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Carlton with Heikki Suosalo



  Picture an energetic and vibrant soul singer, who was born in New York and who has worked as an exemplary ambassador of soul music for fifteen years during his globetrotting days.  He has performed in China for almost ten years and visited such places as Turkey, the U.K., Switzerland, Romania, Bali, Indonesia, Moscow (Russia), Norway and France.  Where do you think such a soul messenger and flag-bearer goes to record his upcoming and in his own words his best album yet?  Self-evidently, to the magnetic hotspot of soul music – Helsinki, Finland!

Carlton 14 years old in school


  Carlton Jumel Smith was born on May 11 in 1960 in New York.  “I still have my apartment there.  I was born in Harlem, but I was raised in Spanish Harlem – 103rd and Lexington Avenue – and I want to name my upcoming album 1634 Lexington Avenue, because that’s where it all began for me.”

  Carlton’s mother, Corrine Brown, had a big influence on him, but neither she nor Carlton’s father were in anyway involved in the music business.  “She was my first deejay.  She always played records and had music going.  My father passed away, when I was very little, so I don’t really remember much of him, but my mother was always there and she was the one to take me to concerts and buy me records.  She wasn’t a singer or anything like that, but she was a wonderful woman.”

  For Carlton, East Harlem was a rewarding environment to grow up.  “You hear about things now, how crazy it was in the 60s, but I wasn’t really aware of it, because my mother kept the household full of love and soul music. And when you’re listening to soul music all day and all night... you’re surrounded by love so that’s all I ever knew. She had love and respect for everyone, so I didn’t witness hate.  We would go down south to visit my grandparents in South Carolinaand even then I didn’t witness it.  Of course there was racism but my grandparents kept me shielded from it. Growing up was wonderful.  My mother kept the house full of music, people and good times.  I have three sisters.  I’m the only boy. Lord, have mercy!”

  Carlton himself has two biological daughters, Misa Love – a singer in her own right - and Dannae.  “I’m blessed to have two great daughters like them.  In reality I have four daughters.  My youngest daughter’s mother adopted two other girls, her best friend’s daughters, so I consider them mine.”


  Carlton’s biggest influence in music is James Brown.  “There simply was no other. There was no one and I mean NO ONE more important in soul music and his live show was something amazing to behold. Nowadays everyone has a million dancers, backing tracks and special effects. James Brown had only his band and his heart and soul. He was his own special effects! I first saw him in 1968.  My father had just passed away, and my mother took us to the Apollo Theatre in Harlem to see the James Brown Revue.  I remember the curtains opened, the band was standing there in their tuxedos and he came out in a royal blue suit with a diamond pinky ring that sparkled up to where we were sitting in the balcony. He immediately started singing Say it Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud, and the audience went crazy!  I remember thinking ‘oh my God, he’s amazing.  That’s what I want to do for the rest of my life.’  That started my life long love affair with James Brown.”

  There are also other luminaries Carlton wants to point out.  “They are all big favourites for different reasons: Al Green for his smooth sexiness and the way he wrote about his love of being inlove; Bobby Womack for the way he wrote about the TRUTH of love with all of it’s ups anddowns and he was always so honest with his emotions; Tom Waits, because he’s just a brilliant American songwriter; the Temptations, because they were the Temptations, a vocal group that everybody admired,”  There’s also another classic soul group that Carlton admires.  “I finally got a chance to meet the Dells.  I’m almost embarrassed at how nice they treated me.  They were just so wonderful. A finer set of gentlemen you will seldom meet. I am honoured that I am actually friends with one of them, the always debonair Mickey McGill.”

  “I went to college for about a year and a half. One night a classmate leaned over and told me that Stevie Wonder was down at Madison Square Garden. We left class that night to go see the show and I never went back (laughing).  I’m not proud of that, but that’s what happened.  After that I kept on working little odd jobs here and there, but my passion was performing and singing songs... not just any songs but songs I wrote.  It seems I had things to say”

Carlton with Whitney Houston


  “There was a Puerto Rican friend of mine in the neighbourhood by the name of Rick Torres.  He was in a local singing group called Full House, and they were phenomenal singers.  I met him in 1977.  Rick always took the time to teach me things, made me rehearse and constantly pushed me and promoted me.  He’s the one that got me into singing and into believing that I could sing.”

