Larry Carlton: His Sound of Philadelphia

Noted contemporary jazz guitarist plays the hits of Gamble & Huff, Tom Bell and Philadelphia International

Fresh on the heels of a Grammy award win for his collaboration with Tak Matsumoto, Take Your Pick, Larry Carlton doesn’t hesitate to answer why he chose to participate in a tribute album to the Sound of Philadelphia. “Every song was a great pop song,” says the guitarist. “Every song was a hit.” Carlton’s new album, Larry Carlton Plays the Sound of Philadelphia (335 Records) features the guitarist applying his distinctive string-bending to a set of material from the songbooks of Gamble & Huff and Thom Bell, who wrote a succession of hits for The Spinners, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, The O’Jays and many other soul and R&B legends.

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Larry Carlton Plays The Sound of Philadelphia album cover

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Perhaps the most surprising thing about the album is that the leader was the last man in. The album was almost completely recorded and produced by Billy Terrell, who had cut the tracks thinking that he was going to have a vocalist sing the tunes for this tribute to the Philly soul sound. “Somehow over the course of a year and a half or two years after they had cut the tracks, he [Terrell] changed his mind,” explains Carlton. “It didn’t come to fruition. Either he didn’t find the right vocalist or he just got turned off to that idea. And that’s when my name came up. ‘What if we had Larry Carlton do these as instrumentals?’ The tracks were done. The arrangements were meticulous. That’s how it came about. He came to me and said, ‘Hey, man, would you want to be the voice, except do it instrumentally.’ And I said, ‘Of course, great songs.’”

Besides his long career as a solo artist and also a member of the Crusaders, L.A. Express and Fourplay, Carlton spent many years as a studio session guitarist, both credited and uncredited, playing on literally hundreds of records. However, he says he was never called for a session with any of the Philadelphia International or Sigma Sound projects, perhaps because he was on the West Coast for much of that time. Also, like Berry Gordy with Motown in Detroit, Gamble and Huff tended to use musicians from the community for their sessions. Carlton admits that he didn’t know the names of the guitarists who did the lion’s share of the original Philly International sessions—Bobby Eli and Norman Harris.

Then again, as the secret weapon on so many hit records including Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark, Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall and Steely Dan’s The Royal Scam, Carlton knows all about how contributions by sidemen can get lost in the small print. “When I started sessions in the early ‘70s, that’s when they started listing the players on albums,” recalls Carlton. “And that was a great benefit, obviously, to me and many other players because we did become known—our sound was on hit records and they could read our names.” Carlton also had the advantage of striking out on his own as a performer. Philly session players Eli and Harris never did.

Carlton also confesses that he didn’t know a lot about the difficulties and demise of the Philadelphia International label, which was beset by internal strife and external pressure, and ended up in legal entanglements that overwhelmed and subsumed the company. Although he hasn’t been able to rekindle the fire of those glory days, Gamble is still very active in the Philadelphia music community and, in keeping with the social message of many of his songs, has been an important part of redevelopment efforts in that city.

Regardless of their current projects, Gamble and Huff (and Thom Bell) will always have the legacy of their incredible catalog of songs. As the co-writers of much of the material associated with the Philly Sound, Gamble and Huff had a remarkable creative and commercial run in the ‘70s. These days, it’s hard to turn on the television or radio and not hear their songs, which have become staples in advertising, to the point where many people associate their “Love Train” with a certain popular brew, rather than with the zeitgeist of the ‘70s.

With Huff generally writing the music and Gamble the lyrics, the two had complementary talents and remarkable chemistry. However, they’re rarely mentioned in the same breath as other famous pop songwriting teams like Lennon/McCartney, Jagger/Richards, Holland/Dozier/Holland and Bacharach/David. Carlton says he has a real appreciation for what they did together. “Yes, it was one of those combinations that were so natural that great things came from them,” he says. “They had this this unique twist of producing R&B but with an orchestra. They had great melodies, but for the day, they had more sophisticated harmonies and their use of orchestration to present these R&B sorts of pop tunes was very appealing. And their songs that were about social events of the day and they also wrote love songs.”

