CARLTON'S TWIN TALENTS: GUITAR, HUMOR

Jim Abbott, Orlando Sentinel Pop Music Writer June 9, 2003

    There are guitars all over Jim Carlton's three-story house on a rolling hill around the corner from Mount Dora's quaint business district. His favorite is the deeply tanned, 1947 arch-top Epiphone Broadway, a jazz instrument that happens to have been made the year he was born. "It has such a booming sound," Carlton says, contorting his fingers into the complex chords of an old jazz standard or casually dropping into the bluesy chorus of the Beatles' "Lady Madonna." Carlton, who will be in concert at 7 p.m. Saturday at Mount Dora's Donnelly Park, has been a fixture on the Central Florida club scene for three decades. He plays the guitar as effortlessly as the rest of us chew gum. At home on a recent afternoon, Carlton, 56, muses about politics, music history and comedy, all the while conjuring a stream-of- consciousness backdrop of intricate arpeggios and sophisticated chords. There's a snippet of "Starry, Starry Night," a dash of flamenco flare, a beautiful Gershwin tune. When his pet Chihuahua Zorro ambles into view, Carlton unloads a one-liner he occasionally uses on stage: "God looked at that skull and said there's only room for eyes or a brain." Carlton's combination of fast fingers and an equally quick wit has served him well over the years.

 

    When ex-Byrd Roger McGuinn was looking for an opening act for his recent benefit show in Mount Dora, he called on his old friend. Carlton responded with a solo set that mixed levity and lovely instrumentals. He played "Classical Gas," a song made famous by Mason Williams, a colleague with Carlton on the Smothers Brothers writing staff. He scratched his thumbnail against a low-string to create a metallic sawing sound: "This is a new country song called `I'm Getting Out of Prison Tonight.'"

 

    In addition to working for the Smothers Brothers, Carlton has also written jokes for Joan Rivers and "Spiders and Snakes" singer Jim Stafford, who played in Central Florida bands as a teenager with Carlton and Cosmic Country icon Gram Parsons. Now a club owner and performer in Branson, Mo., Stafford still calls on his old friend for jokes. "He's a good idea man," Stafford says. "If you need some ideas about tourists and what they spend money on, or if you're going to do a shopping bit or whatever, Jim will whip up some pages just like that. He has a great ability to focus on a situation and cough up several pages." It was Carlton who came up with the kicker ending for Stafford's novelty song "Cow Patti" -- "You've gotta watch your step when the chips are down" -- after the singer was stumped for a final line. "He and I just started going through all the old Western sayings, `This town ain't big enough for both of us,' and all the rest. Jim came up with`the chips are down,' and I said, `Wait a minute.' He's sharp like that." When he's not joking, Carlton indulges his serious interest in music. He is completing a book that compiles his interviews with 22 of the world's best-known jazz guitarists, including 1950s star Johnny Smith and Mississippi-born Mundell Lowe, director of the Monterey Jazz Festival for much of the 1980s.

 

    Carlton's downstairs office is cluttered with vinyl albums, a computer, recording equipment and stacks of music manuscript paper. A teenage Gram Parsons once played the 1963 Gibson guitar leaning against a wall. There's an old black-and-white photograph of Carlton's father, Ben, on a stage somewhere with jazz pianist Marian McPartland. The elder Carlton was a staff musician at Chicago's WGN television in the 1950s. He moved the family to Winter Haven to work on promotional TV and radio shows for the citrus industry. The family stayed in Central Florida, where Carlton started playing bass in a rock band called the Legends with Parsons and Stafford, who took guitar lessons from Carlton's father.

 

    By the mid- 1960s, Carlton had taught himself guitar and become a part of the Florida folk movement led by Will McLean and Gamble Rogers. A decade later, he was playing in the lounges catering to the Walt Disney World tourist crowd, doing jokes and songs in the trio Solomon, Carlton and Jones. Now a commercial photographer in New Orleans, Jason Jones remembers Carlton as a formidable musician, who used foot-pedals to play bass as he sang and accompanied himself on guitar. "He was really the anchor of the group, musically," Jones says. "He had the theory and composition background. He knew how to play scales. While I was sort of a flashy performer, I really had no chops. Carlton had all that." Jones also recalls Carlton's blistering wit. "He was incredibly funny. You play in a group five or six nights a week, and you do three or four shows a night and pretty much you hear the same stuff show after show. Yet somehow Jim would just crack us up. Both Steve [Solomon] and I were frequently disabled by the exchanges he would have with the audience. He gave the audience kind of affectionate grief." Carlton assesses his talent more modestly. "Every style is a result of a handicap, so your shortcomings define the thing you have a knack for," he says in a conversation that constantly shifts away from himself to musicians he admires. "I learned a tremendous amount from Jim Stafford. He was like my avuncular older brother. He's a guy who has been unfairly pigeonholed as a novelty act. He's a very, very bright man."