“I met Greg Fore in 1980. Greg Fore is another guy from Harlem, and the two of them were my main influences.  They helped to change my life by making me go from fan worshipping James Brown to believing that I could also record and sing and perform.”

  “In the 1980s I was performing here and there and fooling around with a lot of girls.  That was pretty much it.  But I was always writing songs.  I never pitched the songs.  I just wrote them.  Loleatta Holloway recorded a demo of one of my songs, but it never got placed anywhere.”

  “I released my first record in 1986. It was entitled Excite MeYvonne Turner, Loleatta Holloway’s manager and a legend in house music, heard my demo and she took it to Cathy Jacobson, and they released it.” 

  With Carlton singing in a surprisingly light tenor voice, this techno dancer – 110 beats per minute - was co-written by him together with Andre C. Lovell, and the single was produced by Kevin Calhoun and Yvonne Turner.  In the U.S. it was released on Infuture Music (IN-0001).  “It was picked up for release in the U.K. by Tim Palmer of CityBeat Records” (7” on CBE 708, and 12” on CBE 1208).


  In the 1990s Carlton kept on looking for breakthrough opportunities in music.  “I was working on music, always writing, always trying to sing someplace... and believing in myself.”  However, he didn’t forsake house music, as in the early 90s he recorded under an alias Napoleon Soul-O.  He was the featured vocalist on a Fred Jorio produced dance music CD entitled Sextravaganza.  Napoleon’s Come on Girl – co written by Carlton and Azel Brown - was released in 1991 on Eight Ball Recordings and Frederick Jorio Presents Sextravaganza came out on Tribal America three years later.  “That was a dance music CD.  I did a couple of lines on an album, and that’s about it.  And we did a few Napoleon Soul-O records.  As long as the music is good, I sing – be it rock, blues, soul, funk, r&b, house music, dance music –, and it keeps my name out there.”

  Soon hectic electronic house and techno beats turned into hectic rock music.  “I was in a rock band called the Thrill Cycle.”  In that N.Y. band the lead singer was knightly called Sir Carlton J. Smith, and the other members were Pete Johnson and John Rokosny on guitars, Marz Marleau on bass, Mark Brotter along with his brother Jay Brotter on drums, and the original runway diva Sharon Quinn on background vocals.  “Those guys are still my friends today.”

  In 1995 they released on New York Music Corp. an EP titled First Taste Is Free, and alongside four frenetic and storming rock tracks (Night Sugar Baby, All around the Camp Fire, Every Once In Awhile and Stranger) there’s one more moderate and melodic song called Honey Come Lately.  “It’s one of my favourite songs.  I wrote it about my mother going to heaven and they shot a video about some girl arriving at my show late!  All of our music was produced by a cat named Victor Campanile.”  Three years later they released another CD titled Get Your Swerve On with the same deafening rock guitar sound still dominating, although there were some serene moments like a ballad named Believe You Me (It’s All Right) , “…that was something my mother used to say ALL the time.  After that I went solo and I’ve been travelling doing my thing!”



After being cast to play James Brown in the 1998 Barry Levinson film Liberty Heights, thereby making him the first man to ever portray James Brown on the silver screen, Carlton was nicknamed “Soul Brother Number New” by Alan Leeds, who worked for Prince and Maxwell as well as James Brown.

  In Liberty Heights Carlton portrays James Browncirca 1954.  “Harry Weinger,a music executive at Universal, saw me and recommended me.  I filmed a video of me performing someJames Brown songs from the 50s and - as opposed to me mailing it in - Ihopped on a plane and took it directly to them in L.A., and when Barry Levinson (the director) saw it, he said ‘yes, that’s the guy!’”

  Every time I step onstage I am paying homage to James Brown. He changed my life. I’m just honouring the energy and spirit he put forward.  I would never try to replicate him or be him, because you just can’t.”

  Carlton got a chance to fill in for James Brown in New York.  “It was my supreme honour.
James Brown was scheduled to perform at the B.B. King Blues Club & Grill in Times Square on New Year’s Eve.  He passed away on Christmas (25.12.2006).  I was on a bus headed to theairport when I got the phone call from B.B. King’s telling me they’d let me perform in place of  JamesBrown.  They told me Chaka Khan would be the headliner, but I’d open up the show and do the James Brown songs.  I’m not ashamed to admit that I cried some tears, because it was anunexpected blessing to perform for my hero.  James Brown always treated me graciously.”