Remaking hit records of nearly iconic status can be a tricky business. And this is not Carlton’s first time at the rodeo, having done an instrumental version of the Doobie Brothers’ “Minute by Minute,” as well as of other hit songs. He readily admits the pitfalls of the approach. “One of the biggest challenges for me personally was to find an approach on each song that would come, at least to the best of my ability, as close as possible to emulating the voice or at least the articulation of the words of the original singer,” Carlton explains. “If you take a song like, ‘Could It Be I’m Falling in Love,’ the line ‘Could it be…’ on the guitar can all be played on one string and just be the same sound. But I spent most of my time in preparation, just trying to get those lyrics to speak on my guitar. What string should I play that on? Is that an upstroke? How do I get as close as I can to the articulation of the original version?”

For someone who has put his own personal stamp on hit records like “Kid Charlemagne” by Steely Dan or “Help Me” by Joni Mitchell, Carlton has heard plenty of his own licks recreated by cover versions, and he concludes that you have to go in one direction or another. “I respect the fact that the guys either pay homage to what I played or completely depart from it because that statement that I made was my statement and it’s part of the original song and they just say, ‘I better not mess with that … I’ll just do it my way.’”

Carlton faced that same dilemma of homage vs. reinvention when he covered “Layla” on his Solid Ground album in 1989, released shortly after his recovery from a gunshot wound—the victim of a random act of violence outside his studio in LA. For a guitarist to mess with not only a popular tune, but one associated with two giants of the electric guitar—Duane Allman and Eric Clapton—it could have been almost sacrilegious. “It never entered my mind that that would be hallowed ground and I shouldn’t touch it,” he recalls. “I just dug the tune and thought how much fun it would be to re-arrange it. It wasn’t until after I started recording the song that a few people would come by the studio and say, ‘Man, are you sure you want to do this?’ But my innocence and my truthfulness is what came through. I just did the song my way and many people liked it.”

His own way of playing his trademark Gibson ES-335 guitar was once described by Joni Mitchell as “fly-fishing.” The life-long trout fisherman laughs when that reference is brought up. “Yes, Joni said that during the sessions for Court and Spark. My volume pedal lines were very unique to me and she responded, obviously, very positively to my sound so I can see how after she got to know me and knew that I did like to fish, that’s kind of the label she put on it. And visually, that’s what came to her when she heard my parts.”

Indeed Carlton’s note bending and volume-shifting does have a reeling quality. Leave it to the cinematic Mitchell to come up with such a simple yet evocative description. Although he doesn’t have a comparably clever name for it, Carlton professes an admiration for Mitchell’s own style of guitar-playing, which was just coming into its own during that session, where she started experimenting with a syncopated upstroke on the electric guitar. “And another part of that style is she used tunings that made her sound completely unique,” adds Carlton.

Although Carlton didn’t cross paths often with the Philadelphia soul and R&B artists, there is a unique documentation of at least one encounter. In Jeffrey Levy-Hinte’s documentary film Soul Power, you can see a youthful Carlton with flowing locks playing guitar with Joe Sample, Wilton Felder and the Crusaders. Also performing in what was then Zaire in connection with the Ali-Foreman fight (“The Rumble in the Jungle”) in 1974 were James Brown, Bill Withers, Sister Sledge, the Fania All-Stars and the Spinners. Carlton admits that he doesn’t remember a lot from that trip. It was after all over 35 years ago and it was just one concert. He does however have vivid memories about a last-minute request to accompany one of his heroes at the concert. “I know one of the highlights for me was when I was asked to play rhythm guitar during BB King’s set. Wilton [Felder] played bass I think and I played rhythm guitar. So if you look back there you’ll see me playing rhythm with BB King in 1974.”