 

    Carlton recently wrote liner notes for a new album by Central Florida guitarist Rich Walker, another player he admires. "I will never be as good a guitar player as Rich Walker. But then, Rich may not have the talent or inclination to go in front of an audience and amuse them. "I just try to play good music and make people laugh.

 

Comedy with a Touch of Jazz

Jim Carlton headlines show Saturday night in Mount Dora

J. Jeremy Dean

Leesburg Daily Commercial

Friday, June 13, 2003

    Jim Carlton did such a good job entertaining the audience as the opening act for Roger McGuinn several months ago, the city of Mount Dora invited him back to put on a show of his own Saturday in the city’s downtown theater.

 

    Carlton blends jazz and comedy to produce a show that he says is “good, clean fun.” “My job, in a nutshell, is to give people some good music and make them laugh,” Carlton said. “I’ll talk about anything people can relate to.”

 

    Some of his favorite subjects to lampoon are marriage, tourists, computers and getting old. He said he is also going to talk about his childhood growing up in Central Florida, and that he will poke a little fun at county politicians and other local luminaries as part of his routine.

    As for the music, Carlton said he likes to pull songs out of the Great American Songbook. He does jazz numbers from Broadway masters like George Gershwin and Cole Porter as well as popular tunes from composers like Don McClain and jazz-great Duke Ellington.

 

    Carlton got his start as a musician in 1961 performing in the rock band the Legends with Jim Stafford and Gram Parsons. Stafford achieved pop stardom in the 70s with several hit records and hosted the Jim Stafford Show on ABC as well as Those Amazing Animals, with Pricilla Presley and Burgess Meredith on the same network. He then went on to Branson, Mo. where he opened a popular theater. Parsons went on to play with the Byrds and to form the Flying Burrito Brothers. He is known as one of the originators of the country-rock sound.

 

    As well as being an entertainer, Carlton is also a comedy writer having produced special material for such national performers as the Smothers Brothers, Gallagher, Joan Rivers and others. He has also written liner notes for Cds, mostly for jazz musicians, but also for a Byrds retrospective album entitled Sanctuary IV and Gram Parsons’ Another Side of this Life which Carlton co-produced for Sundazed Music. Script writing is also a big part of his work as a freelance writer. He has written several TV scripts, and is scheduled to write for a new syndicated variety show, Branson Jubilee. He is also the writer of the script, The Pirate’s Adventure, an attraction on Orlando’s International Drive.

 

    Right now, he is waiting for his book, titled Conversations with Great Jazz Guitarists to be released. “It should be out in late 2004.” The book contains Carlton’s interviews with 21 of jazz guitar’s current living masters including Johnny Smith, Mundell Lowe, Bucky Pizzarelli and Gene Bertoncini.

 

A Song, a Sip, a Smile

Musical veteran Jim Carlton gives the crowd at Cecile’s courtyard exactly what it wants.

Orlando Sentinel: Music September 8-14, 2000

    There aren’t many performers who know how to handle a gabby audience, especially at the local level. Most musicians tend to just give up and accept the fact the people regard them as aural wallpaper. So it was great fun last Friday to watch singer-guitarist Jim Carlton impose a little discipline on some boisterous women at Cecile’s French Corner in Mount Dora.

 

    Sitting toward the back of the scenic little courtyard where Carlton plays weekly, I missed the beginning of his humorous remonstration. But then I heard one of the women sass him back, and Carlton responded: “Now we’ve been through this before. You need to cut your dosage!” The women laughed delightedly and modified their behavior. Carlton further won the crowd over with confessions like this: “I’m not here to bore you people with a lot of talent. I’m just clawing my way to the bottom, looking for browner pastures, and I don’t care who I step on on the way down.”

    Conversationalists on the patio kept the noise down between songs as well as during, since Carlton’s droll asides, facetious song introductions and interacting with the audience were as delightful as his renditions of such standards as “Caravan,” “Do Nothing Til You Hear From Me,” “Teach Me Tonight” and “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.” And, Carlton reported later the two loquacious women ultimately tipped him $15.