  Carlton has done salutesnot only to James, but also to Al Green, Curtis Mayfield, Sly & the Family Stone, the Temptations, Marvin Gaye...  “I did a series of theseshows at B.B. King’s.  Once a month I would select a different artist that had an impact on my musical awareness and development.  Even now I still include a couple of songs from these different artists in myshow.  After B.B. King’s I wound up in China for ten years... and hada fantastic time”

  Carlton’s performances at B.B. King’s started in 2002, and he was very sorry to hear that this legendaryTimes Square venue closed down at the end of April 2018.  However, we are lucky to have some recorded material from that period, Carlton J. Smith Live at B.B. King’s (2003).  “Ray Charles was supposed to perform there and he got sick and wound up cancelling.  He passed away not long after that (10.6.2004).  When he cancelled, they asked me would I do the show for him.  I did the show and recorded a liveCD for that.  It was a self-release.  I played some covers that night but I opened with an original song entitled Mr. Smith – self explanatory! I was letting the audience know exactly who I was.  My favourite song was a cover of a country and western song called Ode to Billie Joe.  It was originally recorded by Bobbie Gentry, but it was so funky I always wanted to do an R&B version of it and that night we did it, and it was great.”  Bobbie’s record hit # 1 and turned to gold in 1967.

  “I also recorded. Thinking about James Brown and A Few Nice Things at B.B. King’s which was the New Years Eve performance I did for James Brown.  I haven’t released it yet, but I have all the tapes and I will get it out there one day. After all…it’s the show James Brown never did.”


  For a long while there was no use looking for Carlton at B.B. Kings, because he took his energy and vivid stage show all the way to China.  “A jazz group cancelled its China gigs, and there’s a great man by the name of Alan Pepper.  He had a historic concert venue in New Yorkcalled The Bottom Line.  Everybody from Miles Davis to Bruce Springsteen performed there, and I used to do shows there.  When that jazz group cancelled, the person that booked acts in China called all over the world looking for someone.  She called Alan, who said ‘I know just a guy.’  I was supposed to go there for three months, and I wound up performing there for close to a decade, from 2005 till 2014.  I would come home for a week or two, and then I would go back.  I think I was very popular” (laughing).

  “In China I was doing six nights a week, three shows a night.  A lot of  my fellow entertainersthink that’s an exhausting, excessive schedule, but I loved it because it gave purpose to my day…just knowing that each night I would have a show in front of a room full of brand new people.   I didn’t use local bands in China.  They let me bring my own musicians over.  I love having myown band. I love to rehearse a lot and work hard on putting together a tight show.  I have beenfortunate to work with two great bands both here in Finland and in Turkey.”


  While in China, in addition to performing nightly, Carlton also got a chance to record new music.  His next album was called Waiting, and it was released in 2006.  “I’ve already talked about how much I love Tom Waits.  I reinterpreted his songs in an R&B style and the results were fantastic.  I still perform some of those songs to this very day.  His song Clap Hands became That’s That.  I also covered his songs Johnsburg, Illinois and Make It Rain.  Aside from some lyrical changes I pretty much stayed true to his original versions of the song.  I also added an original song of mine called All I Want Is You.”

  Two years later Carlton revisited Tom Waits’ songbook again on an album titled The Skinnybone Tree on Exile Records (  “That was a lot of fun.  Exile Records is a label put together by a great producer and a great guy by the name of Mark Unthank.”  Known also as a saxophone player, these days Mark is the CEO of a digital media company called CoolNerd Kiosks, and prior to that he was the president of Exile Records for fifteen years starting from 1998. 

  The Skinnybone Tree is a 14-track CD with music varying from fast and poppy songs (A Man’s Gotta Do, All I’m Ever Going to Know, Make It Rain) and jazzy numbers (Momma’s House, What Am I to Do?) to more downtempo, even folksy cuts (The Train Song).  A couple of midtempo jams lean either on funk (Reasons to Cry) or have classical elements to them (I Can Only Be Me).  Add to that still the uptempo I’ll Be Gone, which can best be described as a show tune!
  “I am extremely proud of The Skinnybone Tree. I perform songs from it and get a fantastic reception.  It is some of my best work and I have started writing The Skinnybone Tree II.”


