Session Musician Spotlight: Larry Carlton
The guitarist has played on thousands of records, including hits by Steely Dan, Joni Mitchell, and Linda Ronstadt.
With over 3,000 credits under his belt as a session musician, 19 Grammy nominations, and four wins, Larry Carlton is one of the most revered guitarists in the world.
Carlton began taking guitar lessons at the age of six and was discovered as a teenager playing in Los Angeles supper clubs. “I started getting calls for demo sessions, and at 16, 17 years old, I’d gone from playing in little clubs to being in the studio,” he once told Premiere Guitar. After recording his first solo album, With A Little Help From My Friends, in 1967, he landed a gig with the Ford Motor Company, playing on commercials and performing at corporate engagements. The opportunity introduced him to producers and other studio musicians, resulting in countless calls for session work.
This brought him to sessions for artists as disparate as The Partridge Family, Michael Jackson, Steely Dan, and Bobby “Blue” Bland. He recorded thirteen albums as part of the jazz-fusion band, The Crusaders, and over 30 solo albums.
“I’ve never worked out a solo in my life,” he once told True Fire. “For a record or performance, it’s always improvised, and that’s the part of making music that I probably enjoy the most.”
The Four Tops – Ain’t No Woman (Like the One I’ve Got)
When the Four Tops left Motown and moved to ABC/Dunhill, Steve Barri and writers Dennis Lambert and Brian Potter co-produced the triumphant Keeper of the Castle. This single, featuring Larry’s distinctive guitar fills, brought the Four Tops their third #1 R&B hit and a top 10 pop hit.
Joni Mitchell – Court and Spark
“I was playing at The Baked Potato…and one night [Joni] came in to hang out. She told [the saxophonist / arranger] Tom Scott, ‘I’d like to go in the studio with you guys,’” he recalled to Guitar Player. Larry played on eight of Court and Spark’s eleven songs. The album earned four Grammy nominations and one win.
Marlena Shaw – Feel Like Makin’ Love
Jazz chanteuse Marlena Shaw was redefining her sound when she entered the studio in 1974 to record Who Is This Bitch, Anyways? Larry brought his pop and jazz sensibilities to center stage on this sexy, swinging version, helping Shaw score the best-selling album of her tenure at Blue Note Records.
Carmen McRae – Only Women Bleed
“During the last couple of years of my session work, I was also being called as an arranger. It felt good to just not play the guitar, but to write the parts out and lead the sessions,” he explained to Premiere Guitar. “Only Women Bleed,” popularized by Alice Cooper, showcases Larry’s inventive ideas – and is a rare chance to hear him on piano.
Michele Pillar – Look Who Loves You Now
In 1984, Larry produced his first album in the contemporary Christian market for Michele Pillar, resulting in her third Grammy nomination. Pillar told Billboard, “[Larry] had such high standards. If he said [a song] was only ‘pretty good,’ we’d set it aside.” The title track spent 13 weeks at #1 on CCM Magazine’s Top 40 Airplay chart.
Larry Carlton – Smiles and Smiles to Go
Of one of his most streamed compositions, Larry recounted to Guitar Player: “I wrote it at the keyboard, but I’d never played guitar on it until the session.” He credits bassist Abraham Laboriel for helping him find the melody line in one of his piano parts before the session began. “We did a couple of takes, and that was it.”
Looking for more? Check out our series of articles on the greatest sessions musicians ever.
September 26, 2022 at 5:09 pm
Re: Court & Spark: Tom Scott is not a drummer, but a legendary sax player/arranger who helped her conceptualize this breakthrough album. Quick Google search for credits, please!
March 1, 2023 at 8:13 pm
Thank you for letting us know! We’ve updated the article to reflect that.
December 9, 2022 at 7:10 am
my favorite Carlton solo is on Christopher Cross’ “The Light Is On”