Although he was raised in Southern California and made his mark there professionally, for the last 15 years, Carlton and his wife Michele Pillar have called Nashville their home. Oddly, one of the most prolific session guitarists of the 70s and 80s is not in Music City, home to guitar-pickers galore, for that purpose. “No, I didn’t come here looking for any session work at all,” he explains. “My reason for moving here is that my children had moved to the Nashville area so we wanted to be near them.” Still, he’s not completely out of the loop. “I’ve done a few little solo spots and I just did a solo spot last month for a record by Diane Schuur that Steve Buckingham is producing. She’s doing covers of old country songs but doing them her way and they asked me to play a solo on one tune. But it doesn’t happen very often.”

For better or worse, Carlton is generally categorized as a Smooth Jazz player. Besides recording a slew of contemporary jazz albums for MCA and GRP, he was a long-time member of Fourplay, one of the core acts in that genre, until leaving that group recently. For his part, Carlton professes some ambivalence about the Smooth Jazz genre and how it’s evolved. “I’m so thankful that starting back in the mid-‘80s, it became a format for non-singers—meaning instrumentalists who were basically focused on instrumental music. I’m thankful that that happened and I’m thankful that I was very successful in it. But I also realize that over the last 25 years the quality, in my opinion, has become very generic in that market. I can’t tell from one sax player from another. It all sounds the same. So it’s got its negatives but I’m thankful that there is and was a place for instrumentalists to show their music.”

I mention to Carlton the distinctive sound of the late Grover Washington, Jr., a Philly jazz legend who was a major figure both in the local scene and within the Smooth Jazz genre. If you hear one bar of Grover, you know who it is. Carlton agrees. “Exactly, I feel the same way about Kirk Whalum,” he says. “There’s always been that special cream of the crop, but overall I feel the genre has become pretty generic.”

Genre deconstruction aside, Carlton is focusing all of his attention on the current project, celebrating the Philadelphia sound. “I think this was a really good idea from Billy Terrell,” he says. “He was so passionate about the catalogue and Philadelphia. You know, he was a Brill Building writer for many many years so he’s got the history to put something like this together in what I’m sure everybody will perceive as a very high quality and appropriate project.”

Right now Carlton is excited about taking the music from this album out to audiences, starting in Japan in about two weeks. “I’m bringing an eight-piece band and three of the guys sing so we’re going to try to present this music as close as we can to the record,” says the guitarist. “And this will be a departure, because normally I go over there and they want to see me blow—let loose and go for it. [This time] they’re looking forward because these tunes are so well known around the world. There’s been a very positive response to the release and all the hype out in front of it so I’m excited to go over and play these eleven songs and then maybe five more of my ‘go for it’ tunes.”

Carlton knew that he had to pull together a band that could pull off the songs both instrumentally and vocally. “Exactly. For the two vocals on the album I chose Bill LeBounty to sing the two vocals on the album. And Bill’s going with me to Japan. He’s an R&B guy from way back with deep roots into this music.” Carlton says that Marc Jordan, a singer-songwriter with Philly roots, is coming along to play the organ parts and sing background.

He also is planning to perform the music in the U.S., but is imagining a different venue from his usual concerts. “We think this project would probably be presented in performing arts centers, where it’s a focused evening of Gamble and Huff tunes with Larry Carlton and then I can also tell some stories, rather than just do a straight performance.”

I do have one beef with the guitar-slinging fly-fisherman. Just as you rarely hear someone from Philly refer to it as the City of Brotherly Love, you are also unlikely to hear a native call his hometown Philadelphia. It’s Philly. Carlton laughs and says that in fact, he has the music from this project on his iPod labeled as “Philly Masters.” Cool. And what do Nashville residents call their hometown? Certainly not Music City, right? “Oh no, it’s pronounced Nashfull.” Nuff said.

For more information about the album and any upcoming performances, you can visit Carlton’s website.

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