  Already prior to The Skinnybone Tree they had released in early 2008 on Exile Records an album called Diagram of a Relationship.  “That was me telling the story that was on my mind at the time, because there’s a certain diagram in a relationship.”

  This concept album describes a love affair turning from sweet to sour and finally to a sort of reconciliation, and this time the music tends to lean toward neo-soul with a few street-beat tracks.  More traditional soul is available on a ballad called Love Love Love and two melodic mid-tempo floaters, I’m Fidna and I Still Believe in the Future.

  The album also contains a single release from 2007, two fine Al Green type of mid-tempo floaters called I’d Better and Love.  “That was a double-sided single on Soulchoonz Records (DLP 004).  That label was headed by a lady named Di Lee – God bless her, she’s no longer with us – and a friend of mine, a radio DJ by the name of Danny Brookings.  He helped facilitate that.  It got great reviews, did very well, but I didn’t go out to promote it.  I went back to China instead and lost some of the momentum.  I’m redoing that song on my upcoming album.”

  Carlton returned home from China in the summer of 2014 and soon released an album titled G.U.M. (Grown up Music).  “This was the one that I was trying to appeal to an older crowd.  There were adult grooves…not so much funk as just good music to ride and listen to.  The themes as always consisted of the never ending situations between men and women. My love and praise for women is never ending.  Listen to Glisten, a funky and soulful salute to women all over the world, and I’ll Always Love You, which is not the Whitney Houston song.”

  A funkier rendition of I’ll Always Love You will appear also on the upcoming album, as well as a new version of I’d Better.  There are three songs lifted from The Skinnybone Tree, a funkier version of A Man’s Gotta Do What a Man’s Gotta Do and the same mixes of All I’m Ever Going to Know and Blow Wind Blow.  From the Diagram of a Relationship album Carlton chose as many as four songs (I Desire You, Beautiful Thing, I Believe We Can Work It Out and the catchy I Still Believe in the Future) and one song, What Am I To Do, from the preceding Waiting CD.

  “I Love What We’re Doing is a new song that always goes over very well, when I perform it live.  It’s all about the joy of a new relationship.  Delicious Kisses is a brand new song about kissing your loved one and how delightful that can be.”


  During the last twenty years and already prior to China, Carlton has been involved in a number of theatrical productions, such as Largo in 2000.  “That was a lot of fun.  That was me and Cindy Lauper, who played my wife.  I sang all the songs that Taj Mahal sang on the actual recording.  He’s a brilliant artist.  He does one of my favourite versions of Corrina, Corrina.  The play never made it to Broadway, but it’s great and if they’d call up again I’d gladly do it.”  The original Largo CD was released on Polygram in 1998 and among the artists – besides Taj Mahal - on that particular album there were Joan Osborne, Carole King and the above Cyndi Lauper.

  “I’ve been collecting posters for a long time.  I went on and put together a show, where I displayed those posters, talked about the artists, talked about the shows and then I did a few of their songs.  I would have like ten posters on stage, and then in an adjoining room I would have about fifteen more posters, where people can walk around and have a look at them.  A lot of posters I’ve been trying to get signed by the artists that are still alive.”

  “I was calling it Hello Music, but now I’ve begun calling it A Lifetime of R&B.  My only problem is trying to get the posters signed.  40 years – it’s a race against time, because they’re all passing away.  When I ask them to sign, they say ‘most people usually give me a napkin or a piece of paper.  You have a concert poster from 1976.  Sure I’m going to sign it!’  And they all usually – eight times out of ten – ask me to take a picture of it.  We don’t have this stuff anymore.  We were making history.”


  In the future we’ll be able to read about A Lifetime of R&B and other matters more in detail in Carlton’s upcoming book called Nothing Matters Except the Music.  “Nothing Matters Except the Music is all about the music experiences that I’ve had from a fan’s perspective of coming into contact with people I have loved and admire for years - Sly Stone, Bobby Womack, the Isley Brothers, Patti Labelle. I’m a fan first and foremost.I’ve had crazy, weird things happening in music.”