 

    In general, he enjoys the crowd that turns out every week and quite a few regulars. “It’s very gratifying to build a following like that. Carlton said, “I think I’m able to offer something they don’t get from most guitar singles. I don’t play any ‘covers’ just songs by the great composers: Ellington, Gershwin, Hoagy Carmichael, Jerome Kern, Rogers and Hart and the Brazilian composers of course. I figure playing Jimmy Buffet songs is Jimmy Buffet’s job.”

    In the 70s, Carlton was a member of the popular Central trio Solomon, Carlton and Jones. Now that he’s gigging solo he sometimes uses tracks that he arranges and plays himself. And Carlton makes it all work by turning them into a running joke, calling them “the Below Average White Band” and starting some songs with “Hit it boys!”

 

    Carlton has honed his comedy skills as a writer for Jim Stafford, the Smothers Brothers, Gallagher and others, landing jokes on the late night shows from Carson’s to Letterman’s to Arsenio Hall’s.       

    Carlton learned to love great songwriting from his father, Ben, a professional jazz musician who played with Marian McPartland for many years. She is his godmother, and Carlton is named after her husband his godfather. Jimmy McPartland once held an infant Carlton in his arms in a cover shot for Downbeat magazine.

 

    “I’ll never make the cover of Downbeat now, but I did when I was a baby. I’ve been headed downhill ever since,” Carlton joked.

 

    Carlton says his playing has been influenced by guitarists Wes Montgomery and Barney Kessel – and by his one-time bandmates, Jim Stafford and Gram Parsons. As high school students in Winter Haven, they had a Ventures-style group called the Legends. “And Gram would sing ‘Harbor Lights’ and ‘Stormy Weather,’ we’d play ‘Night Train’ and whatever popular rock tunes of the day.” I was playing stand-up bass. It was a real , vintage rock ‘n’ roll band. There were four of us with a drummer, and occasionally we had sax players. It was just a local rock band making 15 bucks each playing teen centers. But you could tell they were both major talents and that’s how I came to make these wonderful ‘lost tapes’ of Gram that I just leased to a record company.”

 

    For years, Carlton has been hanging on to tapes of Parsons from the mid-60s. There are about two albums’ worth, including material from his folk group, the Shilos, and some early songs from his International Submarine Band. Carlton finally found a home for them when Roger McGuinn suggested the archival label Sundazed, which has also reissued collector’s editions of Byrds albums on high-quality vinyl. “He said, ‘Look, if you want them done artistically, this is the label,’” Carlton said.

 

    Parsons, of course, remains a prime inspiration for all country-rock mavericks, so the first album, due in December (working title: Gram Parsons – the lost tapes) should cause a stir. “They document him in an era few people know about when he was making the transition from folk music to country, “ Carlton said. And, for the record, Carlton said, it was Stafford who suggested Parsons play country music. “Stafford cut his teeth on country, and he said, ‘There are no longhairs doing country.’ Gram worshiped him – he was just such a great player, and he was three years older than we were and was our big, avuncular, older brother.”

 

    Parsons took Stafford’s advice and the rest is music history. “Stafford feels so awkward about that, you’ll never hear him say that. But it’s the truth.”

 

An Evening with Roger McGuinn

The Evening's Opening Performer:

Jim Carlton

    Jim Carlton is among Florida’s most versatile talents. The jazz guitarist, singer, writer, and comedian began his musical career in 1962 with the Legends, a group which included musician Gram Parsons. A recognized authority on jazz music, Carlton regularly writes liner notes on albums of jazz greats including Howard Roberts and Joe Pass, and his insights are also seen on the pages of the Byrd’s retrospective album, ‘Sanctuary IV’.

Carlton’s love of music is matched by a knack for comedy. He has written material for the Smothers Brothers, Gallagher, Joan Rivers, Mason Williams, Pat Paulsen, Roger Miller, and Jim Stafford. Most recently, Carlton returned to his earliest musical roots to co-produce ‘Another Side of This Life’, a CD featuring Carlton’s recordings of Gram Parson songs from 1965 to 1966.

Mount Dora Festival of Music and Literature

Jim Carlton (vocals, guitar)

    Jim Carlton is a singer and guitarist whose repertoire includes songs by Duke Ellington, the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Hoagy Carmichael and other great song writers of the 30’s and 40’s. He has also written special material for the Smothers Brothers, Joan Rivers, Gallagher, Jim Stafford and many popular television shows.