Carlton Jumel Smith – Soul Man
Living in America in a time when far too many in power are completely devoid of Soul, it takes a Super Soul Man to keep the scales tipped to at least a Detroit lean for ‘stone to the bone’ balance! THAT brother is Carlton Jumel Smith.
Mr. Smith is a world-renowned, honest to ‘Good-God’ Soul Man – a self-made singer, songwriter, producer and actor who has set concert stages on fire from Shanghai and Helsinki to Russia, Turkey, London, France and, of course his hometown New York City. He has released several recordings including 2019’s critically acclaimed 1634 Lexington Avenue. He had the honor of portraying his greatest musical hero, James Brown, in the Barry Levinson film “Liberty Heights” (1999), and had a lead role opposite Cyndi Lauper in the off-Broadway musical “Largo” (about the life of Czech classical composer Antonín Dvořák). Above all, Mr. Smith is an entertainer, fortified by the traditions of golden eras past yet with razor sharp ears and eyes for the platinum-plus present. And like so many self-respecting Soul men, Mr. Smith lays first credit due at the feet of his mother, Ms. Corrine Brown.
Carlton Jumel Smith was born May 11 in Harlem – and specifically raised in Spanish Harlem – with three sisters and his mother. Naturally, his R E S P E C T for, and understanding of, women, runs very high which is apparent by the lyrical content of his love songs.
It was his mother who shepherded an 8-year-old Carlton to see The James Brown Revue at the legendary Apollo Theater – a venue that was not only hallowed ground for Brown (who recorded several incendiary live albums there) but sacred turf for all Black entertainers. The experience of seeing “Say it Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud”- era James Brown, his 16-piece orchestra, singers and dancers left an indelible imprint on Carlton. All the while, via records, his mother introduced him to the mastery of Ray Charles, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, Joe Tex, Marvin Gaye, Johnnie Taylor, Al Green, the Temptations and so many more. The profundity of their impact was such that Carlton has their names tattooed up and down both of his arms.
It was in his second year of college that Carlton and a friend skipped a night class to see Stevie Wonder – Hotter Than July-era – perform at massive Madison Square Garden. To hear Carlton tell it (even though he was breaking ‘The Godfather of Soul’s strictest rule about staying in school), he quit college, never to look back!
Mr. Smith spent the `80s woodshedding under local vocal mentors Rick Torres and Greg Fore, trying his hand at songwriting and sending out demos – one of which Loleatta Holloway recorded. Though that song was never released, it led to a connection with her manager Yvonne Turner that resulted in Carlton’s debut single in 1986, a House Music jam fittingly titled “Excite Me.” In the `90s, Carlton would exploit this form of Dance Music under the alias Napoleon O-Soul – alone, and with Frederick Joria presents ‘Sextravaganza,’ followed by the hard rockin’ band Thrill Cycle (First Taste is Free, Get Your Swerve On).
After hopping on a plane to Hollywood to hand-deliver his audition tape to director Barry Levinson which sealed the deal for him getting to play a hungry 1954-era James Brown in the film “Liberty Heights,” Carlton slid into B.B. King’s Club in Times Square in New York, 2002 – initially as a substitute for an ailing Ray Charles. This led to years of SRO hometown gigs there. Carlton also cut two indie live albums there: 2003’s Carlton J. Smith Live at B.B. King’s (featuring songs associated with Brother Ray – who by then had passed on – other giants of Soul, originals and a funky remake of Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe”) and 2006’s Thinking About James Brown and a Few Nice Things (recorded during a substitute gig – this time that Brown himself was unable to make because he passed away – it is, as yet, unreleased). Legendary artist manager Alan Leeds, who led the careers of Brown, Prince and Maxwell, affectionately dubbed Carlton. “Soul Brother Number New.”
This particular accolade proved prophetic as Carlton landed a lucky break. When a Jazz band bowed out of a residency at a club in China, the booking agent was frantically calling `round the globe for an 11th-hour replacement. Alan Pepper, who ran the legendary New York nightclub The Bitter End, referred Carlton who flew right over and wowed the Asian audience starved for authentic Soul on a platter. A 3-month engagement turned into nearly a decade of 6-nights-a-week/3-shows a day steady work between 2005-2014. Word of mouth spread across the continents resulting in SRO appearances in Finland, Turkey and London.
During this period, Carlton also did more recording. First came Waiting (2006), a project of mostly soulful remakes of material by an anomaly influence: bohemian art house story-weaving songwriter Tom Waits who Carlton describes – like Bobby Womack – as an uncle-like purveyor of ‘the unvarnished truth.’ Two years later, he revisited the Waits songbook with The Skinnybone Tree, this time for Exile Records which also released Carlton’s Neo-Soul concept album, Diagram of a Relationship, tracing the arc of an affair from sweet to sour to ‘a kind of reconciliation.’
Home from China in 2014, Carlton released G.U.M. (Grown-up Music) shifting his focus back to more mature audiences. On fire, Carlton returned to globetrotter mode in earnest, racking up residencies in Turkey, the U.K., Switzerland, Romania, Bali, Indonesia, Russia and Norway. While in Helsinki, he linked-up with 8-piece R&B outfit Cold Diamond & Mink, did some shows with them and, by year’s end, recorded Mr. Smith’s most acclaimed album to date, 1634 Lexington Avenue (Timmion Records – 2019), named after the address of the home in which he grew up. Among its many highlights is the single “Woman You Made Me,” the lyrics for which Carlton drew heavy inspiration from love letters sent by his father to his mother. Music writer Kyle Mullin of the website Exclaim! waxed poetic of another song from the album, “Remember Me”: “There’s a uniquely conversational quality to Smith’s delivery…not to mention a palpable sincerity in his tone – a smooth baritone that is alternately grainy and sweet with a distinctive falsetto.”
Over the years, Carlton J, Smith has also reached into his acting toolbox in the 1992 interactive movie “I’m Your Man,” the comedy “Let There Be Clothes” (opposite model Carol Alt) and even a recurring role as a policeman on the long-running soap opera “As the World Turns.” Additionally, his recording of Tom Waits’ “Make it Rain” was featured in the 2015 Kevin Costner high school sports drama, “McFarland, USA.”
On the horizon for Carlton is a show in which he brings some of his treasured classic soul concert posters (many signed) on the road for a highly personal and nostalgic talk and music program he calls “A Lifetime of R&B.” This ties-in with his book “Nothing Matters Except the Music,” all about the experiences he’s had encountering luminaries such as Sly Stone, The Isley Brothers, Patti LaBelle and many more.
“In this business, it all starts with the song,” Carlton philosophizes. “I firmly believe that a great song is a kiss from GOD. After all, in my soulful equation: ‘Music + Lyrics = Your Life…’”
Carlton Jumel Smith is a Soul Man of the highest order. His passion for the music, the good people of the earth, and his belief in the principles of Love, Peace and Harmony, are solidly grounded “On The One.” And he still has all his mama’s 45s, LPs and 8-tracks.
Author: Scott Galloway, June 2021