Guitarist Larry Carlton always seems to end up on top.
When he concentrated on being a studio musician, he was one of the best. He worked feverishly, making three recording sessions a day, playing any plectrum instrument on any type of material. He not only earned a big income, he also received a number of prestigious Most Valuable Player awards as voted by his cohorts, the musicians who play in the studios.
Exhausted by overwork, he collapsed in 1973. His doctor ordered him to take life easier, so Carlton cut his workload. Over the next decade he took on a handful of arranging and producing assignments, though never as successfully as he hoped.
In 1978, he put his mind back on performing--and he's on top, again. His new LP, "Alone/But Never Alone" (MCA), is currently No. 1 on the Billboard Jazz charts and ranks 141st in the Top 200. It's also his best-selling disc ever, and it was released only three months ago .
"The acceptance is wonderful," the 38-year-old Carlton said while sitting in his in-home studio, known as Room 335, above Lake Hollywood, where all his albums since 1978 have been recorded.
His ego needed the boost. He made four jazz/pop/fusion LPs for Warner Bros. from 1978-82 that sold reasonably well (about 65,000 records each). Then, along with several other jazz artists, he was abruptly dropped by the label. "They said they were no longer interested in my type of music," the guitarist said, with just a touch of cynicism, "even though they kept other people," like saxophonist David Sanborn and singers Michael Franks and Al Jarreau.
So after a few years of "watching my kids (Katie Louise and Travis James, now 6 and 4 respectively) grow" and doing non-musical things like learning to cook, Carlton signed a one-record deal with MCA, for their new MCA Master label. "They're letting the artists do what they want," he said, "so I've made my first all-acoustic-guitar album. You won't hear the bended notes and the long sustains, but I have the back-up musicians (like pianist Terry Trotter and drummer Rick Moratta) that I always use."
His re-emphasis on performing is paying off. "Now, when the phone rings, it's for me, the artist, for tours or record deals, rather than session or producing work," he said. The guitarist recently did a 12-day Eastern tour, ending up in Blues Alley in Washington, D.C. He then returned to the Baked Potato, playing there last Sunday; this Saturday he and his band will perform at a benefit at the Biltmore for SOJOURN, the West L.A.-based shelter for battered women and their children.
Not a verbose musician, Carlton likes less rather than more. "When I'm playing, I want the notes I play--even if it's just one or two--to give me chills when I play them. That way, if I'm excited, I think my listeners will be too, and they'll respond. That way we keep giving back and forth."
The Torrance native started playing at age 6, studying for eight years with Slim Edwards. At first influenced by country and rock players, he eventually heard jazz great Joe Pass. "That changed my life," he said quietly. "All of a sudden I was a jazz freak. I lived and breathed music by people like John Coltrane, Pass and Wes Montgomery for four years."
In 1968, he recorded his first LP, "With a Little Help From My Friends" (UNI), which led to his joining the Going Thing, a group of jingle singers that did Ford commercials, headed by Tom and John Bahler. The group was also Carlton's introduction to the studios. Later, he recorded with and toured with the Crusaders, with whom he made 13 albums.
"I have been so fortunate to have played with so many greats in the studios," he said. "Just to be in that community elevates your musicianship. It's a fabulous education." He has also appeared on about 60 gold records.
In between his cutting way back on studio work until the blossoming of his solo career, Carlton arranged a number of LPs, including Barbra Streisand's "Streisand Superman" (CBS) and Joan Baez's "Diamonds and Rust" (A&M). He also produced LPs for pianist Gap Mangione and the English band, Vapor Trails. "But that aspect of my career never really took off the way I wanted it to," Carlton reflected. "I'd like to produce more, but the phone doesn't ring."
So, Carlton feels fortunate that live playing has got him excited once again. "The way my solo career is taking off," he said, "I feel like I'm just at the beginning."