
On your album, Fire Wire, it seems like you were kind of experimenting more on that album and I was wondering, uh, was there anything in particular that gave you the idea to kind of branch out?
Opportunity. I, I’m so blessed. For the first time – starting in 2003, uh, I left Warner Brothers records – and for the first time in my, in 17 years, I’m a free agent. I can choose and be and do whatever I want to do as a musician. So I did, the first thing I did was do blues album, Sapphire Blue, the horn section, and we toured the world for two years. Came back and wanted to do something different so I associated myself with, uh, producer, Csaba Petocz, and we did the Fire Wire album, which was different, totally different than anything I had done in the past. So I’m just on a freedom dance.
Of all the guitars you have played on, if you had to pick one guitar to take with you for the rest of your life – and that would be just the guitar, your guitar – which one would it be?
I’ve been playing the same ES 335 Gibson since 1969. I’ve departed a few times but that’s my guitar. That’s what I’m known for and that’s the guitar that brings out the most music out of me, consistently.
Of all the songs you’ve written, is there a personal favorite of yours?
Difficult question because I don’t go back and re-listen to my own product after it’s released and we perform it for a year or so. Then I forget about a lot of those tunes. I know that I can tell you I love the relationship that the song Smiles and Smiles to Go has between me and my audience. It somehow, it united us in a way that is forever. It’s part of my career and part of their life.
So, we’re getting closer to show time and we’re going to wrap this up but I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about the band that will be playing this evening at Sambucca?
I sure will. This is, uh, another freedom dance for me, if you will. I just brought a trio – no keyboard player, which means there’s going to be a lot of guitar focus through the whole show and it’s an interesting challenge for me. Like Smiles and Smiles to Go that we were talking about, was based upon a keyboard part so the audience is going to experience it tonight without that foundation that they’re used to hearing. And, as I walked in the club tonight one gentleman said ‘Larry! Are you going to play Josie?’ I hadn’t planned on it because there’s no keyboard player here to carry that part, but I’m going to play Josie tonight as a trio even though it may be a little more empty (laughs).
Well, I have one more question for you, Mr. Carlton. Given that this radio special is broadcasting all over the world, what would you like to say to the world?
Thank you, thank you, thank you for listening and approving of my music. The one thing an artist cannot plan or work hard toward and accomplish is acceptance. So that’s the blessed part of my career. I played what I love and the world embraced that. And I thank you for that. I’m a very blessed man.
I thank you, Mr. Carlton, for your time. I really appreciate it.