The Guitarist's Guitarist
By Ralph Burnett
When you've played guitar so long and on so many sessions that your left index finger looks more like the rounded edge of your guitar body than it's neck . . . you're a serious guitar player. "That's from holding a guitar pick so many years while my hands were still forming as a child," remarks Larry Carlton."So these are the hands of a guitar player."
Long before Larry embarked on his long and successful solo career he was adding his magic to other people's records. "I started playing the guitar when I was six years old," reflects Carlton. "So having that focus at such a young age I think was a huge benefit to me. Some people might see my name on many albums and say 'what a lucky guy.' Part of it is luck, but also part of it is because that's all I've ever done."
As a teenager Larry's studio schedule commonly involved three sessions a day, five day's a week, at triple scale. This wasn't quite the case at the beginning though. "The first session I remember getting paid for," recalls Larry, "was with a surf band, locally here in California called the 'Challengers.' The leader of that band was the drummer, Richard Delvy, and they knew me and they knew that I could read music but I still sounded like a kid, but a polished kid. So, Richard called me for a series of sessions one week when I was about sixteen years old, ('cause I was driving), and it was for the 'Challengers,' but they didn't play on any of their records, and it was all studio guys. I remember Hal Blaine was playing drums, and I believe Larry Necktal was on it either playing bass or piano. We played 'Tequila' and a bunch of cover tunes."
"Prior to that, when I was twelve or thirteen years old," continues Carlton, "I remember doing this unpaid session. I had a manager and I was playing local talent shows and sitting in with various bands. Somehow I ended up spending the weekend with Tommy Reddick (he was the original 'Jeff' in the television series, 'Lassie,' but he was in his twenties by that time). Anyway, he was into music and I got to his house on a Friday and we went to a garage studio on Saturday and laid down a track for this group that he had formed with these singers, and we cut a tune called 'Oh, What a Night.' About two or three months later on KRLA, which was the big pop station in town at the time, I hear this tune and it's these guys that I cut it with and they were called the 'Tokens.' Now that was the original 'Tokens.' They ended up selling that name after the hit to the guys who did the 'Lyon Sleeps Tonight' and all that stuff. And the reason I remember that so vividly is because I ended the tune with a big G-six-nine chord, and when I heard it on the radio there was an actual ending and I went 'do-da-da-a-ling' and spelled out the six-nine chord. So that was the first hit I ever played on."
At different stages of his career, Larry points to favorite records that he played on. "I'd say probably the first favorite that I remember would be cutting the Crusaders - Vol. 1 album in 1971," says Carlton. "Most people know this, but when I was fourteen years old I was jamming along at home with Crusader records and making up harmony parts to the sax player and to the horns. So, then at 23-years-old to be called and actually end up cutting an album that was a hit with them, was just thrilling to me. Later, for sure the Joni Mitchell dates: Court & Spark, The Hissing of Summer Lawns and Hejira. Those were mile stones for me. My sound became so identifiable with the Crusaders and then with Join that people were copying me by then and that was very flattering."
Those who have had a chance to hear Larry Carlton live, know that there are always some fans shouting Steely Dan titles between songs. And frankly, it's hard to imagine "Kid Charlemagne" or "Don't Take Me Alive" without those solos that are, well . . . so "Larry Carlton." And it's easy to recall Larry's signature theme to "Hill Street Blues," with that haunting guitar melody that doesn't really sound like a guitar at all, for which he won a Grammy's with Mike Post in 1981. The bottom line is, everybody has their favorite 'Larry Carlton' guitar solo, and he has played on literally hundreds of "Gold" and "Platinum" albums to choose from.
It was in recalling one particular session that Larry captures the unique spirit of a studio musician. "I remember a movie call I was on with Tommy Tadesco back in '73 or '74, in which he was the other guitar player. And, I was the young, hot guy who was there to play the contemporary sounding stuff and Tommy was there, obviously because of his expertise in reading and everything else. There was one cue that said 'rock and roll solo,' and it was on my music stand. To make a point to me as a young player, from Tommy who was the veteran, he said 'here, give me the part.' And he took the part and he turned on his wha-wha, his fuzz-tone, he turned on virtually everything he had and put it on the treble pick up, and when the take started he just started taking his hand and running it up and down the neck as fast as he could with rhythm. He played no real notes and no licks, and at the end of the take they, we stopped and from the booth they said 'that's great, take a break.' Tommy was letting me know that not to take this business too seriously because they listen a lot with their eyes and not with their ears."