  Not only as a singer, impressive performer and a prolific songwriter, Carlton has distinguished himself in acting, too.  Already as early as in 1992 he appeared – what is called – an interactive movie called I’m Your Man.  “I did that, but I barely remember it at all.”  Let There Be Clothes was released in 1998.  “It was a comedy, and I was with this model Carol Alt.”  Liberty Heights (1999) was discussed above in the James Brown chapter, and there’s As the World Turns.  “That’s a TV series.  I was basically a glorified extra.  I was just a policeman, walking around and arresting people and had a couple of lines here and there.”  One more detail: In 2015 Carlton’s song Make it Rain was featured in the Kevin Costner film McFarland, USA.


  “I met Kirsi Rouhiainen in China and she brought me to Finland.  She wound up bringing me to perform in Casino Helsinki.  There I met this amazing singer by the name of Jepa Lambert and she told me about a show by a guy that does soul and r&b here in Finland named Tuomo, and Tuomo took me to Timmion Records.”

  Located in the former cable factory building in Helsinki, Timmion Records ( has released in the 2000s and 2010s a number of impressive funk, soul and jazz records by such renowned artists as Nicole Willis & the Soul Investigators and Willie West.  Two of the founders and owners of the company – Sami Kantelinen (bass) and Jukka Sarapää (drums), along with Seppo Salmi (guitar) – are the members of the in-house band and they also record as Cold Diamond & Mink.  Other noteworthy domestic artists on the label include Pratt & Moody aka Tuomo Prättälä and Markus Nordenstreng, best known for their smooth, cool and sophisticated ballad sound, and Jukka Eskola Soul Trio, who last year surprised a lot of soul jazz fans with its innovative instrumental, self-titled album.  Let’s not forget the trombonist/flutist Ernie Hawks and his recent jazz-funk album Scorpio Man.  Timmion has its own recording studio and even vinyl cutting equipment.

Carlton and Jukka Sarapää

  Carlton’s debut single on the label, I Can’t Love You Anymore, was released early this year (TR 718).  Written by Carlton, Cold Diamond and Mink, the song is a fascinating mid-tempo floater, which especially in the chorus bears a slight resemblance to Teddy Pendergrass’ 1977 hit, I Don’t Love You Anymore, only slower in tempo.  “Teddy is a major influence on me.  I must be honest… I wasn’t thinking about Teddy’s song, when I was recording I Can’t Love You Anymore.  I was writing about my truth.  There was a certain girl I just couldn’t love anymore. The fact of thematter is in writing and recording the song, I came to the realization that I never really knew HOWto love her in the first place.”

  “I have all my heroes’ names tattooed down my arms: James Brown, Al Green, Bobby Womack, Sly & the Family Stone, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Johnnie Taylor, Joe Tex and Tom Waits.  This other arm: the Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Curtin Mayfield, Teddy Pendergrass, D.J. Rogers, Willie Hutch, Michael Henderson, Glen Goins from P-Funk and Ray Charles.  I could put up a song by any of these artists and it could make my day... or make me cry.”

  On this Timmion debut single and upcoming album, Carlton is backed by Sami, Jukka, Seppo and Tuomo (on keys and background vocals), and the essential horn section consisting of Jukka Eskola on trumpet – he also arranged the horns - Jimi Tenor on tenor saxophone and Pope Puolitaival on baritone saxophone.  The album is scheduled for release by the end of this year, and on sneak listening I can assure that you’re about to be hit hard by genuine soul sounds storm.

  Carlton has a lot of music on YouTube ( - actually about 80 videos – so you’re able to enjoy his salutes to James Brown and his other favourites, his performances in Finland, Turkey, New York, Shanghai and other places, his interpretations of some of the Motown hits - the whole wide spectrum of his repertoire.

  “People, be sure to put some music in your life every day.  Try to be as positive as you can and look after people, because that’s what music does.  Music takes care of people.”

(Interview conducted on April 4, 2018, at Kaapelitehdas in Helsinki; acknowledgements to Carlton, Mickey McGill of the Dells, Kirsi Rouhiainen and Timmion Records).

© Heikki Suosalo

Read also:
Single review: Carlton J. Smith - I'd Better // Love (2007)

Album review: Carlton J. Smith - Diagram Of A Relationship (2007)

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