My favorite guitar ever was the Gibson ES-335. It is sleek and trim and had a balance that no other guitar has ever had on my shoulder. I hated to have to sell it and start dating the solid body Fender Stratocaster, but it was a career decision at the time which just made sense. I couldn't afford to play through one of those Mesa Boogie amps and mic it through a soundboard controlled by some guy out there who would need a paycheck as badly as the already starving members of any band I was ever in did.
The problem with any hollow-body or semi-hollow body guitar when played in a live situation directly through an amplifier is feedback. You cannot escape it. Conversely, you can never duplicate the smooth, sleek sound of an instrument such as the 335 with a solid-body guitar. The sound takes you back the days of Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt. It's a sound which makes the rhythm smooth as silk, like a good horn section, and makes the lead notes pure and tactile like a cool drink of water when you are really, really thirsty.
Thus, when I first heard the best pop guitarist of my lifetime, it didn't surprise me at all to find that he was playing a Gibson ES-335. He loved the instrument so much that he named his private studio in Burbank, California, "Room 335." Many years after I first heard Larry Carlton play, I heard on the radio that he'd been shot in the throat by some pistol-wielding punks outside that very same studio as he was leaving for home one night in 1988. He was the victim of an all too frequent occurrence in the city of Lost Angels: A gang initiation rite of passage. He recovered well enough to keep playing, but folks say it took quite a toll on him both physically and spiritually. He either found Jesus or renewed an acquaintance with the Fellow after this violent incident and in 1995 he moved to a 100-acre farm in Franklin, TN, with his wife, Michele Pillar. She's a Christian contemporary music singer. He said that he'd wanted to get out of LA for quite some time and that "messages come in all sizes" sometimes. He'd spent some time in Sardis, OK, as a kid and considers himself just a country boy, anyway. Now he's got his Arabian horses and fishing holes as well as his guitars. Franklin is just far enough south of Nashville to say you're not in the city any more. It's beautiful country.
The first time I heard Carlton's work was on Joni Mitchell's Court and Spark in 1974. (He also worked on Joni's Hejira, an overlooked album you should listen to sometime if you're feeling like no one understands you.) He had gotten his real start in the business with the Crusaders in 1971, just after they'd dropped the "Jazz" from their name. This was before I took an interest in smooth jazz, so it took rock 'n' roll to help me find that sweet sound of his. He calls Joe Pass, Wes Montgomery and Barney Kessel his primary influences. He heard Joe Pass playing on the radio in the early 60s and decided that's what he wanted to do when he grew up. (I don't know if you've ever heard of Joe Pass, but if you want to hear something sublime, listen to his work with Ella Fitzgerald. Just the two of them doing some old standards such as Cole Porter songs. Yeah, that's just one guitar player with no overdub tricks on those albums. Hard to believe, isn't it?) Anyway, Carlton was on thirteen Crusaders albums during the time he spent with them. It's not hard to see the influence Joe Sample's piano stylings had on Mr. Carlton. If you can make "smooth" any "smoother," that had to have helped.
It was when Carlton showed up on Steely Dan albums that he cemented his place in my heart. That Katy Lied album in 1975 not only arrived with a new backup singer, but a new guitarist as well. Walter Becker says that it was the work on the Joan Baez album, Diamonds and Rust, that led the Dan boys to call Carlton. As Becker put it, "I hate Joan Baez so goddamn much it's downright freakish, but when I heard what he could do with music I absolutely detest, I figured he needed to do some work for us." (Even though there are quotes around that, it is my version of what Becker said had I been asked about the situation. His version says the same thing, but not quite so bluntly. Sorry about that.)
It was his work on Donald Fagen's solo effort, The Nightfly, that most critics come back to as his best work with Steely Dan. I'd disagree, but I would agree with what the idiots at Rolling Stone said when they called the work on Kid Charlemagne (from The Royal Scam) one of the three best rock 'n' roll guitar solos ever. There's no doubt that anything he ever did with Becker and Fagen is well worth a listen. He was their liaison between what was in their heads and the guys in the studio. When one of the Dan boys would say, "Larry, we need such-and-such at that point in the bridge," he would turn to the studio guys and say, "That's bar 19, B flat with the added ninth" (or something like that).
Carlton has done so much solo and studio work that it'd be hard to list it all. I guess his most famous solo effort is the cover version of the old Santo and Johnny standard for the obligatory slow dance at proms all over the world, Sleepwalk. There's a little bent note in his version that is spine-tinglingly wonderful. Some folks are quite fond of his solo versions of Clapton's Layla and the Dan's Josie. In 1987, his instrumental version of Michael McDonald's Minute by Minute won him a Grammy. This is one of eight nominations he's gotten for that dubious award. The other one he actually won was for the Hill Street Blues TV show theme song back in 1981. He wrote that with keyboardist Mike Post.
His duet with fellow guitarist Lee Ritenour in 1995 was well received. During the late 90s he replaced Ritenour in the smooth jazz group Fourplay. His 2001 live album with his long-time student Steve Lukather was considered noteworthy. This is all just to say that he's still working.
However, in all the stuff I've read about Larry Carlton, no one mentions my favorite thing he's ever done. That is the work on Marc Jordan's Mannequin in 1978. It would be impossible to say that Carlton didn't fully understand the depth of the tunes on this marvelous disc. His licks swallow the lyrics whole and spit them out in a refined form that eclipse anything I've ever heard before. The lyrics fuel him and he feeds the lyrics in a way that can still make me cry. And that's always the sign of a great record, isn't it? If you ever have the distinct pleasure of listening to this album, listen to what Carlton does with the volume pedal on "Red Desert." No one really ever used a volume pedal in rock music until Larry Carlton did. Other players have tried to use their little finger on the volume knob to get the same effect, but that's a waste of digits as far as I'm concerned.
Even in my other favorite piece from that era, Terence Boylan's self-titled album in 1977, one can not mistake Carlton's influence in the playing of Dean Parks and Steve Lukather. (This was Lukather's debut in a published product. Just think, there might not have been a Toto had this not happened. I know some of you are clutching your hearts.) Boylan went for the Master, Carlton, instead of the Pretenders on his next album, Suzy. Unfortunately, the material wasn't as strong and that was pretty much it for Boylan's attempt at significant recognition. Proving once again that you usually don't get to hear the really good stuff on the radio.
One of my other favorite albums from the 70s was Michael Franks' The Art of Tea in 1975. He worked on two other albums by Franks after that. Did you know that a survey of folks who have leisure boats in New England shows that Michael Franks is the most-played musical artist on the sound systems of those boats? You think I made that up, but I didn't.
Larry Carlton was born March 2, 1948, in Torrance, CA. He got his first guitar at age 6. Aside from the millions of notes he's played on his own and other folks' sessions, he's done the instructional videos and made a whole lot of money working that ES-335, but folks who know him say he's a nice guy with a relaxed attitude. They say he's the kind of guy you'd expect to meet after listening to those creamy licks he plays. Being a nice guy as well as a survivor who can bring a tear to the eye with six strings cannot be underappreciated.